Small Towns, Big Stories
Saturday night I gave a speech to the Hillsborough, New Hampshire, Chamber of Commerce. It was their annual awards evening, where a business of the year and citizen of the year would be recognized, and generally a time when all the members could gather and sit at long tables in the American Legion Hall, have some drinks and pasta and pork loin and chat about their lives and their town. The night was bitterly cold, but the feeling inside the American Legion Hall was full of warmth and small town spirit. If you ever need an answer to what city people sometimes ask — “How could you ever live in such a small town?” — being there would have provided the answer.
Their citizen of the year, a woman who everyone knows as “Jenks,” received a standing ovation that only family could give, and it was obvious, in their affection for her and all the things she has done in that town, that she is family to all. She served on so many committees and town projects the person presenting her award ran out of breath and let out a sort of breathless cry, “I’m not done yet!”
The business of the year went to a local insurance agency and again you felt that the owner knew every single person in town, and probably insured everyone. He had everybody laughing when he told about how he was persuaded to pony up $2000 a few years back to sponsor a sign welcoming people to Hillsborough, only to find out a few days later that he couldn’t have his company’s name on it. It was funny in the telling, sort of a joke’s-on-me type of tale. All in all, Jimmy Stewart from It’s a Wonderful Life could have popped in and felt right at home.
I called my talk “Voices of New England” and because I was speaking to a chamber of commerce whose members owned the small businesses that keep the economy going for all of us, I chose stories of people I have met over my 30-year career at Yankee who had all come through hard times and persevered.
I told about the Bachelder family in Epsom, New Hampshire. I called the story “Fire on the Farm” — about how, after a devastating fire, instead of simply shutting down their farm, selling their land and dairy herd, like so many hundreds of small dairy farmers in the past 20 years, they determined to rebuild, with the help of neighbors.
I drove out to the farm for the first time on a lovely Saturday. Keith’s mother, Ruth, proved a writer’s dream. She is a born storyteller, and it was as if she had waited to simply tell the story — not of the fire, but of the family, about her roots as a farm girl, about her courtship with her husband, Charles, all those years ago. “He was a farm boy. I was a farm girl,” she began. And I was hooked.
In her country kitchen she talked about the joy of working from dawn to dusk, fighting to keep a little farm going. I had not known very much about the plight of the small New England dairy farmer when I entered Ruth’s home. Until Ruth and her daughter, Sarah, talked to me, I had never realized how the huge corporate dairy farms in the West make it all but impossible for the traditional New England farmer to compete. There are dairy farms in Idaho, Sarah told me, with thousands of cows. She and her family were milking fewer than 40.
A hard life, Ruth said over and over, but one she would never trade. She talked about standing in the middle of the road on a spring evening and hollering that dinner was ready, watching her two daughters and two sons run from the barn where they’d been playing. And how all her children’s friends wanted to come for dinner because of the farm-fresh cooking.