Poore Family Farm | Here in New England
“That got us going,” Mark adds. “[They] put our backs to the wall and we realized we’d gotten into perfection paralysis. We needed the public to see this.” They reorganized the board, and Rick Johnsen became the chairman. “We fought, and we came out on top,” Rick says. In 1995 they announced that on Kenneth Poore’s birthday, July 5, they would open with cake and lemonade. They spruced up the grounds and repaired the split-rail fence. The house was too shaky for visitors to come inside, but they filled the upper floor of the large barn with displays. Rick’s wife, Michele, made signs that announced Museum Open by the side of the road.
But would anyone show up?
The first day, maybe 100 curious locals came; word spread, and the next day it was double that. For many it was like seeing the lives of their grandparents come to life. Eugene Reid, who teaches building trades to high-schoolers in nearby Canaan, Vermont, came on board with his students, and for the past 15 years they’ve poured their sweat into making crumbling roofs and walls solid and whole. Volunteers cleared decades of manure from barns, cut trails; Rick learned the nuances of applying for grants. Volunteers built a sawmill and milled the lumber from the woods; they built a nature-center cabin and a stage so that performers could play to people sitting in the meadow. Exhibits grew, and still more stuff came out of boxes.
And then one day in 2004, a woman came for a tour and found her life’s work. “We took on all these projects,” Rick says, “but Linda Tillotson took on the house.”
When Rick Johnsen first showed Linda around, she was stunned. Raised in Montreal, she had married Rick Tillotson, whose father was the most influential man in New Hampshire’s North Country. “They were all doing the best they could,” she says. “The rooms were packed with artifacts. I’m the type of person who likes to dig into dirty drawers and make them neat. I jumped in and I didn’t stop.”
She stripped the closets and drawers and boxes of their clothing, boiled and ironed every piece from longjohns to dresses, and then displayed them in the house and barn. “I don’t love ironing,” she says, “but I loved every second of ironing those clothes–bringing these dirt-filled clothes into new life.”
She carted home thousands of pages of diaries, journals, and letters; hour by hour she transcribed each one. “They gave an insight into a whole other world,” she says. Now visitors can spend hours with the light slanting through the barn and relive the ordinary and extraordinary moments of lives long past.
“I grew to love the farm,” Linda says. “I’d sit outside on the balcony, drink a cup of coffee, and feel Kenneth’s father. I relived his life. Relived the Civil War.” And one night she typed these words from John Calvin Poore’s diary: “1885. A baby boy born 4 this morning.”
“I still have all of Kenneth’s papers to do,” Linda says. “It’s part of my world, and I won’t stop until it’s done. This is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in my life.”
At the end of the day, I asked Rick and Mark about what lay ahead. They said that each year they run out of money; then they scrap and fight for a way to keep going. They want to put together a book of the Poore family’s Civil War-era letters as a fundraiser. They’ve hosted weddings here and want more. Each August they hold a big country concert, and they want other events. “I believe this area needs this,” Rick said.
“We’re just the stewards,” Mark added. “We don’t own this. This is part of Coos County. This is living history.”
I drove away thinking of Kenneth Poore, thinking that I felt I already knew him, and thinking that if a place has the power to change lives, then sometimes people, too, can change a place. I’d found here on a country road people who cared about an old farmer and what his way of life meant, who found a way to keep it from vanishing, from the land and from memory. And I kept hearing Rick’s voice as I said goodbye: “There’s still so much stuff to unpack. So much stuff!”
The museum opens in May; you can tour the grounds and barns, peer through the windows of the house, and read descriptions of the rooms. Because of the fragility of the house, you must make a reservation to tour inside. For more information or to make a donation, visit PooreFarm.org. For a slide show of additional photos, go to: YankeeMagazine.com/more