A VICIOUS, KILLING FARM FIRE

A year and a half I spent, in a fury of concentration, creating Vanishing Vermonters. Some say it is my best book, more journalistic then documentary. I don’t care, I’m relieved that it is a postpartum factoid.  It pales about what I have to say:

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What matters, in this harsh year, what  stabbed my heart and psyche, was the death of Rosina Wallace’s farm by a violent,wind-blasted fire. She is my neighbor and friend; her farm is a couple of miles up the hill along a dirt road from which the town  of Waterbury inelegantly removed some elegant maples.

The fire was a killer. Rosina lost 23 cows and heifers—I don’t want to think about that—her tractors ad mowers, shit kicker and hay wagons, all milking equipment, various tools. Not only was the farm immolated but also two adjacent homes, Rosina’s and the farmhouse  where her brother Wally lived.

Bills, letters and postcards, snapshots of visiting children, tin types and large framed black and white photographs, antique furniture, an organ,  clothes, family jewelry, records of life on the farm—all turned to ash. The old farmhouse decorated in a Victorian style where her brother lived is a wisp of smoke, an evanescent memory of an old cook stove and teapot on the north wall of the kitchen, hand-planed cupboards, large framed prints of Wallace  anecestors  beginning with Lavina  and Sidney who bought the farm in 1866. Scrap books reflected the century and a half the Wallaces worked this hillside farm as they scythed, collected hay by horse pulled wagons. Who pruned the fruit trees? Were the peaches large and juicy? Did someone make strawberry and rhubarb pie?  Did they wear the same clothes for weddings and funerals?
What was the recipe for the jugs of switchel that  was brought out by wagon, on  hot summer days, to the wolf tree in the center of a mowing that shaded man and horses during lunch? Who? Who called the cows in before Rosina during those 152 years before the fire lit up their farm and seen by those living across the valley, 10 miles by car? Did Lavina help with the milking when the first cows were being milked? Bet she did.

I saw and heard nothing the night of the fire but in the morning we all knew.  I drove up the steep hill and headed north on Blush Hill where a road sign warned of crossing cattle. I turned into driveway where the farm is—used to be. Now—devastation.  A Cat excavator was compacting scorched and twisted metal into piles topped by a  tractor upside down, its belly exposed, waiting for evisceration during this cruel month.  Another tractor, a soot-black skeleton, was perched above another tangle of metal, holding its shape and dignity. My eyes swept over the detritus of this farm, nothing but ash and mud, warped metal and charcoal-skin barn beams. Tears ran down my cheeks.

I photographed lightly, mostly the tractors, a large manure pile with the trestle leaning over it like a preying mantis, behind the devastation  a birch tree winter-naked but standing tall, as if pinned to the summit of snow-covered Mt. Mansfield prominent in the sky line 12 miles distant. The side of the tree facing the fire was scorched black and the bark was skinned at the base.

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In 2000 I wrote and published Vermont Farm Women. Rosina’s story filled the first four pages with a profile and five photographs. That night I reread the text.

You know, revisiting that story sloughed away the tension and sorrow the fire built within me. Here was this farmwoman in love with her heritage —her farm and its cows, cats, birds, wild predators and memories of her life, her family and her ancestors. I smiled when I read it. Here is an excerpt that I wrote during the summer of 2000:

 

Rosina Wallace cups her hands over her mouth, lifts her face towards the pasture and hayfields that slope up to the afternoon sun and lets out with a string of “Here Boss!” Her call reverberates over the 225 acres of her farm and “my critters” , as she calls her Jersey herd, line up and head down the cow path to the barn. It’s time for milking.

Sometimes, in early summer, she searches the upper pasture, looking for a calf she suspected one of her cows dropped in the woods. She walks the hedgerow of birch and cherry trees that shade a stone wall and then follows a cow path that twists into the woods. She found the afterbirth, but no calf.

“Once a calf was born and didn’t come out for two days. It was feeding on its own. One smart calf, to avoid the coyotes.”

She spotted a barn cat prowling the stonewall, hunting chipmunks. “You stay up here,” she addressed the cat, “and the coyotes will get you.”

Overhead the repetitive wing whistle of the snipe echoed down. They were barely visible in their dives and dips.

“Mr. Snipe,” you are having a lot of fun up there.”  The snipe appear in the evening. The red tailed hawk circles the fields during the day and in the early spring twilight the woodcock yo-yos up and down in mating flights. Woodchucks now burrow in stonewalls rather then on a patch of hayfield with a good view where they stood on their haunches and whistled to their neighbors.  

Rosina passes the outcropping of rock in the hayfield where she played as her father hayed . From her rubber boots up to her denim jacket, Rosina appears sturdy but trim. On hot days a straw hat filters through the weave and flecks her face with sun light. Her eyes are as dark as her curly hair and a smile is on her face more often than not.  There is a healthy sensuality and energy within this farmer. She sure looks a lot happier than her great grandmother Lavina Wallace. In fact, it was the Wallace women who kept the farm going, says Rosina, who had a copious scrapbook of photographs.

“Sidney and Lavina Wallace bought the farm in 1866 but Sidney was such a poor money manager they probably would have lost the farm. Lavina had a tight hold on the purse strings.

“My grandfather James ran a good farm with fruit crops, a sugarbush, cows, chickens and pigs but he died in the flu epidemic of 1917. Grandmother Florence used the insurance money to pay off the mortgage. She was a little woman but she kept it going and all seven of her children graduated from college.

“Only my father Keith came back to the farm after college. I was a schoolteacher and dad asked me if I wanted to farm, as he was going to run for the Legislature. I quit and came back to the farm in 1980.”

 “Farming is tiring and hard work but I grew up on this farm. I love the view but that is not as much fun as scratching a cow behind the ears. I wouldn’t farm if I had to farm anywhere else. This place is free and clean with no mortgages.  Developers offer more money than I can imagine for my property but I wouldn’t do it. This is roots, it’s family, and I think it is an okay thing to do, to feed people, in spite of the fact they don’t appreciate it because they think food comes from a grocery store. I am a Yankee Vermonter. I am high blooded. I have the right to be. I was born to be. So I prefer to hold onto this farm as long as I can.”

Keith, Rosina’s father, was famous as a farmer, legislator and story teller. He taught his daughter how to raise calves, care for a sick cows and make the soil more productive. He also taught her to survive on very little but most important to keep her cows healthy.

In 1964 her father had arthritis in the back and was on 12 aspirins a day. In 1995 he was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer. “It was probably the darned aspirin and coffee he drank,” Rosina said. “He used to scoop cream out of the milk cooler for his coffee

“He died sitting in his chair by the cook stove because he felt he was home. That was the second of June, 1995”

 

Help Rosina and Wally rebuild their life. www.Youcaring.com is a crowd-funding web site where you can search by entering Rosina. Also, if you want a copy of Vermont Farm Women, with the story of Rosina, I have a few left. Peter Miller, peter@petermillerphotography.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Renie Wetmore on April 21, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    Beautifully written Peter, if you still have a copy of Vermont Farm Women I would love a copy. I went to the store to order one.
    Thank you for your eloquent efforts to keep the story alive of our rich state.

    Renie Wetmore

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