Karenville: A family farm becomes home to a small town and a huge Airbnb success | country life

ITHACA, NY – The first words my 89-year-old father spoke when we finally pulled down the narrow dirt road off Highway 96B, about 9 miles east of downtown Ithaca, and spotted the colorful tops of the little houses dotting the steep landscape of “Karenville” were, “You can definitely pick them.”

The last thing he said, after three nights of sleeping in a cooler converted into a small, cozy living space – and several enlightened conversations with the owner – was “I need to get Karen’s number in case I come back here.”

Karenville was born from the imagination of Karen Thurnheer, who grew up on the 200-acre farm, now home to a magical little town, with three siblings.

Karen Thurnheer has transformed part of her family’s retired dairy farm into a whimsical little village and rents out her creations on Airbnb.

All four still live on the property. Their father passed away a year ago and their mother now resides in Florida, where Karen winters.

Her grandparents immigrated from Switzerland and purchased the farm in 1943 when Karen’s father was 16, after both worked many years on Long Island. The place came with horse-drawn farm implements and exactly half a team of horses – Eleanor.

“At first they didn’t know how they were going to make money from the farm, but they had to borrow money to buy another horse,” Karen said, settling into a chair in “The Pavilion ” with a cup of his favorite drink. the water. “They went to the Farm Bureau and the guy there said, ‘Why don’t you buy some cows too, and you could start making money right away? “”

Half a dozen cows multiplied, and “When they got to 16, they couldn’t milk by hand, so they had to get milking machines. My dad said, “So the money was really coming in,” Karen laughed.


Karenville’s dwellings are each a unique work of art. Behind this Victorian-style abode, a converted corncrib sporting a green roof sleeps one.


Sometimes Karen starts from scratch, other times she keeps an eye out for items to recycle into living spaces, like this converted motorhome.

At its peak, when Karen was a little girl, the dairy had 32 ranchers and milked 30 to 31 cows. When “get big or get out” became the dairy farming mantra, she said, her family reluctantly chose the latter.

“It was the only thing we knew,” she said. “We loved our cows, and it was a sad day to see the cows go.”

A brother started a sawmill on the farm when he was 16 and still operates it today. Another brother drives a truck for Frankie Valli (Four Seasons lead singer who’s still on tour at 88) and, when he’s not traveling, helps maintain the property (including cutting hay with an old mower sickle bar, a relic of the working farm). A sister manages the original farm and the labor quarters, now both rented, and the finances of the farm.

Karen – who has taught survival and wilderness skills, drives a tow truck and worked as a sign language interpreter – is keeping busy and entertained with Karenville, who started off as kind of a joke when she listed one of her whimsical huts on Airbnb at the suggestion of a friend. Nine years later, the guest list for his little Victorian wonderland is approaching 4,000.

“It was kind of given to me by the universe, I think,” she said. “I just started building a building, this little gothic revival there. And it was fun. Then I built another, then another, and very quickly I realized that it was like a city.

A town needs a name, she said, and so she settled on “Karenville.”

“It was just for fun,” she said, “so I could sleep in these buildings and build them and enjoy them.”


To say that Karen Thurnheer puts herself in her little houses is an understatement. Here she shares the story of the old woodstove that heated her grandparents’ original farmhouse and now warms hearts at ‘The Karenville Hotel’.

Then, still for fun, she took up her friend’s suggestion.

“I knew, of course, that nobody would come because there was no electricity or running water, and I thought everyone wanted a hotel.”


“Karenville Café” is filled with conventional fare as well as alternative learning opportunities.

Having never heard of the popular online marketplace for lodging, she did some research to distract herself from the long winter and compiled a list.

“As a joke, I put it on Airbnb and said ‘There’s no electricity, no running water, no shopping, no street lights, no sidewalks, no WiFi, no television, nothing’ and all the ‘no’s I could think of.”

When winter turned to spring, Karen’s life also changed.

“Someone booked, and I was at my daughter’s house, and it came on my phone,” she said.

After the two shared a good laugh, Karen messaged the potential guest just to be clear that there were really no amenities. “He said, ‘Yeah, I think that’ll be great,’ and I was like, ‘Wow, okay. “

That first guest, visiting a girl attending nearby Cornell University, showed up with a shiny new car and even shiny shoes, she recalls.

“I knew this car had no place on this road,” she said. “And then when I found out he was some kind of company traveling something… I just couldn’t imagine why he was here. He could afford to be where he wanted to be. And now that I’ve had almost 4,000, I realize that people are just looking for something different.

And they are in the right place.


Reduce, reuse, recycle, relax. Reassignment is paramount in Karenville. Guest Leo Sullivan stands in front of a converted cooler he calls his temporary home.

Karen explained, “It’s like sleeping in my art,” and at every turn in Karenville, there’s something to discover.

A gigantic barn cupola purchased at a roadside sale and painted pink now adorns the roof of the indoor showers – an “indoor plumbing” consisting of plastic buckets with taps attached. Guests heat water in stainless steel buckets on one of two gas stoves — one outside and one inside Karen’s Café — to the desired temperature.

Other talismans and trinkets from Karen’s travels and her watchful eye adorn every nook and cranny, and there seems to be a colorful story attached to each original request. Attention to detail is a frequent comment from customers, she said.

“It’s probably because, you know, I love sleeping in all of them, and I enjoy them all. I built it and I enjoyed it and I still enjoy it. So sometimes I find or I see something that interests me and… ‘Where can I put it?’ It’s kind of like my fun place.

It is also a place of learning.


The log cabin where Karen originally lived on the part of the family farm that became “Karenville” can now be rented out to guests who need a little more space.

Next to a sign announcing where guests reside and for how long, a small plastic bucket and a wooden bowl, both burnt after being placed over lit gas burners. A message gently encourages the rotating community, “Karenville is a place of learning,” and asks guests to help out if they see others struggling. Someone once asked Karen if bubbles meant the water was boiling, she recalls.

Self-taught, except for sign language skills learned in college, Karen learned her carpentry skills by watching her father on the farm and building tree forts with her brother.

“I had a job that I thought took care of me, but having enough money to take care of me and more allows me to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” he said. she declared. “Like, I bought a house to renovate. It takes pretty much everything we all have to maintain the farm and pay the taxes.

Karen joked that she does her yoga while contorting herself to hammer and nail under one of her structures, which usually start with a 4×8 floor plan, and her meditation practice consists of frequent perches on tiny roofs.

She said that while the main goal was “to introduce people to new or different ways of doing something,” Karenville is also a reciprocal arrangement.

“I have a lot of people who are blown away by fireflies,” she said. “A good thing for me is, you know, I’ve lived here all my life and, of course, there are fireflies. I mean, I don’t even think about it. But then the people come and say, ‘Wow, fireflies are so amazing.’ Then I have to stop and I look and I’m like, ‘You know what? They’re amazing. They’re really amazing. It makes me realize that I live in a very special place.


Karenville at dawn.

“A lot of people are trying to connect with the land we live on, just something meaningful. We’ve lost the connection with where we live and people are looking for an alternative way of life. It’s a kinda sad, actually, isn’t it? People come here and over and over again you can read the reviews. People say how magical and wonderful it is. And I guess life is magical if you can stop and watch it, you know, but a lot of people are so busy living in the fast lane, or whatever they call it.

Karenville accommodations range from $50 to $125 and can be booked through Airbnb. Karen said the man with the shiny shoes would return in September.

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