Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave
In the summer of 1964, Romaine Tenney was a bachelor farmer. He milked 25 cows by hand on his farm in Ascutney, Vermont. He had no electricity in his house, used no gas-powered machinery. He cut his firewood with an axe and a saw; cut his hay with workhorses. He didn’t own a tractor or drive a car. When he went to the nearby big town of Claremont, across the river in New Hampshire, he’d walk the six miles–except that he probably never walked all the way. People always picked him up. Everyone knew Romaine. With his long beard, felt hat, and overalls, he was a familiar sight. Romaine enjoyed visiting on these rides, and all his neighbors liked him. His farm was right on the major road between Ascutney and Claremont; the road hugged his cow barn, and neighbors would often stop to chat. He rose late and worked late into the night. “You could drive by at midnight and there he would be in his barn, fixing some harnesses or just puttering about,” said Deputy Sheriff Robert Gale. It was as if Romaine held the office of Bachelor Farmer in town.
Romaine’s house, trimmed under the eaves with Gothic-style gingerbread, stood behind a row of majestic maples. Tourists loved to take pictures of the house, and he’d sometimes pose for them. If they wanted a true, old-time Yankee, he’d oblige them. He was the real thing, happy to play the part for a moment, sending a tourist on his way with his prize catch: Look at this old farmer I found in Vermont. Milks his cows by hand. No electricity, no car, no tractor. Romaine Tenney was the Vermont they wanted to find.
Romaine looked good in every picture. “What I remember are his beautiful blue eyes and his eternal smile,” said his niece, Rosemary Safford. “He was always smiling.” And that’s what everyone said. “He had a wonderful twinkle in his eye,” said his neighbor, Rolly Cann. Romaine was born on the farm and spent his life there. He loved his family: his many brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. He loved his animals. He was a happy man–until his farm was destroyed to build Interstate 91.
Vermont’s first six miles of Interstate highway, a section of I-91, opened in 1958. It ran from the Massachusetts border to just south of Brattleboro, and drivers marveled at what we now take for granted: It was straight and smooth. It was the shape of things to come, and they couldn’t wait. When a new section of I-89 opened up near Montpelier in 1960, 300 cars lined up to drive the six miles to Middlesex. The Interstate was more than just another road; it was a belief in progress. The highway would rescue Vermont–take the state “out of the sticks” and put it “right in the economic mainstream of the country,” said Elbert Moulton, the state’s economic development chief under four governors.
“The Interstate was seen [as] the answer to many, if not most, of Vermont’s problems,” said Paul Guare, executive secretary of the state Transportation Board at the time. “It was universally applauded.” When the government condemned houses and farms in the way, filled wetlands, and leveled hills, “people were mostly happy to settle with the state.” Progress as a religion permitted everything. It was the gravity of America; it was the force that held everything in its course.
Dedicating a new section of I-91 in 1961, Senator George Aiken said, “We’re on the verge of the greatest development Vermont has ever seen.” That section of highway had buried the senator’s boyhood home.
Romaine Tenney’s farm was 90 acres of good pasture and woods, with a southern exposure and plenty of water. There was a spring up the hillside that almost never went dry, a brook, and a hand pump in the kitchen sink. The fields were good for three hay crops a year. There was an orchard and a 10-acre woodlot. In the farm’s prime, in the 1950s, Romaine milked 50 or 60 cows and had about 100 head of livestock total. He kept two teams of workhorses and a couple of dogs to bring the cows home.
Romaine’s father had bought the property in April 1892. The following January, Myron and Rosa Tenney came over Mendon Peak in a wagon with all they owned in a trunk or two, so the family story goes. He was 45 and she was 25. The house had been built around 1843. The family who sold it to the Tenneys had dressed up the home and the barns in the latest fashion, Gothic Revival, giving the house leaded windows in a diamond-pane pattern, gingerbread trim, two false dormers, and a big porch. The Tenneys liked to sit out on the flat porch roof to enjoy the long view down the Connecticut River Valley. “It was a real showplace when my people came there,” recalled Ruth Tuttle, their oldest child. “My father was very proud of the big meadow beside the house, and he used to sing and whistle as he worked there.”
Myron and Rosa had nine children. Romaine was their fourth, born in 1900. His father died when he was 14, leaving his mother alone to raise the large family and run the farm. At times all they ate was oatmeal. All the children, except for Romaine, left the farm. He lived there with his mother until her last years, when she moved in with a daughter nearby.
Romaine was closest to his brothers Myron and particularly Emerson, who was the youngest and lived in Claremont. Emerson saw Romaine all the time, picked him up for Thanksgiving dinner, and brought his children by to play and work on the farm. They loved it; it was a thrill. “I remember all of us piling into the car and just so excited,” Rosemary said. “I remember stretching my neck, and I could see the train trestle, and I knew we were almost there. And then the big metal bridge that crossed the river. You’d look down–the floor of the bridge had holes in it, so you could see the water–and then you knew the farm was right up there. And then the beautiful trees with the house just nestled in. And we were there. And I think perhaps before Daddy even got the car in park, those back doors were open, and we were gone.
“When we got there, Daddy would say, ‘Don’t go near the horses.’ We always rode the horses.” They rode them through the fields for hours, ran barefoot all over, played in the barn, drank from the cows’ trough, rolled down the hills. “Can you imagine four or five little kids running in and out of the barn, in the house, and up the fields?” Rosemary asked. “And he’s just smiling. We’d run by and he’d squirt the milk toward us … I can remember running behind the hay wagon, and thinking we were really helping. It took two of us to lift a bale of hay. We’d pick it up and drop it, and pick it up and drop it, but they were so patient. They were all very kind, gentle people–all the brothers and sisters.”
Her sister, Gerri Dickerson, remembers her uncle cutting the tall grass by the house. “His broad shoulders swung in harmony with the scythe,” she wrote. “The muscles in his forearms moved like liquid in a repetitive pattern. It was difficult to tell whether it was the man or the tool that led and controlled the motion. This exercise would have me spellbound. Watching and listening would soothe me as I sat in the soft swath of grass left by Uncle Romaine’s rhythm.”
Thinking of those days, Gerri said she could still smell the freshly cut grass and hear the “swishing cadence of the scythe … I am brought back to a safe and happy childhood. It is not just an image of Uncle Romaine; it is as well an image of Vermont.”
The new highway was inserting itself into that image of Vermont. Rod Tenney, the oldest of Emerson’s children, had worked on the farm for several summers. He had a friend who was on the crew surveying the route for the highway down the valley.
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