Poore Family Farm | Here in New England
“Can I interrupt you guys?” he says. His voice fairly trembles with excitement. “I don’t know who you are. I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I’m on my honeymoon, and I’ve just spent the last hour here. And it’s unbelievable, fascinating. Without a doubt, this should be preserved with every ounce of effort. You have to sell the rights to HBO and they’ll make a series. All the stories here!”
His name is Chris Lisowski. He tells us he’s 35, a high-school art teacher and artist in the Pittsburgh area with hopes of one day teaching kids how to renovate old houses. He and his wife have been biking in Vermont and are now taking the North Country route to Maine. They saw the sign and pulled in. I ask what has him so excited. “You’ll see it,” he says. “It’s a step back in time. It’s a hoarder’s dream. Everything in there is history.” He’s quiet for a moment, trying, it seems, to contain himself. “The letters–I just sat there reading the letters. You can’t stop looking at stuff!”
Hours later, as I drove away, after I’d walked through the house, the barns, the sheds; walked through the fields and woods down to the stream; read the letters and heard the story of Kenneth Poore and the young people he embraced and who embraced him, and the promise they made, I thought that there may not be any other place like this anywhere. This is history peeled back, stripped of ceremony, as if the spirits of those who lived here still hover. If only the teacher from Pittsburgh had known how all this had come to be, all that he’d seen and touched. How excited would he have been then?
In one sense, the story begins with Moses Heath, “a Paul Bunyan-like character, ” Mark says. Heath cleared the land and built the first structures in the early 1820s, until he sold the farm to Job Poore in 1832, who left it to his son, John Calvin Poore, Kenneth’s father, who, when he died in 1918, left it to Kenneth. “They were not rich people,” Mark says as we walk to the farmhouse. “The rich people had the bottomland, the riverland. These are the hill people. This was the far north. They came because they could homestead.”
I could continue with who begat whom and how the branches spread, but those stories could once be told about any of hundreds of old farms where people were born and died under the same roof. Most of those farms are gone now, the stories all but lost, while this one still stands, so that’s why this story begins on a spring day in 1974.
“I’m renting a house around the corner [from the Poore Farm],” Mark says. “I was a back-to-the-lander, escaping my upbringing. Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had an old station wagon. I was driving by, and I see this old man shuffling up the road, tattered overalls, old hat. He was walking up from the cemetery with clippers in his hand. I soon learned that he was paid 50 cents each time he cleared around the headstones. I’m thinking I could give this old guy a ride. So I pull over. And I look out at this old, wizened face, and I look up to these blue sparkling eyes. He’s nearly 90, and he has the eyes of a 5-year-old. And before I can say anything, he says, ‘I guess you’re looking for me.’ I said, ‘Do you want a ride?’ ‘No, I live right there,’ he says. I said, ‘I live around the corner.’ He goes, ‘Oh, I heard there was a hippie in the neighborhood.’
“There were 64 years between us. But he was totally different from my grandfathers. They were from Russia, the old country. One was a very religious Hasidic Jew. The other never spoke to me. So I started going over [to Kenneth’s]. I’d go into the house, and he was living now in one room. His housekeeper, Alfa, really the love of his life, had died 10 years before. You ever been with somebody you don’t know that well and the silence is okay? It was fine with us. I’d come down and pitch hay or give him a ride to town. We got friendly. He was a true American Victorian. If he was working in the garden and a woman stopped by, he’d take off his old battered hat. Always polite. No teeth. Hard to understand him sometimes.”
Rick Johnsen moved north from the city too, not long after, along with all the other young people who came looking for a sense of belonging in the ’70s, who found one another and found in Kenneth Poore a touchstone. A man whose life was as straight as the blade of his axe: He woke early, worked hard for little money. He sold butter, cut wood, set traps in the freezing streams, traded with neighbors, dabbled in taxidermy: a little of everything, enough to keep going, enough to pay the taxes. There was food from the gardens and animals and the woods and waters. He read anything he could get from the town’s tiny library. He wore frugality like a skin. He told stories of his father’s Civil War and the day his father came back from Colebrook in his horse and buggy, carrying the news that Sitting Bull was dead.
“He loved people,” Mark says. “He never married, never had children, and he loved this renaissance of people who came up from the cities. People were interested in the old skills, and Kenneth had lived those skills. He became a kind of celebrity to us. We took him to parties and came to the farm for parties. We took him to movie nights. We celebrated his birthday with him on July 5 every year.”