As seen in "The Washington Post"
Published: Sunday, June 22, 1997
© The Washington Post

No garden-variety enterprise: For 23 years, Hall Kern ran the Reston Farm Market with quirky abandon.  It closes in August, a victim of modernity.  Photo from the market’s heyday, in June 1986. 

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

… and pumpkins and licorice whips, and maybe just a touch of snake oil. A farewell to an eccentric hippie market, and another little piece of our heart.

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer

    The president resigned, Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record was shattered, an heiress became a bank robber, rocks were considered pets, a 9-year-old kid won an Oscar and people started telling each other to have a nice day.  The year was 1974 and the country was going to hell in a handbasket.  That autumn in Fairfax County, an already aging hippie named Hall Kern drove west on Route 7 in the battered VW bus he called home, until he came across a field of goldenrod.  Kern stopped and knocked on the farmhouse door.  An old man answered.

    “Here he was, this country farmer, and here I was with hair down to my shoulders, this wild red beard and clothes that were more than likely pretty tattered,” Kern recalls.  The farmer gave him the onceover, but didn’t slam the door, and when the scraggly caller asked to rent a couple of acres for a roadside pumpkin stand, the farmer agreed.

    The hippie lingered through December to sell Christmas trees as well, then drove away.  Maybe he would come back next year, he told the farmer, but then again, maybe he wouldn’t.  The hippie didn’t like to make promises.

    He did return, though, and Hall Kern would run what became the Reston Farm Market for 23 years.  Strange and sometimes wonderful things happened on that slice of land.  Moonshine was made.  Peculiar straw people began popping up in unexpected places.  A fort built of pumpkins rose from the field.  The market kept growing and growing, but it never grew up.

    At the same time, just beyond the market’s unpredictable borders, a community was growing in a triumphantly different way.  Reston was a suburban wonderland, hailed as one of America’s best postwar New Towns.  Streams were dammed to form lakes.  Barns came down and houses went up.  Jogging paths were carved through the woods, and landscapers went to work on the goldenrod.  It was all part of a grand plan.  

    The hippie didn’t believe in plans.  He believed in spontaneity, in whimsy.  He believed in luck and inspiration.

    For two decades the market and the community have coexisted in fabulous contradiction, one an alleluia to anarchy and imagination, and other a model of comfort and conformity.  It was a seductive illusion.  But like socialism and capitalism sharing the same globe, everyone assumed that one would not, could not survive.

    They were right, of course.

The Farm Market, launched with wadded-up dollar bills in a cigar box, made $2.9 million in sales in 1995.  Photo circa 1980.

Running Out of Room

    The door – it took years for Kern to even get around to building one – will close on the Reston Farm Market in mid-August.  A small chain will run a more orderly farm market in its place.

    Kern recently informed the faithful of his market’s demise in a yellow newsletter that also announced that the azaleas were blooming and the jalapeno pepper seeds were in, that there were precision-turned wind chimes for sale and that the notorious keg of “Damn Good Cider” was set for one last round.  The newsletter didn’t mention that the cider had been fermenting all winter and had a kick that could knock you halfway to Appalachia.
There were always a lot of things about the market best left unsaid and discovered by accident.

    Right off the corner of Route 7 and Baron Cameron Avenue, behind Gil’s Amoco station and across the road from a petting zoo where bewildered zebra graze, the market was just beyond the reach of the town’s covenant control.  Geographically it wasn’t precisely in Reston, but strategically, it formed the gateway to the burgeoning suburb.

    The lease was for 2.5 acres of Mack Crippen’s dairy farm, but the owners didn’t complain when Kern began using more and more of the empty field, “probably 24 acres at one point,” by Kern’s own estimate.  The rent gradually skyrocketed from $150 a month to $100,000 last year, but even that didn’t matter too much.  The Farm Market was flourishing.  A business launched with wadded-up dollar bills in a cigar box made $2.9 million in sales in 1995 – the hippie’s best year ever.

    It was around the same time that Kern began to realize he was doomed.  He was playing Candy Land on a Monopoly board.

    The farmland that had been in the family for more than a century became a burden to Mack Crippen’s hairs.  “Our choice was selling or going bankrupt to pay real estate taxes of over $250,000 a year,” explains Julie Jordan, a former daughter-in-law who is now president of Crippen Investors Limited Partnership, owner of the remaining property.  A 275 acre parcel was sold to developers; the Reston Farm Market was going to have people instead of cows for neighbors.

    There had been plenty of attempts to hem in Hall Kern before.  He always managed to do some fancy sidestepping.  He claims to have once convinced a dubious zoning inspector that teepees (such as the sizable one he had just erected) didn’t need permits because they were grandfathered in by the Europeans who settled the New World.

    But this was different.

    “It was easy to do when there weren’t 333 houses in his back yard watching everything he does and assessing,” Jordan notes.

    Quite literally, there was no room left to maneuver.  The landlord informed Kern that he could stay, but could no longer stray past the original 2.5 acres designated by the county.  He agreed, and signed a long-term lease in 1992, making sure there was an escape clause.  He put up a big blue-and-white-striped tent for his produce that summer and wintered in Mexico, resolving to reproduce squash-blossom quesadillas for his customers as soon as the market reopened for the season.  He tried to stick a smiley face on the death notice.

    “When the first person moves in, I will be knocking on the door with a gift basket,” he declared to the Reston Observer. “We’re hoping that the vast majority of the people will see us as a community asset.”

    Maybe they did.  And maybe it doesn’t matter.

    The tent violated zoning codes and had to come down.  The Straw People were served an eviction notice; the grassy median strip that has been their stage must be replanted with barrier shrubs and trees, so motorists and homeowners are appropriately shielded from each other.  A car wash, a community pool with tennis courts and big houses with skylights claimed the land that Kern had always treated like the playground for his imagination.  His big fall extravaganza, with its precarious mountain made of pumpkins, would no longer fit.

    No one wants to admit complicity in the demise of the Reston Farm Market.  The builder implies it is the landowner, the landowner blames the county, the county won’t return phone calls.  Kern could have stayed, it is clear, if only would follow the rules.

    “We’ve never lived by the rules,” he protests.  “That’s what made us what we are… Sure, I could stay here.  This is still a viable location.  But what you have left is just another place selling plants and tomatoes.

    “They’re squeezing all the fun out of it.”

    Fun was the whole point, wasn’t that obvious?

An Out of Control Oasis

    The beard is gone and what is left of his hair is tidy and gray.  Hall Kern is 57 now.  He drives a Jeep Cherokee and lives in a Sterling subdivision.  He still pursues goofy ideas with abandon.  He recently spent more money than he admits was sensible putting up what looks like a gigantic bamboo hut in the little playground he keeps out back for customers’ kids.  The hut is visible to passing motorists on busy Route 7.  It is especially visible when he turns red, green and yellow floodlights on it at night.  He considers this the “second most beautiful” vision in Fairfax County, next to the stars.  “People keep saying to me, ‘Hall, why’d you do this? You’re leaving,” and I tell them I did it because I can.

    “Because I can and it’s beautiful.”

    The first “building” to house the Reston Farm Market was nothing more than a dirt-floor shack fashioned from chicken wire and scrap lumber and sheets of plastic.  Deidre Carrell was in her early twenties’ when she went to work for him back then.

    “My first two days, I planted 800 Christmas trees with him on a hillside in Wheaton.  It had just been Bush Hogged, and I kept coming across all these suspicious stumps,” she recalls.  Unlike Kern, Carrel lived on a farm and knew a thing or two about where to plant things and where not to, and one place not to is a place where the ground is gnarled with root systems.  She suggested that maybe this wasn’t such a great site for evergreens.  Kern kept planting.

    “I ended up in the emergency room that night with poison ivy between my fingers so bad I couldn’t bend them,” Carrell remembers, “I don’t think we ever harvested a single Christmas tree, either.”

    Still, she ended up working for the guy for 16 years.

    The marked is the wacky evolution of a person’s personality,” she says.  “The Reston Farm Market was Hall Kern.  A lot of people lived through him.  They fed off his ability to be outrageous.  They came to be a part of it, without taking the big risk.  They knew he would do that for them.

    “God, I saw him do it time and again.”

    The market’s slogan was “the best of every season,” and Kern closed the place for three months each winter so he could ramble around the country looking, tasting, sniffing.  There was the peach butter he found at a firehouse fund-raising supper in Pennsylvania, the gourmet olives savored at a roadside stand in California, rhubarb pies from a kitchen in Herndon, the Mountain Dew in old green bottles that made him practically week with joy in the Carolinas.

    “My passion is for real things,” he says.  “It’s hard to define.”

    The shack is a sturdier “country store” now, and Kern bounces through on a slow afternoon like a pinball.  He seizes a jar. “Amish pickled cantaloupe,” he announces.  “It sounds weird, but it’s good.  And look at these vinegars.  They’re made in a garage in Virginia.  We have milk in glass bottles with cream still floating on top, milk like it was delivered on the back porch when I was a kid.  Over here, over here!  Look at these sodas!”

    Mountain Dew, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, A&W Root Beer, RC Cola, all in longneck glass bottles.   “See this stuff? Moxie’s Soda is more than 100 years old.  Moxie’s was once to the North what Coke was to the South.  Coke was sold as a brain tonic.  Moxie’s was a nerve tonic.  It’s made with gentian root.  It’s where the term ‘to have moxie’ comes from.”

    Kern used to make his own soda pop.  “I love to concoct things,” he says.  Carrell, who became the market’s manager, remembers this kick fondly but less romantically.

    “He had all these glass bottles of fermenting, bubbling brown goo all over the market.  Sometimes you knew it was root beer, but other ones you didn’t know if it was last year’s cider with an old boot in it or something.

    “At one point, the bottle started blowing up.”

    She members Kern frantically wrapping the corks with “big, ol’ baseball-sized wads of duct tape,”  hoping to prevent the unpreventable.

    Kern started making authentic snake oils out of willow root instead.

    Some notions lasted longer than others.  The Straw People stand testimony to that.  The life-size scarecrows hand-stuffed by employees started out simply posed on the roadside to make cars slow down and pull into the parking lot.  But then they became a form of performance art.  There were elaborate tableaux of Straw People weddings and Independence Day parades.  There were Straw Babies and Straw Grandmas.  They danced around a maypole in the spring and skated on an imaginary ice rink at Christmastime.  They might be wearing bloodied Valley Forge uniforms or T-shirts reading “Get in Touch With Your Inner Child.”  They all had the same slightly unnerving, googly-eyed stare.

    There were other great adventures and misguided schemes, too.  For a while, Kern kept a tank of fresh rainbow trout and hung them up to smoke in a back room.  This phase coincided with his keen interest in vodkas of the world, which were never sold but always shared.

    When Kern bought an old-fashioned bubble-up drink dispenser, the kind that always held orangeade behind vintage lunch counters, he filled it with bottled water and a live trout.  He put out cups and a sign offering free samples of mountain stream water.

    “I would stand there and watch and it was adults drinking it,” he says with unabashed glee.  “The 9- and 10 year-old kids would come up, look at it, shake their heads and walk away.”

    “Why would people drink water with a fish in it?” Deidre Carrell asks.  “It was a wacky environment and you just fell into it.  It was an out-of-control oasis in a very controlled community.”

    On summer weekends, the market was like a hootenanny.  Watermelons bobbled in a cold tank of water beneath the striped produce tent, and the air was sweet with the juice form sample wedges piled high on a table.  Live bands played fold music near the nectarines and people helped themselves to three kinds of peanuts roasting in a small oven.  Things usually cost more and tasted better than anything the surrounding grocery stores and encroaching gourmet emporiums could offer.  Rusty red Radio Flyers served as shopping carts.  Outside, teenage boys wearing the market’s signature tie-dye T-shirts grilled hamburgers, hot dogs and corn to sell, and nobody threatened to sue if they found a bee trapped in the relish bowl.

    But the best time of all, as far as Hall Kern was concerned, was the fall.  When the Indian summer waned and the Granny Smiths were tart and shiny, Fort Pumpkin would rise again.

    “Kids love forts, you know,” Kern says.  Coincidentally, so does he.  Why just sell Halloween pumpkins, he thought.  Why not pile 100 tons of them on top of bales of hay and dig tunnels for small children to climb through?

    The first year, he dressed employees up as Indians (Chief Running Nose and Princess Slipped Disk) and put up a teepee.  He held contests to give away the world’s largest pumpkin to some lucky child whose parents no doubt were thrilled to death to have a 671-pount vegetable delivered to their door.

    Fort Pumpkin took up much of the borrowed land and became not only a tradition, but a guaranteed moneymaker for the Farm Market.  There were rides on hay wagons and Shetland ponies, and authentic dancing and storytelling from Native Americans hired from as far away as Colorado.

    The whole thing was audacious, and magnificent, and probably violated every rule of prudent risk management.

    Nothing bad ever happened, Kern says, “I guess I was just lucky, is all.”

    

Clockwise from below: Hall Kern, on high; a procession of straw folk in front of the market; store manager Sarah Miller sorts beans.

A Sense of Family

    There are people who radiate warmth, and people who attract it.  Hall Kern is one of the latter.  If he had a second calling, his admirers say, it would surely be as a circus ringmaster.  But even those who have known him for 20 years describe him as an enigma, saying they love him dearly but cannot fathom him.  His eyes change like the ocean, deep gray or green or blue.  The gleam is not a merry twinkle, but something harder, something hungrier.

    If you ask who knows him best, who is close, there is a long silence before he finally names not lifelong friends or family, but employees and a handful of growers and suppliers who have traded with him for decades.

    Kern was one of five children brought up by a Naval Academy father and homemaker mother on 26 wooded acres in Arlington.  “I wasn’t raised to ask permission,” he likes to say.  America was a safe place in the 1940s, and a little boy could wander where he pleased.

    From the time he was in seventh grade, Hall Kern sold things. Doughnuts door-to-door, and fireworks form a roadside stand.  He kept illegal firecrackers under the counter and could spot undercover cops a mile away.

    As a young man, he drifted.  He sold flowers and Fuller Brush wares, but “I felt a real need for some sort of career.  I never held a job more than a month or so.”

    He embraced the counterculture and sampled “a lot of therapies.  Bioenergetics, gestalt.”  He joined an ashram in the District and devoted himself to yoga.  He lived inside his VW bus.  When he ended up at old man Crippen’s property, he was still searching for an answer.

    “I think I found it,” he says now.

    When it looked as though the Reston Farm Market would have to close in 1985 because the county was going to enforce a regulation requiring all produce to be grown on the premises, Kern collected 12,000 signatures from outraged customers.  The county backed down.  He still keeps the petitions.  They prove that he belongs.

    Other misfits felt the same pull.

    A crazy woman used to drive up to the market in the summer in her old heap of a car and stay for a few weeks.  She did her wash with the nursery’s garden hoses, used the gas station’s bathroom and roamed around the grounds after closing as if it were her Tuscan villa.  “We were her summer vacation,” Deidre Carrell says.

    “There was also a homeless woman – what was her name?  Lucille?  No, something like that.  She’d come in and we’d feed her and talk to her and then she’d rob us blind and leave.”  Everyone respected the ritual.

    Sixteen years ago a feral cat started eating out of the Dumpster.  “It was a few years before she’d let up pet her,” Kern recalls.  No w she is fat and lazy and sleeps each day on a cash register.  No one ever bothered to give her a name, and she is simply known as Market Cat.

    In peak season, the market would eventually have more than 100 employees.  There was a former English professor who wrote poetry and high school kids who grew up, married and brought back children of their own.  People fell in and out of love.  Deidre Carrell brought her infant daughter to work and let her sleep in an apple create.  She’s 11 now.

    “There was always a job for the kids who maybe had purple hair and three earrings and pierced noses and just needed a chance to show what wonderful people they were,” Carrell says, “and Hall always gave them that chance.  He never penalized somebody for being weird.

    “He helped many kids financially,” she adds.  “He floated no-interest loans to get them started in school.  He gave single moms a hand when they needed it.  He’s loaned me money.”

    Kern never married and if there was ever someone special in his life, his makeshift family never knew.  “There was always something melancholy about him,” Carrell noticed.  She left herself five years ago to start her own small business and spend more time with her family.  Trying to keep Kern’s feet on the ground left her exhausted and angry.  They don’t talk much anymore.

    When John Lennon was killed in 1980, as other people lit candles and sang “Give Peace a Chance,” the Reston Farm Market chose to pay tribute a different way.  Out front, the sign that usually said “Corn’s In!” or “Come Smell the Peaches” carried a new message: “Christ, You Know It Ain’t Easy.”

Saying Goodbye

    A loose-leaf binder filled with blank paper for customers to write their farewells has been put out near the apothecary jars filled with licorice whips.  There are wobbly hearts drawn by little kids and two-page love letters from anguished customers.

    “My car knows just how to get there… I grew up with you guys… Don’t go gently into that good night… It smells so good in here… Damn the developers… You have the best cantaloupe… Lost a great friend… Stay and fight, we’ll all help… Thank you for bringing me joy for the last 21 years…” And, in tiny writing at the bottom of a page, simply this: “Don’t go, please don’t go.”

Time to Go

    The county inspectors would come with clipboards and tape measures.  As employees retell it, they paid careful attention to things like honey labels and electrical outlets, but apparently failed to notice that a man was living on the rooftop behind the market’s big sign.  Hall Kern had tired of the VW bus.  He camped out on the roof for some time in the early days, even making himself a hot tub down on the ground, fashioned from a 250-gallon wine cask and a wood stove water heater he picked up in Mexico.

    A couple who sold him organic produce from their farm down the road in Vienna took pity and invited him to convert a cottage on their property into a studio apartment.

    “He built himself a hot tub right in the middle of that tiny space,” remembers Hana Newcomb, the farmer’s daughter and still a friend and supplier to Kern.  “The limits other people have, he doesn’t have.”

    The end seems clear from the moment Toll Brothers put up the signs and brick gateway on Baron Cameron Road, heralding the construction of luxury homes called the Glen at Great Falls Crossing.

    “We have been very supportive of the Reston Farm Market,” insists project vice president John Elcano.  “The Farm Market is incorporated into our development plan to serve the residents of our community.”

    But it would have to change.  It was not just the scarecrows that were banished.  The strings of white twinkle-lights zigzagging across the nursery would have to go, too.  Toll Brothers graciously agreed to lend Kern some adjacent land for one last autumn, but after that, he would have to keep to his 2.5 acres.

    Kern agreed, thought about it for a year, and changed his mind this past spring.  He ordered up T-shits for sale depicting the market being unceremoniously squished between the bellies of two fat cartoon men labeled “Developers” and “Inspectors.”  What is the point of going on, he says, when he was losing space, losing visibility, losing his access road, losing business?  Sales were down nearly half a million dollars last year.

    Even worse, he was losing heart.

    He could hear the earth-movers over the laughter of kids crawling through his death-trap maze that last October.  The settlers were advancing and the Straw People were no match.

    Fort Pumpkin would surrender.

Hello ‘World’

    The end has made Hall Kern hyperkinetic, strangely excited.  He will go out with a bang.  There will be champagne and fireworks.  Old ladies will down endless Dixie cups of Damn Good Cider, and all 250 Straw People will line the forbidden road in mute protest.  He won’t ask for permission from anyone.

    And then he plans to travel the world for a year.  He wants to eat street food in exotic countries.  He wants to soak up every sight, every taste, every texture, every smell, and bring it back with him.  “I’m going to open a new business and call it ‘World,’” he boasts.  “It will be the best of every country.  Part store, part theater, part carnival, part Web site, part restaurant, part bar, part etcetera etcetera etcetera.  Did I say part circus?  No phony baloney.  I want to do something real.”

    The market will close Aug. 10.  A new tenant will take over the day after the hippie leaves for good.  Maybe someday they will find the time capsule that Kern buried in 1980.  He confesses its contents now; some snake oil, a few marijuana seeds and a poem by the English professor.

    “You who uncover this fermented rhyme/Judge not my value by measure of time/ Question the stone where mementos were cast/ Unearth the good times that rest on the past.”

    The chain that will be taking over when the Reston Farm Market is gone has a lot of experience running these places, and the landlord is confident that everyone will abide by all the proper rules and regulations.  To mere passersby, maybe it will even seem like nothing has changed.  After all, a farm market is a farm market, isn’t it?