(Left to Right) Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge, The Beekman Boys. Photo: The Beekman Boys
In the pilot episode of The Fabulous Beekman Boys, Josh Kilmer-Purcell is disappointed that his partner, Brent Ridge, won’t be coming to his book reading. They have the following exchange:
“When is it going to change because it’s just getting busier and busier and busier.”
“We knew going into this year that that’s what it was going to be like. I’m doing my part to make this business a success, and you have to do your part to make your business a success. We kind of have to divide and conquer,” Brent replies.
“That’s a lot of dividing.”
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“You have a cliché for everything?”
“You know I would be there if I could, right?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. You know I would be there,” Brent pulls on Josh’s chest, bringing him down for a kiss, “you just like to be argumentative.”
Reluctant but pacified, Josh bends down to kiss Brent on the cheek, “I don’t know why, I don’t usually win.”
From the start, “reality television” has had a problematic relationship with authenticity. The name for the format itself serving as the first level of contradiction. Real life doesn’t tend to be televised. The genre very quickly became filled with unscripted but pre-planned stories where participants were placed in contrived situations and coached by producers behind the camera into overreaction. In many cases, the genre’s only adherence to reality is poor phrasing.
The Fabulous Beekman Boys which first aired in 2010 on Planet Green, one of the Discovery networks, was not part of this trend. The show was about Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a couple who had moved from New York City to Upstate New York to run a farm. Brent said, “We were very fortunate that we were involved in reality TV at a time when they were really telling authentic stories, rather than a manufactured type of entertainment, so for us it was just a real slice of our life.”
Brent goes on to say, “People were invested in what we were doing, from the day that we made our first bar of soap, to the day that we opened our store...people watched it all unfolding.” What separates The Fabulous Beekman Boys from many reality television shows is the unsimulated premise. There’s no cash prize at the end, no one’s trapped in a house, no characters are eliminated at the end of the week. They really were just a couple from the city who wanted to make their small farm in Sharon Springs profitable and that was all the show aspired to depict.
The other aspect that differentiates the show, which isn’t unheard of in reality television but is generally unfavored by television producers, is its depiction of a normal, stable relationship. They bickered over daily stresses and showed simple affection like any other couple. These events and interactions were commonplace and familiar to the audience’s own lives. That authentic quality alone drew fans.
Brent and Josh met almost 20 years ago in an AOL chatroom when the internet was still dial up. They were both living and working New York City at the time. Josh worked in advertising and was the author of book titled I Am Not Myself These Days: A Memoir about his previous life as a drag queen named Aquadisiac, or Aqua for short. His outfit at the time was notable for its fishbowl breasts filled with live goldfish. Brent was a physician at Mount Sinai School of Medicine before he met Martha Stewart and took a job as vice-president of the health and wellness division at Martha Stewart Omnimedia.
In 2006, the couple decided to get away from the city and go apple-picking for the weekend in Upstate New York. The place they chose to do so turned out to be for sale. It was a small farm built by William Beekman in 1802. Beekman was a “boy soldier” in the Revolutionary War who became a hugely successful businessman in later life. His general store was situated across the road from what would become his mansion. The couple, enamored with the Georgian/Federal architecture of the building, decided to buy it for themselves.
The Beekman Mansion in Sharon, New York, where it all began for Josh and Brent. Photo: The Beekman Boys
Both men had grown up in rural areas: Josh in Wisconsin, Brent in North Carolina. But neither had any plans to become farmers when they bought the farm. “We both wanted to get back to our rural roots...but we didn’t anticipate when we purchased the farm that it would be anything more than a weekend getaway.” But in 2008, in the midst of the economic recession, both men lost their jobs within a month of each other. Finding themselves unable to afford the mortgage, it was only then that they considered making their living off the farm itself.
They tentatively began a life on the farm together. They started a blog and the brand Beekman 1802. Their neighbor John could not afford his own farm, so the couple offered to keep his goats on their farm. Together with “Farmer John”, they raised and milked goats. With the milk, they began making soap and later cheese. Then one day they got an email from an executive at the Discovery networks who was looking for stories of people reimagining their lives and had seen their blog. This is where the television show started. Today the farm boasts 117 goats and 24 chickens. Most of their land is used for hay to feed the goats but they have a smaller area where they grow over 75 different varieties of vegetables for themselves.
The Beekman farm goats. Photo: The Beekman Boys
Josh, recalling their first days in Sharon Springs, said “our neighbors were originally skeptical of a New York City couple coming in and farming...but all of our neighbors are incredibly kind and generous, and they shared their knowledge with us. Just the act of asking them questions about farming showed a level of humility on our part that really helped our community embrace us. And then, when we showed them the skills that we had in creating a brand and marketing it that also helped sell their products, it really became a two-way street.”
Actress Tiffani Thiessen joined Josh, Brent, and their Beekman community for a group meal. Photo: The Beekman Boys
Ever since dial up internet, Josh and Brent have been at the forefront of the technological shifts in e-commerce and marketing. They were there at the start of social media, “ probably one of the first farms on facebook,” says [Josh], and they continue to innovate their business.
One of the strangest wrinkles in their story is their participation in the 21st season of The Amazing Race. Not only did they appear on the show but they also, as perennial underdogs, went on to win the whole competition and used the money to help their business grow.
Over time and in recognition of William Beekman’s legacy, they opened their own store at 187 Main Street in Sharon Springs, New York. They “try to think of the mercantile as not a new business, but just a business that was dormant for a hundred and fifty years.” That business can now also be found online at Beekman 1802.com. Their website also features the work of weavers, blacksmiths, and local artisans and craftspeople whom Brent and Josh have met and brought into the Beekman 1802 community over their time living in the area.
Despite their connection to Martha Stewart and echoes in their endeavors, the couple are quick to point out, “We say Martha is such a smart expert in so many things, which is fabulous, but we are not experts at anything. We are learners. We like to learn about new things, and we like to bring people along with us as we learn.” This is a common theme in the couple’s work: the humility to learn from others and the generosity to help others with what they themselves have learned. A two-way street.
Feeding 55 Beekman Neighbors to celebrate the release of The Beekman Boys' cookbook A Seat at the Table. Photo: The Beekman Boys
On September 15th and 16th, Josh and Brent are once again the inspirations for the annual Harvest Festival in Sharon Springs. The event goes up and down Main Street, where artisans and craftspeople from around the region are invited to set up shop. “People come not only to see the amazing craftsmanship on display but also to feel they’re part of a community and I think that’s what so many people lack these days, that feeling of belonging to something,” say [Josh and Brent]. They describe the weekend as a “celebration of community and craftsmanship,...still just a very small, locally-run festival where everybody pitches in to pick up trash and volunteers to shepherd people around.”
Master blacksmith Michael McCarthy at The Beekman Boys' Harvest Festival last year (2017). Photo: @croweclay
Talking of the event, they say, “We’re excited about getting all these craftspeople together primarily because so often craftspeople don’t have a marketplace for their work, and that’s what’s so great about the work that not only Beekman 1802 does but also about the work New York Makers does, in terms of curating an experience for these craftspeople and having a marketplace for their work, and I think it’s so important that creative people understand what other creative people are doing and learn from them.”
New York Makers is excited to host a Makers Market within Beekman 1802's Harvest Festival on Saturday and Sunday, September 15th and 16th, from 10 am - 5 pm. Map and details are below. Look for the red circle and arrow on the map that marks the location of our New York Makers Market.
They hope that the artisans and craftspeople who meet will build friendships and learn skills from each other, but also they hope that the event will be a chance to learn about the craft of selling, too. It should be noted that the Main Street in Sharon Springs is a two-way street.
Brent’s New York State of Mind is “Entrepreneurial,” and Josh’s New York State of Mind is “Reinvigorated.”