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Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave

Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave
13 votes, 4.23 avg. rating (84% score)

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.

Please Note: This article 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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2 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.

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