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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.

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