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Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave

“They were coming from the north,” Rod recalled. “And it was toward the end of the day, and people were ready to call it a day and go home. The guy in charge said, ‘We’ll get just one more site. We’ll just shoot it on that barn down there,'” picking out Romaine’s cow barn. “And that’s how the Interstate highway ended up going right through the middle of the property. If it had gone five degrees one way or the other, you know, things would have been very different. But highways have to go somewhere.”

By 1964, the Tenney farm had seen better days. “The barn and parts of the house were just coming down around him. He wasn’t a carpenter at all,” said another nephew, Ron Tenney. The woodshed toward the end of the ell was falling in, and the porch was gone. Tourists who liked their Vermont picture perfect would ask his neighbors why someone didn’t buy that house and fix it up.

Romaine lived in the ell, which had a large kitchen with a wood-fired cookstove, a soapstone sink, and waist-high piles of newspapers and magazines–agricultural journals, National Geographic–and a transistor radio by any chair he might sit in. He cooked simple meals, things like oatmeal, biscuits, or beans. He didn’t have a garden, except for a large rhubarb patch. On hot days when he was haying, he drank switchel, a homemade mix of ginger, vinegar, water, and molasses or maple syrup. He slept in a room upstairs over the kitchen. He followed his own routine; he didn’t change his clocks for Daylight Saving Time. Why bother? The cows didn’t know the difference.

He never went into the main house, which sat just as it had been 40 years earlier, a dusty museum with lace tablecloths, curtains, kerosene lamps, portraits, sepia-toned family photos, mirrors, and an old organ–all sitting in the dark because there was no electric light, and the big maples shaded out the sun. No one ever entered the house, except when his nieces and nephews would sneak in, and just once when he invited his neighbors Rolly and Lois. “He showed us his mother’s dresses still hanging in the closet. He never wanted to give them away or anything,” Rolly said. “He hung onto his earlier life.”

Romaine’s dairy operation was in decline. Small dairy farms like his were closing in record numbers. The creameries were no longer picking up milk cans; they required bulk tanks, a setup too expensive to be supported by the average herd, which at the time was just 17 cows. All across Vermont, families had to face the end of their dairy farms. In the 10 years after the first bulk tanks in 1953, one-third of the state’s dairy farms closed.

Romaine did attempt to modernize. He had some arthritis in his hands, so a neighbor helped him install electricity in the barn for milking machines. But Romaine didn’t like the machines and soon went back to milking by hand. He also hired hay balers, who came with their machines; before that he had stacked the hay loose in the barn.

The highway was pressing in. He was supposed to be out by April 1, 1964, but he didn’t move. Romaine’s old house and barns were an island in the midst of piles of dirt and boulders. By June the crew was dynamiting within 100 yards of the house. Rocks from one blast had gone through a wall. They leveled the rolling meadows, removing 100,000 cubic yards of earth on both sides of the house. Bulldozers crossed the front yard; the diamond-pane windows were covered in dirt.

Neighbors pleaded with Romaine to auction his antiques and buy a trailer to live in. They’d look after him. They offered him a room and a barn for his animals. They offered to raise money around town for a new house. Romaine refused; he’d take care of himself.

The Tenney family looked into moving the old brick house, but a construction company told them it couldn’t be done. And anyway, it wasn’t the house alone that Romaine cared about–it was the farm, too. The state offered $10,600 for the land and buildings, and then a jury increased the offer to $13,600. Romaine owned the farm with his eight siblings and his mother’s estate; that amount would be split 10 ways. But it didn’t matter. He wasn’t leaving his land, he said repeatedly. He’d been away only once, for military service.

Under eminent domain, the government has the power to take private property for public use without the owner’s consent. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the owner must receive “just compensation,” which has usually been defined as market value. But you couldn’t put a market value on Romaine’s love for his land.

On the afternoon of Friday, September 11, one week after Romaine Tenney’s 64th birthday, Sheriff Melvin Moore and his deputies arrived with a court order. They emptied the horse barn and the sheds of tools, plows, harnesses, wagons. The men “moved gingerly,” one report noted, looking at Romaine, who watched from a side porch for a few minutes before going inside. They stacked it all in two piles under a big elm on the hillside: including the beautiful old bridles with a gold T on the blinders that he took pride in, and an old sleigh. “He loved that sleigh. He used to spend hours polishing it, painting it,” said Emerson’s wife, Peggy.

The first call came in at 2:50 a.m. on Saturday, September 12. The alarm could be heard for two miles; the night sky glowed orange. Romaine’s house, sheds, and barns were blazing. The cow barn across the road was on fire, as were the two piles of harnesses and tools.

Rod Spaulding was one of the first of 30 volunteer firemen on the scene. The whole ell, where Romaine lived, was burning. Spaulding and the fire chief tried to enter the house. The front door was spiked shut. They knocked the door down. Romaine’s dog Spot charged in after them. But a few feet inside there was another door–the one that lead to where Romaine slept–and it was either nailed shut or blocked.

“We just couldn’t go any farther,” Spaulding said. “At the time, we didn’t have any breathing apparatus. That entryway, the hall, was all filling up with smoke. There’s nothing more we could have done. The fire was crackling and setting to burn overhead. Just too far gone.” The fire chief ordered everyone out, knowing the worst: that Romaine was in there. They had to hold Spot back.

Sometime after midnight, Romaine had let his horses and cows free and set the barns on fire. Neighbors believed that he had timed the fire so that no one would see it. The local machine-tool companies were between shifts; no one was on the road. He put his beloved dogs outside, barricaded himself in the house, and set it on fire. Then, probably, he shot himself.

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.

Updated Sunday, March 31st, 2013

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8 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.

  7. Brandon Tenney Sr October 24, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Just wanted to say that that was a great article and as a relative I am always around I love that land its peacefulness and beauty yes alot has changed but I still love it here

  8. wayne johnson May 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm #

    I remember Mr. Tenny well as well as the dreadful day his house burned. And don’t care what is said today. I still believe it was foul play. He was a good friend of my grandfather whose land was also cut in half we lived just up the road from him and often stopped to chat or take him over town to buy his grocery’s

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