Even now, after decades of decline, nearly 20 years since its founder held forth on Caprilands Herb Farm, the 69-acre property breathes tranquillity and inspires an enlightened connection to nature.
The question is whether Caprilands will ever regain its majesty.
For now, the farm just south of Route 44 in Coventry remains stuck in the limbo of probate court, its renowned herb gardens overgrown. Adelma Grenier Simmons, who wrote more than 40 books and pamphlets on herbs and brought stars and tourists for lectures and luncheons, died at the end of 1997 in the 18th century farmhouse where she lived for half a century. She was 93.
Now her third and final husband, Edward Werner Cook, lives in the house, keeps sheep and a horse on the farm and works toward creating the Caprilands Institute, a not-for-profit that he started a few years ago under the terms of Simmons' will.
The tall, white-haired Cook, a chemistry professor at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, is energetic at age 76, and speaks eloquently about restoring the place. It will live on as a resource for small farmers using sustainable methods, he says.
“I really see the farmers market concept, the organic concept,” he said. “Now the United Nations is saying the future of agriculture is the small farm.”
Cook has partly maintained the land but hasn't done much with the buildings — a few of which sit, cluttered, as if only time had passed through them these past 17 years. He incorporated the Caprilands Institute in 2007, but as of 2012 had not accounted for the farm's use as a charity in the public interest and had not fully lived up to the will, according to a motion filed by the state attorney general's office in the probate case two years ago.
The slow progress of the institute is a source of frustration for some in town, especially because the house is historic; it dates to about 1740.
“When I travel and you say you're from Coventry, Connecticut, the first thing people mention is Caprilands,” said John Elsesser, the longtime town manager and a neighbor of the farm. “In the meantime, the place is kind of looking like it's falling down.”
Sitting in comfortable wrought-iron chairs by a stonewall with chickens scurrying underfoot, Cook and I talked about the history of Caprilands, why it's taking so long to restore it and why the property is still tied up in probate court in Tolland.
While she was alive, Simmons ran the farm as a privately owned business. But despite her fame as the first lady of herbs, attracting notables such as “Wizard of Oz” actress Margaret Hamilton and celebrity chef David Bouley, who grew up not far away, “it never really made money. It was a passion for her,” Cook said.
Simmons and Cook traveled together to Vienna and other places, and became close. They married in 1993, “in order to protect the property,” he said, on the advice of a lawyer.
The document calling for a not-for-profit institute and giving Cook the right to live in the house was, by Cook's own admission, a “deathbed will,” executed in the last month of Simmons' life. A family member initially disputed the will, but the major holdup, Cook said, is that “probate law and nonprofit law don't understand each other.”
The core issue is whether the new entity controlling the farm conforms to Simmons' will. Cook didn't incorporate the institute until 10 years after Simmons' death, in part because of the farm's old debt, he said. Since then, questions have ranged from the seemingly mundane — whether the place would be called an institute or a foundation — to the big-picture question of who would sit on the board.
The strong-willed, 5-foot-tall Simmons, who started her career as a buyer for the Albert Steiger department store, never took the time to lay the groundwork for a smooth transition after her death. “She didn't trust lawyers, she didn't trust bankers and she didn't trust the courts,” Cook said.
Among several concerns cited in the attorney general's 2012 motion, the estate owed about $70,000 two years ago. Most of that, Cook said, was owed to him.
Cook said the motion that criticized him relied on bad information about his adherence to the will, and added, “If the true expenses I've paid at the farm were to be paid back to me I imagine it would be close to a quarter of a million dollars, but let's not worry about that.”
Making matters worse, the probate court changed venues twice after Simmons' death, as Coventry's old court was consolidated with Mansfield, which later merged with the court in Tolland.
Probate Judge John McGrath of the Windham-Colchester district, one of two judges appointed to fill in for the recently retired judge of the Tolland district until a November special election, said he couldn't comment on the case other than to say it's unusual.
The broader worry, even after a transfer to the institute, is that the institute has no assets other than the farm and no clear way to turn the property into a modern, public attraction.
One possible solution is state money, the safety net of so many other not-for-profit groups. Cook hopes the state will buy the development rights as a farmland trust. “It would ensure that it always stays undeveloped,” said Cook, who has not sought state aid.
To those who say he's living high on Simmons' largesse, Cook points out that Simmons died with debt, and last winter's heating bill alone reached $7,000. “I'm a prisoner in paradise,” said Cook, who once ran for town treasurer in East Hartford.
Through all the legal wrangling, the elements of an herbal Eden remain. Cook's Caprilands Facebook page says the place is still open for tours. Walking around, I could still smell and pick the mint, thyme, lavender, lemon balm and artemisia, untouched for years. A huge ash tree, not in good health, is a sentry near the greenhouse.
I visited the farm nearly 30 years ago, when the caped Simmons snapped at anyone who showed up late, and talked about herbs with love and scientific knowledge as if she had reinvented them, which in a way, she did. Her power lives on at Caprilands, and it's not just a memory