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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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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.

“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.

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