Eminent Domain in Ascutney, Vermont | I Will Not Leave
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.
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.”