Poore Family Farm | Here in New England
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.”
“We wanted to get back to the land,” Rick adds, “but Kenneth was already there. He’d never left it.” Once Kenneth told them, “I don’t know about this country, but with you young people maybe there’s hope.”
We enter the house gingerly. With the help of volunteers, young and old, they’ve strengthened it, bolstered it, put in electricity so that visitors can see better, but its hard life shows. We go to the bedroom where Kenneth slept on a straw-mattress rope bed; into another bedroom with women’s clothes hanging from a line, all pressed as if waiting for someone to slip into them; into a parlor; and slide our way into the kitchen, which looks as if Kenneth has just left on an errand. In a corner hangs a calendar from 1953.
“He had the same breakfast every day,” Mark says. “He had overalls on, he had his longjohns on. I don’t care if it was July or January, he wore the same clothes. He’d start a fire in the woodstove. He’d boil potatoes in the pot. He’d put coffee on. He’d fry some bacon. He’d take the bacon out, then fry the potatoes in the bacon grease. And he’d put the bacon back in and crack an egg in there. He’d eat all that for breakfast. Then he’d eat a doughnut with a piece of cheese and a second cup of coffee. He’d do that 365 days a year.”
They warn me to watch my head as they lead me upstairs to a room that looks out to the garden. In 1975, when Kenneth Poore took a fall and could no longer care for himself on the isolated farm, Mark moved into this room. He tapped maple trees, pumped water, shaved Kenneth, shared his table. “I was a mystery to my father,” Mark admits. “He couldn’t understand what I was doing here.”
In 1979, when Kenneth was 94, he told his friends of his vision and his hope. His vision was that somehow the homestead could be preserved after he died. With a lawyer’s help, he formed the Poore Family Foundation for North Country Conservancy. When he died, the land and the buildings and all the things they held would go to the foundation. But a foundation is merely a name on paper. His hope was that his young friends would be the ones to keep it alive. Mark said he would. Rick said he would. Others said they would. On a summer day in 1983, Kenneth Poore suffered a heart attack, lingered a few months, and then died in October.
He was buried in a plain wooden box in the cemetery whose stones he had kept clipped, beside his father and mother. Mark and Rick and their friends dug the grave by hand. They were now responsible for a farmstead that had stayed untouched since long before the Civil War. A house and barns, all falling down. No money. They had made a promise, but they had no idea how to keep it.
They call the next decade “the dark years.” They had a foundation but no training: raw material, but no clear plan for how to make it a living museum. Rick crawled into attic eaves, looked beneath beds, searched outbuildings, finding boxes and trunks filled with papers and clothing, diaries and journals. So many things; unpacking them was like sweeping sand from a beach. Every foray into a dark corner, every climb into a barn rafter, unearthed something more. Mark moved back to the city for a while, and the homestead proved impossible to keep secure. Even today, 30 years later, Rick will receive a call or a letter saying that someone has found a Poore family keepsake in an attic where it didn’t belong, and it makes its way home.
In 1994, with little meaningful progress toward opening a museum, and with even the local newspaper urging Rick and the others to give up the dream, the state attorney general took the foundation to court, seeking to dissolve it, wanting to sell the land and the buildings, with the proceeds going to other nonprofits that seemed to know what they were doing. “It was do or die,” Rick says.