From Texas to New Mexico to California, folks are making it their mission to rejuvenate the places that represent their roots.
Editor's Note: Real Stories is a three-part series from our January 2020 design feature depicting real transformations of historic havens in the American West.
Unearthing a pistol hammer from the 1850s is just another day at the office for Michele Van Der Veen and her house-flipping family. Riches can still be found in California’s Gold Country — not shiny nuggets in a creek, but history that you can touch. The Van Der Veens are preserving this Western heritage with every crumbling home they save.
“I’m always looking for the oldest house,” Van Der Veen says. “We’ll take the worst of the worst that other investors pass by, and we’ll rebuild them. We’re not afraid to take on anything.” Michele is the driving force behind the family’s renovation business, working alongside her husband, Ken, and their adult children Victoria (the real estate agent), Austin (the bookkeeper), and Landon (the muscle).
The crew flips homes in the tiny towns along Highway 49, a sleepy slice of the Sierra Nevada foothills. The scene was quite different during the Gold Rush, when 300,000 fortune-seekers descended onto boomtowns like Placerville and Sutter Creek. Today you’ll still find clapboard saloons and covered sidewalks in Gold Country, along with a proud Western lifestyle. “It really is the Old West here,” Van Der Veen says. “Everything is country, cowboys, and Indians.”
Michele and Ken first fell in love with the region’s horseback appeal. “Horses have driven this family’s direction,” she says. Michele competed in dressage for years, even training for the Olympics. But they found something else along the horse trails in Gold Country: a place to put down roots.
They purchased historic ranchland in Drytown, once a mining hotspot with 10,000 residents and 26 saloons. Now just a speck on the map (population: 167), it’s the perfect base for their business, iHeartHomesCorp. History runs deep here. Ranches are handed down through generations, along with the original deeds from Mexico. Locals are wary of new growth. “There’s not much development, so flipping houses is a really good fit,” Van Der Veen explains. “It’s a good feeling to be able to take some of these older homes and fix them up.”
The family renovates about 12 houses every year, many more than 100 years old. Patina-crusted relics make frequent appearances: old coins, belt buckles, and broken china cups. The flippers replace plumbing and electrical systems, but they always keep the original character. “We really try to preserve each home’s architecture and charm,” Van Der Veen says. Their finished renovations are warm and welcoming — and flying off the market. And the Van Der Veens’ good fortune keeps growing: They’ve recently signed with a TV production company for a new reality show.
But the true treasure is the family’s strong connection to the land and to one another. “We’ve always been super close,” Van Der Veen says. The kids grew up immersed in the renovation business and in Western history, listening to old-timers tell stories about their great-grandparents’ gold mining adventures. “I’m always telling my kids that they have to pass this on to their kids,” she says. “I don’t want the traditions or the heritage of this area to be lost.”
Adventure, opportunity, unbridled freedom — the story of the American frontier taps deep into the human spirit. Thanks to people like the Van Der Veens, the Old West will live on with every home saved and every story shared around a campfire, passed on to the next generation.
More from our design feature
Photography: Courtesy Michele Van Der Veen, Victoria Van Der Veen
From our January 2020 issue.