Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave
It was an extremely hot fire, so hot that it melted the plastic light on top of the fire chief’s car, which was parked about 80 feet away. “With our little engine with only 100 gallons of water on it, we couldn’t do a thing,” Spaulding recalled. The nearby town of Windsor had also sent 10 men and an engine, but it was no use. The firemen rounded up the cows and spent a half-hour reviving one calf. Neighbors would take the cows and Spot; Romaine’s niece Rosemary would take his other dog, Prince.
Almost 50 years later, that night still upsets Spaulding: “It’s a terrible, helpless feeling. Been through it a couple of times. It’s just terribly hopeless. You go because that’s what we do, and you get there and there’s nothing you can do.”
On the solemn morning after, Romaine’s family stood by the smoldering ruins with hundreds of others. They had been there all night. “‘This can’t be true. This can’t be true,'” Rosemary recalled thinking. “I didn’t know where the animals were. I didn’t know where he was. It was just a total, total loss. And this beautiful farm and this beautiful man and those animals loved him as much he loved them. And it was gone. All over a ridiculous highway–which could have, and should have, taken a big old turn.”
She had seen Romaine just hours before, around midnight. She and her sister, Joan Newcity, and her brother Ron had gone over to the farm with her father to move some of his things to their house. They thought he was going to move in with them. Romaine and her father always took a long time to part, chatting by the car. “That night Romaine cried,” Rosemary recalled. “I remember him saying, ‘I didn’t even milk the cows today.’ He was very emotional.”
“Don’t worry,” Emerson had told him. “We’ll fix you up. There’s got to be some way out of this.”
The firemen searched the woods for Romaine all night and the next day, hoping that he was “sitting up in the back somewhere,” having a good laugh. Rolly and Lois also thought he might be hiding. They put food out in the woods: “We hiked all over the area, calling his name and telling him that there was food and where it was.”
Joan kept seeing Romaine in her dreams. She would dream that he was hiding in a small cavelike space among the ledges up behind the house, where they used to play: “We used to crawl in. In my dreams he was in there, hiding. I always used to think that.”
“For the longest time,” Rosemary said, “we all just expected him to come out of the woods.”
He had said that he was going to burn down his farm. “I was born here and I will die here,” Romaine had said. When his closest neighbor heard the fire siren, she knew: “He has done what he said he was going to do.” Rolly had offered him big boxes to pack his things to move. Rolly was on the school board, and they had just gotten a shipment of new desks that had come in big cardboard cartons. “Well, yeah,” Romaine said slowly after a minute, “and if I don’t use them for that, they burn well.”
He had said goodbye many times, but no one had really believed him. “Toward the end, you’d ask him how he was when you saw him, and he’d say, ‘Living now, but I won’t be living long.’ But it was hard to know if he meant it,” said Deputy Sheriff Gale, who’d known him well. “One minute he spoke like that, and the next he’d be joking and laughing.”
On Friday night, in his last hours, Romaine had visited one of his sisters, Lena Simpson, in Claremont. “You won’t be seeing me anymore,” he’d told her. He’d said the same thing a month earlier to Emerson’s oldest son. Rod had gone off to college and the Army. He was home on leave in August, and he went to see Romaine with his father: “His closing comment was: ‘This will be the last that I see you.’ At that time I said, ‘Oh no, I’ll be back, in six months or so, and I’ll see you then.’ But it was the last time I did see him.”
“Maybe none of us knew him as much as we thought we did,” Spaulding said. “We didn’t know just how he felt about progress.” It was like watching someone drown close to shore.
All weekend, thousands of people drove out to the farm. They stood silently, staring at the smoking ruins, and then drifted away. The state fire marshal arrived on Sunday. Spaulding and a few others worked in the cellar hole all day, carefully moving bricks. Emerson sat nearby on a brick wall, chain-smoking. The fire marshal would pull some bit out of the rubble and hold it up to Emerson, asking, “Know it?” Then he’d return to the grim task.
“In the afternoon we came across an iron bed with a rifle that had been fired, and underneath the iron bed we found some bones,” Spaulding said. They wrapped the blackened bones in brown paper and put them in a metal box, to be sent to the state pathologist.
“How do you know why he would do such a thing?” Emerson said in answer to a reporter’s question. “Pride,” he said. “Progress.” That was the collision.