Augusta County attorney-shepherd is living his dream
When Francis Chester-Cestari was a little boy, he dreamed of sheep, but not in the conventional way. He dreamed of owning them.
Although born and bred in Brooklyn, he says he always dreamed of farming and raising sheep in a pastoral setting like Virginia. “I wanted to be a farmer from a very young age and growing up in the city was confining both mentally and physically for me in that respect.”
Chester-Cestari started his own company at age 10 and worked his way through college and law school by growing and selling roadside produce and raising a limited number of livestock. He credits his parents for encouraging his agrarian endeavors and helping him to make them a profitable reality.
In 1968, not long after becoming a practicing attorney, Chester-Cestari married and resolved to follow his lifelong dream to move from New York to Virginia. He soon discovered that busting out of Brooklyn and landing in Louisa County was only the beginning of a long, still-continuing journey.
He says he soon found out that the realities of 1960s’ Virginia were somewhat different from the pastoral paradise originally envisioned in his youth.
“When I first got here, I was immediately told that I already had three strikes against me,” he recalls. “I was a Yankee, a Catholic and an Italian—and I was told by some locals that ‘my kind’ was ‘not cotton to’ in these parts.”
But Chester-Cestari persevered and started up both a sheep farm and a legal practice in his new chosen homeplace,making friends in unexpected places in the process.
“It was the Black community that first accepted me,” he says. Chester-Cestari employed several Blacks to work on his farm and word soon spread among them that he was a fairman.
After a while, he says many from the local Black community began coming to him for legal help, citing continuing discriminatory practices contrary to newly passed civil rights legislation.
In 1975,Chester-Cestari says he made one of the most momentous decisions of his life. He was in a sheep pasture on his tractor when he saw his wife frantically running to him.
“She informed me that the sitting General District Court judge had been assassinated in the Louisa County Courthouse by a young Black man with a sawed-off shotgun,” he says. “It turned out that the young man had once worked for me on the farm. His parents asked me to represent him because no one else would. After some soul-searching, I agreed to take the case.”
Chester-Cestari says the unprecipitated experience became the highlight of his legal career.
“The defendant never really gave a valid reason for his actions and the case culminated in a hung jury due to my use of a ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ defense, something that was not nearly as common then as it is now,” he says.
The case was retried in Augusta County after a new prosecutor was elected and the state Supreme Court approved a change of venue. The defendant was found guilty and sentenced to state prison.
“I was not involved with the retrial, but the original Louisa County trial resulted in better relations between the races, and it also helped to establish me as a Virginian,” he says.
In 1980, Chester-Cestari and his wife moved from Louisa County to Rockbridge County and then eventually to Augusta County. “We purchased farms that had their own wool mills, and we began producing yarn. It was and continues to be an exciting time,” he says.
Today, the couple continues to raise sheep in Augusta Springs, and sell yarn and other wool products at their country store on Little Calf Pasture Highway. The store also houses Chester-Cestari’s law office and the Cestari Textile Museum.
“I am living my dream and I enjoy every day on my Virginia farm,”Chester-Cestari says. “I have really lived two lives, one as an attorney and one as a shepherd. Some people might find that a bizarre combination, but it works just fine for me.”
For more information, visit cestarisheep.com.