Paradise found in the rural life
By Rob Young
Photos by Jim Somerset
The Fennells—Karen and Steve—talk about life in 5-year stretches. It’s not a bad philosophy—taking stock of one’s surroundings, one’s dreams, one’s future, twice every decade or so. It’s not a bad way to live either; it allows the continuous pursuit of evolution or improvement.
One problem: What if you’re happy just the ways things are? Meaning: There’s no need to move, no need to change. That’s a good problem to have as well. And it’s exactly the predicament the Fennels are enjoying, living close to their family in a custom-built home on Wadmalaw Island, an island town beyond Johns Island.
“We’ve got two more years on this five-year increment,” Karen says. “I don’t know if we would do anything differently. This is the best place we’ve ever lived. You can’t top the freedom out here to do what you want. Right as you enter Wadmalaw, you begin to exhale.”
Happy Earth Farms
The Fennells have lived in Charleston for about 20 years, first visiting the area and Pawleys Island twice a year when their five children, three daughters, two sons , were young. They finally moved here when their youngest was in high school, allowing her to attend Wando in Mount Pleasant.
Along the way, they detoured to Aiken, living out one of their dreams as organic farmers.
“At first, our idea was to sail around the world,” Karen says.
So they did, venturing from Charleston to Brazil for six months, their three daughters in two. “But I would get seasick,” Karen recalls, “and Steve said let’s start farming.”
They found 30 acres in Aiken, and began Happy Earth Farms, raising chickens on open pastures, taking cows to butcher and harvesting produce and vegetables, such as zucchini, watermelon and squash.
“The kids thought we were nuts, but it didn’t really surprise them,” Karen says. “You have to go for it and try things.”
Putting it mildly, the endeavor was eye-opening.
“That is where we learned how to be real farmers. We built an all-encompassing operation. We had a larger herd of cattle, 60 laying hens and raised and butchered 150 chickens every six weeks,” Karen recalls. “We grew so much produce that I was harvesting 30 to 60 pounds per day. It was too much work for the two of us, so when our five years were up, we wanted to continue farming but on a much smaller scale, while being closer to our kids and grandkids, and to do it only for us and our family.”
The venture gave the Fennells a new perspective.
“I really feel for the family farmer,” Karen says. “It will work you harder than you’ve ever worked in your entire life for little money. It was so educational. Finally, we realized it was too much work for two people.”
Karen worked as a psychotherapist, and Steve spent his career in real estate development. More recently, he started a general contracting business with his son.
The allure of having family close by in Wadmalaw proved strong as well, leading to Steve and Karen’s move to the area three years ago. One of their sons lives close by, allowing the Fennells’ grandkids to trek back and forth between houses through the woods. Three of their children live on James Island, and another daughter lives in Davidson, N.C.
Ultimately, the beauty of Wadmalaw tipped the balance—also the ability to still raise livestock.
“The only reason we went upstate to farm for those few years was because we had no idea that a place like Wadmalaw Island existed,” Karen remembers. “We spent all our time in Mount Pleasant and downtown. We never ventured out this way. We never knew we could find such a beautiful rural place with great farmland right here in Charleston. It is paradise.”
Upon moving back, they first lived inside a carriage house on the property.
“To build the home, I wanted it to look like we found an old piece of property and renovated it,” Karen says.
They had the lot cleared and put up the fencing themselves. Steve developed the floor plans and Karen picked the finishes once the walls went up. It’s a large home, built with a carriage house and office attached, and an addition featuring a yoga studio.
“After having five kids, we wanted a bigger home. Counting grandkids and spouses, there are 21 of us in the immediate family,” Karen says. “We wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas and have everyone want to come back to the house.”
Favorite Home Features
The house maintains an open, airy feel.
“I envisioned building a house that looked like an old outbuilding that we renovated, hence the shed roof design, whitewashed cypress walls and black stained raw cypress ceilings, raw concrete floors, rustic brick accent walls, exposed ductwork and industrial finishes,” Karen says.
Steve designed a smaller house that lives large.
“It’s perfect for empty nesters with a large family. It's only 2,000 square feet but entertaining 50 people is a breeze,” Karen says.
A larger set of slider doors opens up so the exterior and interior seamlessly blend.
“My husband would live in a glass house if he could,” Karen says. “It’s essentially a wall of windows. Once opened, the whole screened in porch becomes part of the house.”
Leo Oliveria, owner of Royal Flooring, provided the custom tile work.
“He personally did the work here and his works totally make the space,” Karen says.
In the kitchen, the Fennells chose a six-burner BlueStar professional grade range.
“I’m typically a Thermador gal, but we went with BlueStar this time,” Karen says. “It has an open flame instead of a closed frame. It’s more like a restaurant with open burners. There’s nothing better—it cleans well and cooks well.”
The couple share a few of the cooking responsibilities.
“Steve does the grilling. I do the smoking. I like to cook and he likes to eat,” Karen laughs.
The pottery studio is likely Karen’s favorite spot on the property. It contains a bathroom and kitchen.
“It’s basically a whole other apartment,” Karen says. “It lends itself to being a creative space. You can hear the cows mooing and see the pool from the studio.”
Outdoors, their pool—installed by Blue Haven Pools—is a natural lure for the grandkids.
“Blue Haven has done three pools for us, and they've just done a fabulous job,” Karen says. “They thought about angling the pool differently, and recommended we install it vertically instead of horizontally, which was the correct decision.”
There’s even a sports court where the grandkids can play basketball, pickleball, badminton—anything really.
Brownswood Nursery and Landscape Design provided the landscaping, although Steve designed the grounds.
“It’s a great operation because everyone is so knowledgeable,” Karen says. “Steve is very particular about the yard, maintaining our electrified fences to make sure no branches have fallen on it.”
Of course, the Fennells still farm, just not as much as they did.
“Now we raise two batches of chickens a year, about 70 to 80 per time. We raise our own beef as well,” Karen says. “I rely on other local farmers for my eggs now because laying hens take up too much time, making out of town trips nearly impossible.”
Still, you can’t take farming out of their lives.
“Our Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes last year were unbelievable,” Karen says.
Sounds about right for paradise.
Blue Haven Pools & Spas
Brownswood Nursery and Landscape Design