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.