Sometime during World War II, my grandfather bought an old Vermont hill farm in the town of Washington. The farm was typical of the farms in this part of Vermont, mostly hills, small fields, a couple of apple orchards, and lots of woods, about 600 acres all together. There were a couple of small barns, an ice house, a spring fed water tub for the dairy cows, a farm house with an attached woodshed, and a small pond that was used to cut ice in the winter. The ice was packed in sawdust to keep over the year, and used to chill the milk cans kept in a small milk house waiting for the creamery truck to pick them up every day.
This farm was like so many all over Vermont. It had all it needed to support a family and make a living right there. They needed to work hard and watch their pennies, but this is what Vermonters have always done. Their world was right there and met them every day through the four seasons. They kept a few cows, and sold some milk in cans to the local creamery, heated their house and cooked with wood cut and split right there, logged a little in the woods, sugared in the early spring, picked apples in the fall, and probably raised most of their food right there. It was a simple life, full of hard work, and full of satisfaction too.
After my grandfather bought the farm, we never farmed it. The farm was a summer home for us, and the best place on earth for me. I roamed the woods, learned about all the wildlife we shared the farm with, fished the brooks and pond, and when I was older, hunted deer there with my dad.
The house was heated with a big central fireplace with heatilator vents built into the brickwork. You could go over to the farm in the middle of a Vermont winter, open up the house, and get a fire going that would bring the house up to a comfortable temp in a couple of hours.
I learned to split wood out in the wood shed attached to the house. My father taught me how to use an ax to split wood, how to read the grain of the wood, work around the knots, and how to use your wrists and give a little wrinkle with your wrists just when the ax hits the block of wood. Wood splitting is about rhythm, reading the grain, and a good swing, not trying to bull your way through a block of wood with your back doing all the work. I loved the time spent splitting wood out in that wood shed – I always thought of it as thinking time – time to be alone with your thoughts.
We always had some old dead elm cut up and waiting to be split. My dad would have me split up a block or two of the elm just to teach me patience. Elm is wiry and its grain is not straight and goes every which way. It is always a puzzle for the man swinging the ax, but it is a puzzle that can be solved.
The floor of the wood shed was littered with wood chips and pieces of bark. You sank in a little when you walked around. On one end of the wood shed, there was a privy – an outhouse. This one was a two seater. I always wondered about that – did folks use it together sometimes, or what? Well, I still don’t know the answer to that question.
One night, I was splitting wood out in the wood shed and I must have disturbed a mother mouse. She had a whole bunch of babies clinging to her and she was trying to get from one side of the wood shed to the other with all her babies and having to navigate the floor deep with wood chips. I sat down on the chopping block and watched her make her way. I can still see this picture in my mind.
In the kitchen, there was a combination wood and electric stove. On one side of the stove, you could build a wood fire to cook with and on the other side there were two electric burners. The wood stove part took up some of the space that would have made the oven bigger. You needed to cut small wood for the cook stove part. We did not use it much, but it did add some heat to the kitchen.
This farm was from a different time, a time that is hard to imagine today. In many ways, it was a time I am more suited for than the time we live in. It was not a time of machines, but mostly of doing for yourself, and doing it with your hands. It was a time when muscles did most of the work, people learned to be good with hand tools and do fine work, and take care of themselves and each other.
I’ll share more about the farm in my writing to come. Like I said, it was a special place for me.