All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 1990

A Tale of Two Estates

andrew E. Barniskis is an aerospace engineer and consultant in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

This is a tale of two estates in Bucks County, in eastern Pennsylvania. Actually, it’s a story about a single piece of real estate, but one that’s had two identities during my life.

In the early 1950s, when I was a boy, it was a millionaire’s estate. It was private property—“Trespassing Strictly Forbidden”—but a creek ran through the property, much of its several square miles was covered by woods, and it held an irresistible lure for boys. Looking back, I realize that the fishing in the section of creek that ran through the property was probably no better than in the sections outside its borders, but sneaking quietly through the pine-covered hills to fish in one of the forbidden pools was an adventure that magnified perceptions of both the size and the number of fish.

The estate was patrolled by caretakers, and we all knew stories of terrible things that had befallen boys caught trespassing. But it never seemed to have happened to anyone we knew personally—the stories were always about some kid a couple of towns over, who went to a different school. The only time I came close to getting caught was when I went with a buddy who started being loud and began breaking down small trees. After that I always went alone, and never came close to being spotted again.

One day after I had made an early morning foray into the estate, I was returning home along one of the dirt roads through the woods when I heard a horse-drawn vehicle approaching. That was unusual, because by the early 1950s all of the local farmers used tractors, and the few horses still around were kept for riding. As I hid in the bushes, I saw a strange sight—an elegant carriage filled with young men and women dressed in 19th-century costumes, laughing and joking as four beautiful black horses pulled them along.

To this day, I don’t know the reason for their summer morning costume ride, but I remember the thoughts it brought to me then and over the years: How wonderful the world could be, that some people could indulge in elegant play in the middle of a weekday! While my own father worked at exhausting labor and neighboring farmers cursed their rusting machinery, here were grown people who could play midday make-believe, with accouterments that probably cost more than what most of my father’s acquaintances would make in a year. I may not have cared much for fancy horses, or even for well-dressed young ladies at the time, but that vision of what was attainable in life influenced me greatly over the years.

Sometime between my boyhood and my early adult years, the estate acquired a new identity. The millionaire owner died and willed the property to the state. Eventually it was turned into a state park. From being the property and plaything of a few rich individuals it became the property of everyone—at least, in theory. Nevertheless, its former identity would once more pique my imagination.

After working for several years following high school, serving in the Army, and saving my money, I started working my way through a local college as a laboratory assistant. One day I was in the laboratory with a professor when the conversation turned to the old estate. Coincidentally, a maintenance man who was working with us had been a caretaker on the estate in his younger days. He didn’t need much prompting to begin pouring out stories of the extravagant, eccentric lifestyle of his former employers—the lavish parties, the dozens of servants, the grand cars, the small fortunes spent on the whims of a moment.

My professor, a true English gentleman and a sincere and outspoken socialist, was horrified and quite literally shaken: “How terrible that anyone should have so much . . . .” he finally managed to stammer. As his student, I nodded false agreement, while thinking, “No—how wonderful!”

I was one of the professor’s better students. I wondered what he thought kept me at my studies until well past midnight—dreams of working on rusting tractors, or of moving crates in a warehouse? Certainly not. I’d done those things. It was a vision I had seen that life could be much better than most of what had surrounded me while growing up. If I hadn’t thought that something much, much better was attainable, I would have been out drinking with my friends, instead of studying.

I sought out the maintenance man several times and extracted as many of his stories of the old estate as I could. Many was the time, while in college, that reflecting on one of those tales would spur me to continue working an extra hour or two, after everyone else had turned off their lights. Along the way I had decided that “having so much”—whether it was wealth or academic suc-cess-had to start with work.

The New Vision

Years later the estate—now in its new, public identity—was to provide me with one more vision. I took my young son to the park to see if the old, secret pools still produced fish. We didn’t have any luck because some noisy kids were throwing rocks down from the cliffs. Also, many of the old natural landmarks had been vandalized, so I couldn’t find the best pools. When we got back to the parking lot, a motorcycle gang was drag racing, openly smoking dope, and smashing beer bottles while a powerless park guard looked the other way.

As one by one, intimidated young families packed their picnics to leave, I looked at the tableau before me—the scruffy motorcyclists charging wildly around the lot, framed against the elegant old mansion, still standing on the overlooking hill—and thought, this is the triumph of the Marxist vision. The proletariat has inherited the capitalist’s estate. Why are so few rejoicing?

I suppose that you could count the number of people who visit the park each year, and argue that more people get more good out of the estate now than when the millionaire owned it. Of course, there are annual lawsuits by those seeking to prevent the hunts the state holds to control the deer herd, and there probably will be a lawsuit filed by some bicyclists, who have just been told they can’t use the woodland roads because they interfere with the horseback riders. There always seems to be some sort of political contest going on over how the park will be used. And, while the state makes a genuine effort, it’s pretty hard to gather up all the trash that people can spread over several square miles. The Fish Commission gave up stocking the creek several years ago.

I’ve known the estate in its two identities, and I know what its old identity taught me. But my son has seen it only in its public identity. I wonder what it has taught him? Possibly, that in the world of collective ownership, things owned by everyone are cared for by no one, and that control then belongs to those with the power or arrogance or brutality to take it.

I know that I can tell my son about values and virtues and the work ethic. But there are no words that will have the impact of the vision he saw at the park that day.