Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave
Emerson “just aged terribly after that,” Joan said. “You could almost see his hair turn white.” Rosemary agreed: “You did see it in his eyes.”
No one in town had ever seen anything like the huge earth-moving machines that were building the highway. They could be heard wherever you went. In the summer heat, in the grip of a long drought, windows were shut against the dirt drifting everywhere.
The town had just lived through another huge project. A few years before the Interstate arrived, the Army Corp of Engineers had built a large flood-control dam and reservoir, submerging for all time Lower Perkinsville. When they put the reservoir in, they took six farms, four covered bridges, and 40 houses.
Spaulding didn’t understand Romaine’s decision at the time of the fire–he was only 24–but as he grew older, he saw that this had been “a traumatic time [for the area] … It seemed to be upheaval there for four or five years, with jobs, the Interstate, the dam. What in the heck [was] going on here?”
When Romaine killed himself, some neighbors and friends felt guilty that he’d been left alone to fight for his land; others were angry with the state for not finding a way to accommodate him. “You can’t treat all old men the same,” Deputy Sheriff Gale noted. “They don’t make old men like machines. Each old man is different. You can’t just move him out like you would a younger man. They didn’t have to do it. Think of it: Here’s a highway that’s costing a million dollars a mile, and they can’t find the money to take care of an old man.”
The construction crew and highway officials were shaken. They respected Romaine’s stubborn stand, even as he was in their way. “He was a damned good old man,” the construction superintendent said. The workers “[went] about it as if they didn’t really want to anymore,” said one news report. “Do you think we wanted this?” said a state highway official. “I’m sick about it.” And yet no state official ever called on the Tenneys to offer condolences.
Tim Murphy, a deputy sheriff in Ascutney, was 74 that summer. He had known Romaine since Romaine was a boy, and he had seen his town changing. “It’s like chess, this progress thing,” Murphy said. “It gets so you don’t run the game anymore. It runs you–or over you.”
The suicide of the old Yankee farmer was national news, picked up by papers from New York to Los Angeles. Romaine rapidly became a symbol: the stubborn Yankee, the farmer who wouldn’t be bought, the man who chose his own death. He personified Vermont. He became the man who stood up against Progress, a lone dissenter against the rush to build 43,000 miles of Interstate across the U.S. The Tenneys got letters from all over the country, from every state. “Lengthy letters, short letters, condolences,” Rosemary said. “Oh my goodness. Yes, hundreds of letters.”
Shortly after the fire, the big machines covered over the cellar hole, dumped thousands of yards of fill to raise the road level, and finished laying out Exit 8 through the blasted rock to meet a rerouted state road. The old farm was cut up and buried. To figure out where it once was, you have to use the construction plans like a treasure map. On the plans, Romaine’s house, sheds, and horse barn trail out like geese trying to cross the road, heading from the proposed southbound lanes and grass median toward an on-ramp. His cow barn sits a couple hundred feet on, square across the southbound lanes.
A couple of parcels remain. The Tenney family owns about 25 acres that the highway missed, and there are two maples. One of them is marked on another plan for a recent improvement of the Park & Ride lot by Exit 8: “Existing 36-inch Tenney farm maple.”
In the years since, Romaine’s death has become an iconic tale. There’s a song (“The Ballad of Romaine Tenney”); his story is told in the Vermont Book of Days and the Rutland Herald/Times Argus‘ “20 in 20,” a roundup of Vermont’s “top 20 stories of the 20th century.” In a way, Joan and Rolly were right: Romaine is still here. His farm is gone, but his spirit won’t leave people alone.
Romaine’s story stands as a regret. Romaine stands as the lost and the last; he’s the lost authentic life, the unrecoverable past. He’s as vanished as the road under our wheels at 65mph. We know that “all is change”–yet we don’t know that. It’s the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. We want Romaine to be there on his farm forever. He is the Vermont we want to believe in. As his niece Gerri wrote, “He not only … represented what Vermont stood for, but also unwittingly took so many of us to task to do the same.” We want the old life, accessible, and we want the new things. Why do we have to give up one for the other? Regret is the literature of progress.
Romaine’s nephews and nieces–the living generation of witnesses to his life–will tell you that he wasn’t a protester. He never waved his pitchfork or shook his fist in anger. He wasn’t an agitator, or even someone who wrote letters to the editor. Romaine was a farmer minding his own business when the world came to his door. In that way, he’s like most of us. History comes and finds us. A terrorist’s bomb announces his grievances and kills people we love. Our government says we have to fight a war in a distant country, and our son or daughter dies there, thousands of miles from home. Or a factory closes and we lose our job and our home. As Americans, we think that we’re masters of our fate, until the truth humbles us. The Interstate was built to speed us along, built to leave things behind, but you can’t outrun history.
Romaine Tenney had the misfortune of living right in the path of the largest peacetime construction project in U.S. history. In fact, the surveyors laying out the highway sited the peak of his barn and aimed I-91 right at it. Any of us can end up in the crosshairs of some surveyor, some big project in the public interest, our house sliced in two by the dotted line on a plan. Romaine may belong more to our future than our past. Look at the scale of the projects now facing small towns and rural places: cell-phone towers and windmills; power lines, gas lines, road widenings; tank farms, runway extensions. The scale of these developments, unimaginable just a decade ago, overpowers the old houses and towns we love. All the easy places have already been built up. We’re all in the way of something, and we’re all as married to our routines as a bachelor farmer. As the New York Journal-American wrote just one week after the fire, “One has the fleeting suspicion that … there may just be a little of Romaine Tenney in each of us, too.”
The loss of this one farm nearly 50 years ago should be a distant event, but the story seems to come at us head on. One online story catches its immediacy. The writer mistakenly called eminent domain imminent domain–but that’s exactly right: imminent, meaning impending, threatening, “in imminent danger of being run over.” It captures the way the state suddenly appears on the horizon and bears down on you, and only then do you discover that your little ship–the Pursuit of Happiness–is just a rowboat. By calling it “imminent” domain, the writer caught the mismatch and how the act of taking is completed at the moment of its announcement. It’s like being told you have cancer: You’re now imprisoned in a story you did not choose.