The Last Load

The Last Load is a pencil etching by Alice Standish Buell, 1939. I love this picture because it shows what a typical summer was like in Vermont in the 1930s on the many small farms in the state. Haying was a big deal after the Fourth of July. The reason for that date was that the grass had matured by then and had partially dried. 

“Last Load,” circa 1938, Vermont, by Alice Standish Buell

 Note the long-handled fork the fellow carries. You can’t buy one of these now even if you tried. The handle length was used so a load of hay could be built while standing on the ground. The hay on the wagon was no doubt cut by using a hand scythe or a cutter bar (called a mowing machine) that the horses also pulled. The dump rake pulled by the wagon in the picture was drawn by a single horse once in the hayfield. The hay was gathered in clumps and once the circular teeth were filled, a lever was pushed by the touch of a foot.

Speaking of dump rakes, young children in the farm family often drove the horse on the rake. In hilly Vermont there were many hayfields with steep slopes, so a child would find it difficult to stay in the seat without sliding forward and landing under the rake when heading downhill. There was at least one case where a young kid slid off the seat and was raked, rolling in the collected hay of the rake. At the bottom of the hill the horse stopped and the young child crawled out, shaken but thankfully otherwise unhurt.

The horses hitched to the load in the picture were the main power on most farms—they were not just animals, but much more. Usually well-trained, workhorses ranked as high or higher than the family’s favorite dog and most were as intelligent. In the picture, the horses know they have to hold that wagon and rake going down that steep hill. And the farmer holding the reins knows that too. Since the picture is of the last load, it tells the viewer that the horses had handled previous loads on that hill and so the beasts were up to the task.  

John’s father mowing with Frank & Maud, circa 1948. We see him clipping the pasture before the weeds go to seed.

Then and Now

Fifty-six years ago in October 1965, Donna and I bought our farm on Putnam Road in East Montpelier. The 207-acre property included the house, barn, a full line of haying and milking equipment, two tractors, and other miscellaneous tools. There were also thirty-two milking cows, eight bred heifers, and six calves. We paid Nelson and Edith Baldwin just over fifty thousand for all of the above. Both parties at the time felt it was a fair price. However, some thought that those young Halls were crazy to have paid such an amount.

At the time there were forty-five dairy farms in town that shipped milk. In the mid-sixties, East Montpelier was a vibrant agricultural community with an infrastructure supporting the farms that included cattle and equipment dealers, large animal veterinarians, and four feed dealers. Our neighbors were nearly all farmers doing the same thing: milking cows twice a day, raising crops, and caring for their cattle.   

Donna and I worked the farm as partners. We came to town with three children and a fourth on the way. Amazingly, that first year we made ends meet, incurring no new debt. The first five years on the farm passed quickly. I served on the school board and later as selectman for six years, after which I was appointed to the planning commission. 

By that time, due to an enduring low milk price, dairy farming had lost its appeal—many of the forty-five farms sold their cows and left the dairy business. Available land was developed, rented, or purchased by larger farms. Jerome Rappaport of Boston also showed a keen interest in owning farms in East Montpelier. He purchased four and wanted the fifth, the Mcknight Farm on Snow Hill, but lost out in a bid for ownership. In short order, Rappaport became the largest owner of developable agriculture land in town, raising the potential for East Montpelier to become an urban bedroom community.

It so happened at that time the planning commission was faced with the task of renewing our town plan. However, we didn’t have a clue as to what folks wanted for their town. We made the effort to find out, writing a questionnaire and sending it to each person on the grand list. 

While many different desires for the future were expressed, one wish prevailed: that our town should remain rural and agricultural. With the results of the questionnaire, a plan of action meeting was held on February 4, 1988. 

This meeting established what was to become the future character of East Montpelier. Various working committees were formed, most notably The Conservation Fund Advisory Committee, the trails committee, and the communication committee resulting in the publication two years later of the Sign Post.

 Statewide, this period also brought about the Vermont Land Trust and The Housing and Conservation Board, providing funds for the ability to purchase development rights. 

Conservation efforts through town funds to leverage various projects have protected a large portion of our working East Montpelier lands—nearly 3000 acres as well as permanent trails have been established. 

Although there are presently only three farms in town shipping milk, we know that in the future our conserved lands will be agriculturally active. Of course, no one knows what type of farming will continue in town. We expect East Montpelier’s rich soils will see a variety of uses. Of course, my family and I hope it will include growing crops for dairy farming. 

Milking time at the Hall farm, 1966

Excerpt from Harmony Hill

July 12, 1941. The days since Clyde had stolen the glass bank were flying by. He had quickly figured out a way to pull the dollar bills through the glass slot without breaking the bank, using a pair of locking obstetrics tweezers he’d borrowed from Doc Small. The surgical tool, with tiny steel teeth, had tremendous gripping power, enabling him to bite into each greenback and pull it with some force through the narrow opening. He emptied the bank of forty-one dollar bills, triumphant that he had done that much for his boy in saving Jubal’s bank. He’d now learned just how long he could stay away from Hayesville. He had never had to manage money so carefully in his whole life.

Convincing Doc Small, a hunched little man with a flushed alcoholic’s face, to let him hitch a ride to Troy had been easy once the doctor realized Clyde held an unusual amount of cash and a nice quantity of booze. Apparently, both items were in short supply amongst the doctor’s usual clients. Doc Small informed him that Hayesville was the exception, however. For the doctor’s services, the priest always slipped him a five in cash, leaving no possible money trail.

The road to Troy was nearly new to Clyde. Years had passed since he’d been on Route 7 heading towards the city. They had ridden past the All Jersey creamery, a fancy milk business specializing in a product from the best Jersey cows in the area. Avery Ketchum shipped to them and got a premium price for his milk. Every day from his drinking chair, Clyde had watched the All Jersey can truck rumble by on the road to Avery’s farm. Of course, the Browns could never qualify, having Ayrshires, and couldn’t have passed the strict inspection required anyway.

During the car trip, Doc had offered to rent Clyde a room on the third floor of his Victorian home located on Third Street in Troy, not far from the Hudson River. Clyde had gladly accepted. But upon arrival, he discovered Doc’s boarding house was shabby and in the run-down part of town. 

Doc Small’s office was on the first floor and half the downstairs was taken up by a waiting room. Evening office hours were from six to nine, so when Clyde went upstairs to his room, he could see through the double doors an assembly of patients, mostly women, waiting their turn. Their pay for Doc’s services included an array of food items: a pie, a dozen eggs, a peck of potatoes, and a frosted cake. One girl with long, greasy hair held what looked like change she’d put together for her visit bunched up in the toe of a sock.

Doc had introduced him to his assistant and house matron, Bessie Black. Bessie ran the remainder of the building as a boarding house, serving two meals a day. She informed Clyde that his room, including breakfast and supper, would cost six dollars a week. Upon entering, he saw that the room was completely furnished and included an RCA Victor Victrola and radio. Each day, Clyde was delighted to be able to catch up on his baseball and the national news from WGY. The world news continued to stream events that were not good.

 Soviet Union: The German advance continues as tanks roll towards Smolensk after crossing the Dnieper River. 

Clyde thought about how he sat in his room drinking Jim Beam while some poor bastards were trying to fight off the Germans. He shut off the news to listen to the only phonograph record, Handel’s Messiah, that someone had left behind. 

He placed the record on the turntable and swung the needle arm into place. The music was unfamiliar, but he gave it a listen so as to forget the current state of affairs. He sat back in his chair while the high-class orchestra music relaxed him, even filling him with joy. Soon, though, it was obvious that the record had been damaged. Not far into the recording, a deep male voice began repeating over and over: the crooked straight and the rough places plain . . . the crooked straight and the rough places plain . . . the crooked straight and the rough places plain. His joy evaporated with the music sending him into a sour mood. He wondered if the same mystical force at work when he stole the bank was now blaring a message for his benefit, telling him that he must somehow make his crooked ways straight. How could he ever redeem himself, a drunk and a crook? He couldn’t see a way to become a straight and honest man.

Besides, he had deeper worries. He was running out of money, in less than a week, with the forty-one dollars disappearing much sooner than thought. After evening calling hours, Doc had been visiting his room and the two had been finishing off a pint of Lady Lamont’s Jim Beam, a fact that Clyde found hard to accept. After all, he was far from well-heeled.