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Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave

Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave
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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.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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6 Responses to Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave

  1. Carl Rachel September 6, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

    This story about Romaine Tenney’s stand against the State of Vermont is a masterpiece of writing. As a writer, myself, I know the challenges. Howard sculpted a perfect aura for a personality that stands tall in the legends that Vermont has to offer.

    Just last month, I made a spontaneous trip to Vermont for a few days. One of the main reasons was to visit Exit 8, I-91 South. It was early afternoon when I arrived at the Park & Ride lot that now stands quite indifferently on what was sacred ground. Sacred to a man who knew the value and blessing of that very spot.

    As I walked the perimeter of that bland commuter lot, southbounders on I-91 roared by in ceaseless drone, unaware, most of them, that they were flying across precious history.

    I spotted what I’m quite sure is that lone standing remnant that Howard mentions: The 36-inch Tenney Maple. It was there that I spent an hour in meditative trip back. And, yes, and takes very little in such a state of mind to detect the spirit of one of Nature’s own patriots. Romaine is still very much there. And I am happy about that.

    As I left, I turned around and picked up a piece of aged bark that had fallen from that massive, elegant maple, along with a few small branches, and a glittering piece of what likely was a ledge stone that Romaine walked by, daily. They are here on the desk as I write this. Romaine lives. As we all do when our passion lifts our spirits to a level only truth admits.

  2. Sharon Heitz September 16, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

    What a wonderful story of Romaine Tenney. The end of his life was sorrowful but all the years before he spent doing what he loved best.
    I was 13 years old when Mr. Tenney died. He was my neighbor. He gave me lifetime memories of sliding and skiing on his hill in the winter and I learned to skate on the ice ponds. In the summer my friends and I hiked his hills and had picnics with beautiful views. He was so generous to all of us.
    I truly regret that I never told him thank you and that he was such a big part of my childhood.

  3. Debra Harris March 10, 2015 at 8:28 am #

    The story of Romaine Tenney pulled at my heart strings for soo many reason’s. I too have wonderful childhood memories of summer’s spent on the ole family homestead (W. Rutland) running up & down hills, feeling the cool grass beneath our bare feet, the animals that came to feed at night, the fresh veggies out of the garden, the family reunion in ’75. But, unlike Romaine Tenney, my family homestead in still in our family, and my cousins now live in the house where my great grandparents lived when they migrated from Poland. A home that once had no electricity….no running water (my mother now owns the old pump from the kitchen) a home that had a two seater out house (we were high class) and when I took my children there when they were little, it made my mother’s heart sing w/joy to see them run ‘n play and enjoying the same adventures & discoveries I once did as a child. Soo, my heart breaks for Romaine Tenney, I totally understand his love of the land, and his desire to continue to live the simple life till he died a natural death. I know progress is necessary, but at what cost? This is a wonderful story, and one that needs to told over ‘n over least we forget the joy of a simpler life, and the love one man had for his home, the land and his animals. On my next trip “home” (I currently reside in Fl) I will be going by Exit 8 on I-91 S (never did I know this when traveling there before) and I will stop to pay homage to a genteel man and a gentler time now long gone……God Bless Romaine Tenney and his family.

  4. Jeannette Shields March 10, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

    WOW! No words, just WOW. What an amazing article. It really puts life into perspective: hold tight to what you love and believe in, no matter what.
    Thank you for putting this on Facebook so I could read it.

  5. Mary Coughlan March 10, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

    When I was young we used to go to Vermont in the summer. I remember it used to take us 8 hours before the highway was built and it was all country roads from White River Junction. I remember seeing a working farm near a road, a boy and an older man working around a barn. A few years later, the highway went forward, but you still had to get off and the farm was still there. The next year, the farm had disappeared, and we zoomed right through. I remember thinking about the boy and the man who used to farm on that very spot, and wondered where they were, what happened to them. It was so sad. We saved a couple of hours on our trip but the real treasure of a Vermont life and landscape was compromised. I’m pretty sure it was exit 8 on 91. God bless Mr. Tenney……..

  6. Roger Winnicki March 12, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    In so many ways the similar painful episodes play out currently in a large monetary concept gobbling up the lives of wonderful people, their lives and our history. Difficulty in owning land , loving time on it and the beautiful simple things it provides keeps slipping away as the article indicates. It struck home as I am certain it did with many.Mr. Tenney was not only a Vermonter, he was an American with character, strength and determination.A man many of us would like to have known.

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