TO THE BUELL FARM

GILEAD, CONNECTICUT

From 1933 until 1956 my grandparents (Albert and Jessie Adams) rented the Buell Place, a 186-acre farm in Gilead, Connecticut. I visited at the farm often, and lived there with my family from 1948 to 1951. So much has changed in Gilead since 1951, and so little had changed in the years and decades before 1951, that a little portrait of the farm may be useful.

The Buell Place sat on both sides of Route 85, which in the late 1940s was a narrow, 2-lane country road that had only recently been paved. In places there were sizable bumps in the thin asphalt where it had been applied right over a large cobble in the gravel that was put down first. Traffic was slow (between 30 and 40 mph) and very light.

On the east side of Route 85 sat the farmhouse. It is still there, although the multiple attachments to the back of the farmhouse were removed about the time the new Route 85 was built in 1956. The farmhouse faced Route 85, but the front door was never used, and I don’t remember even seeing it opened. Along the left side of the house ran a length porch. Parallel to the porch was a flagstone walk. At the far end of the porch, this walk led to the real "front door," which opened into the first of the attachments rather than into the house proper.

Entering this door, the visitor turned right to follow a hallway. To his left, and near the door, were two horizontal 55-gallon drums filled with kerosene. The kerosene was burned in the kitchen and parlor stoves, the only two sources of heat. For years, kerosene had been leaking from the drums onto the wooden floor in this hallway, creating a wonderfully combustible situation to which no one paid the slightest attention.

To the visitor’s right as he entered the doorway was a sort of ragged gate guarding a flight of stairs leading to an attic running to the left (away from the house) above all of the attachments to the house. This long, mostly empty attic had one peculiarity: in a corner at the top of the stairs was an enclosed room, measuring perhaps 8 x 10 feet. This room had no exterior windows to let in sunlight, but it did have a window looking out into the attic. This was the hired man’s room.

But to return downstairs to the entrance hallway: this hallway always felt chilly, even on hot summer days. As one continued along it, there was a door leading off to the left to a workshop (the first attachment), and from there to a garage (the second attachment) and then to an outhouse (the final attachment). If the visitor passed by this door, he faced the door leading into the kitchen, and thus into the house proper.

The farmhouse had been built in 1770. The floorboards were wide and uneven, and in the attic the wooden pegs (not nails) holding the frame of the house together could be seen. Also in the attic, suspended from the rafters high above one’s head, was a sort of extra floor that had reputedly been the place where the servants had slept in ages past. It was in the attic that my sister and I (ignoring my grandmother’s warning, "Don’t go into the attic!") found papers bearing the name Buell.

The only heat in the farmhouse, as mentioned above, was in the kitchen and in the parlor (which was never referred to as a "living room.") The house had originally been heated by 8 fireplaces. The fireplaces were still there but had long since been covered over. Eight fireplaces must have required huge amounts of wood, and plenty of available hands to cut, split, and carry that wood. Since my grandparents were the only two full-time residents in the 1930s and later, it made sense to heat only two rooms. It was taken for granted that winter nights would be cold. During the years that my family lived upstairs, it was always advisable on a cold morning to move out from under the warm covers and into one’s clothes with a minimum of hesitation. The coldest morning temperature I ever noticed at the thermometer just outside the entry door was -22 F.

In the cozy parlor where my grandfather relaxed after his chores was the only telephone. Telephones were not used frequently, and we were connected to a 4-family party line. One advantage of a party line is that one can, if skilled in the ways of lifting the receiver softly, listen in on the conversations of one’s neighbors. My grandmother loved to do this, her ear glued to the receiver and her facial expression demanding absolute silence. My sister and I (aged approximately 6 and 10) would take advantage of her temporary inability to scold us by creeping up behind her and tying her apron strings into monster knots.

Behind the farmhouse (that is, away from Route 85) were two chicken houses, along a wagon road that ran far back through fields and woods. Closer in, to the left of the house was a long open shed holding wagons, and later the tractor. Between this shed and the attachments to the farmhouse was a sort of gravel courtyard from which the driveway led to Route 85.

Across Route 85 was the barn, which from all appearances had been built at the same time as the house. From the flagstone path leading along the porch one went down some steps, crossed Route 85, and came to the graveled driveway leading past the left end of the barn. In the center of that end was the door leading into the milk parlor - an odd, wide door, thick but obviously hollow, which one opened by turning a handmade wrought iron handle curled into a circle at each end. Like all of the other doors on the farm, this door could not be locked.

For my sister and myself (aged 6 and 10, more or less) the best and fastest exit from the farmhouse was the screen door that led from the kitchen into the backyard and from there onto the wagon road that ran past the chicken houses and beyond. Usually as we flew out the screen door (pulled shut by a long spring) we heard our grandmother calling "Don’t slam the door!" just as it was too late for us to prevent it from slamming.

We ran across the back yard, turned left toward the horse/tractor shed, made quick right turn and were on the wagon road, passing (in order) an above-ground gasoline tank on the left, a garden on right, a stone wall on the right, chicken houses #1 and #2 on the right, an empty stretch (running fast now), a huge maple tree on the right, blackberry bushes on the right against a stone wall, and suddenly in front of us was the new gate that our grandfather had built across the wagon road. The pine two-by-sixes in the gate smelled new, and the bolts and hinges were still shiny and unrusted. The trick was to throw yourself at the gate and climb over it as quickly as possible.

Just beyond the gate was a pasture. As we scrambled over the gate, we had only to look down and to the right of the wagon road to see Deadly Nightshade growing there. My sister and I were sure that this plant would kill us instantly if we ate any part of it. We also thought that it might kill us if we merely touched it. It is something to have a plant like that at hand when you are climbing over an interesting gate.

Straight ahead in the hilly pasture lay The Chestnut Log, the remains of a huge chestnut tree that had died, and been felled, probably around 1920 when nearly all of the chestnut trees perished. Chestnut wood lasts a long time outdoors, and even after 30 years of exposure to the weather the thicker end of this log was more than 5 feet high – high enough so that climbing up onto the thinner (downhill) end and walking to the thicker uphill end was mildly dangerous. The surface of the wood was a soft silver color, with reindeer moss here and there. Scattered around were the remains of 4 or 5 of the larger limbs, themselves too large to be conveniently cut up for firewood. One late spring day, while walking in the cornfield that overlooked this pasture, I happened to see an albino woodchuck with four normal offspring emerging from her burrow beneath The Chestnut Log.

Turning right just before The Chestnut Log took you downhill and then uphill across the pasture. At one point it was convenient to walk across a ledge of silvery-shiny mica schist, the same rock that was used as flagstone in walkways around the farmhouse. But the pasture soon narrowed down between encroaching woods on the left and a wooded swamp on the right. One of the first times I was permitted to wander the farm alone (I must have been about 5 years old), I came to this part of the pasture, hesitated about going forward, and was suddenly astounded to hear coming from the swamp on my right a rapid and loud tap-tap-tap, a sound I had never heard in the wild before. After listening for a few seconds I imagined that the tap-tap-tap was being made by an old man, probably a shoemaker and unquestionably evil, hidden in the swamp. I turned and ran back to the farmhouse as fast as I could. Later I learned about woodpeckers.

At the narrowing end of the pasture, white violets and red columbine grew. A few saplings crowded in around a fallen tree, and suddenly you were out of the pasture and in the dark woods on the very edge of the swamp. And here my sister and I discovered something really wonderful: yellow violets growing in a small clump at the base of a tree. We never went farther into the woods here, partly because the land was becoming too swampy, and partly because, by retreating nearly to the columbine and turning away from the swamp we could sneak through woods to an otherwise hidden hayfield.

But to return to the wagon road running past The Chestnut Log - straight ahead a few hundred feet, four evenly spaced majestic maple trees overlooked the road on the left. More or less hidden in the brush behind the maples was the cellar hole of the house the maples had once guarded. Beyond the maples, deep forest appeared on both sides of the wagon road. And shortly on the left appeared the only reason for coming this far - a large mass of granite, probably shaped by a glacier.

The outcropping had a nearly flat surface angled at about 45. From the base to the apex was a total distance of perhaps 25 feet. About two-thirds of the way up was a single diagonal crack in the granite, just wide enough to get a few fingers into. The rest of the way, you depended on your hands and toes. If you slipped back, you kept on slipping, and wound up at the bottom with badly skinned knees and palms. One day, carrying my Daisy air rifle, which was always cocked and ready for instant firing, I came to the granite climbing rock. I leaned my air rifle against a tree at the bottom and started up. Almost at the top, I began to slide backwards. Since sliding was less damaging than falling, I held on grimly, reached the bottom, collided with my air rifle, and shot myself in the behind.

But to backtrack again: if, just before, the four maples, you turned left, a path led uphill through a partly grown-over area with bayberries, juniper bushes, and cedar trees. Higher up, this path passed an abandoned peach orchard (now more or less pasture) on the right, and came finally to the barway at the near left corner of a long field stretching off to the right.

The mixture of forest, pasture, and fields growing alfalfa and corn apparently was a near-perfect environment for woodchucks. In one summer week, my older brother, using his new .22 Hornet, killed 38 of them without making a noticeable dent in their population. One morning, carrying my new single-shot .22 (not quite up to the status of the Hornet, but then I was only 11 or so), I came quietly up to the barway of the long field. Not surprisingly, there was a woodchuck munching grass about 50 yards to my right. I rested my rifle on the barway, fired, and watched him go down! My first official woodchuck! I flew over the barway and ran toward the fallen prey. The prey, however, had only been grazed, quickly recovered his wits, and charged at the unlucky human who happened to be standing between him and his hole. This was the moment when I discovered that woodchucks have dangerous-looking teeth and can make ferocious noises. A second or two later I was discovering how to reload a single-shot .22 while running backwards. Eventually I managed to kill the woodchuck, and in the process learned one of life’s important lessons: always reload before you climb over the fence.

The highest point of land on the Buell Place was probably the field where the woodchuck chased me around, or the old peach orchard next to the field. Up until 1938, the peach orchard had been profitable, and during peach season my grandfather had regularly loaded his 1929 Ford truck with baskets of peaches and driven to Willimantic to sell them. But the hurricane of 1938 had so damaged the orchard that it was no longer worth caring for.

By the early 1950s, the remaining trees were still bearing peaches, but the peaches were small and hard. One mid-afternoon in the late summer or early fall we learned that a hurricane was coming - or, more precisely, had pretty much arrived. The wind was already at 50 mph or more and the rain was starting to fall. There was a great deal to be done in a hurry, and I was selected to run up to the old peach orchard, where our 30 cows were grazing, and bring them back.

I grabbed my hickory stick and ran up to the orchard. It took me a while to get all of the cows moving downhill together. In the meantime, I was continually being clobbered in the head by numerous hard peaches that the wind was whipping off of the trees.

The route back to the barn - which was on the far side of Route 85 - led down past The Chestnut Log and from there to the left of the new gate and along a path between the swamp on the left and a stone wall on the right. Eventually this path led to the end of the swamp, where the brook had once been dammed for a mill. Scattered large square-cut stones and huge rusted metal gears were all that remained now of the mill. In the noisy rain I drove the cows past the ruined mill and through a barway onto Route 85. With the help of some other family members, I turned the cows right, went up Route 85 about a hundred yards, and turned left into the barnyard. This was the usual route (the cows were generally pastured on the side of Route 85 away from the barn), and on more leisurely days my sister or I would hold up an official-looking bright yellow "STOP" sign to halt traffic. (Stop signs in those days in Connecticut were yellow, not red.) It made us feel important to stand in the middle of a state highway holding the sign, but on most days there was no traffic to stop.

The barn itself was of course the real center of the farm. I think that the barn was the same age as the house (i.e., circa 1770), or a bit younger. The floor of the barn was concrete, the four rows of stanchions were fairly modern, and milking was done by an automated Surge system. Behind each row of cows was a gutter in the concrete, and there was the endless work of hoeing manure into the gutter.

At the north end of the barn was the silo, and to the right of the silo (viewed from inside the barn) was an odd little room reached by a steep flight of concrete steps. This is where bags of grain were stacked on pallets. When I was about 7 I discovered that I could wiggle a burlap bag of grain off the top of the stack. If I aimed it correctly, I could make it land near the top of the stairs. From there it was no trouble to roll it down the stairs. Once it was on the floor of the barn I could, by walking backwards and digging in with both heels, eventually bring the bag of grain to where my grandfather wanted it. A bag of grain weighed 50 pounds, and he could have picked it up himself with one hand, but he let me carry out this ambitious task myself.

Cows in the two center rows of stanchions faced each other. If you walked down the aisle between these rows, cows were looking at you from both sides, each cow with an automatic-feed metal drinking bowl (I’m sure there’s a more correct word for it) beside his head. Against the wall at the end of the aisle was a ladder consisting of crudely arranged boards.

One late afternoon in the early 1950s my grandmother, who was then about 65, started climbing up this ladder to throw down bales of hay from the loft above. Somehow she fell several feet onto the concrete floor. She got up and announced that she was fine. Family members - my grandfather, my father, my aunt - gathered around. She insisted that she was fine. Then - and this is when everyone knew that she wasn’t fine - instead of continuing with the chores in the barn she marched across the highway up to the house and started washing dishes. Ten or fifteen minutes later, she announced that she might just take a nap. That’s when panic erupted and someone called an ambulance. She kept insisting that she only needed a nap, but when they got her to the hospital they found she had several broken ribs and a broken wrist.

The barnyard was directly behind the barn, and more or less enclosed by stone walls. Behind the barnyard was a field that held the manure pile. An overhead metal track ran throughout the barn, out a door and across the barnyard to the manure pile. This track carried a sort of semi-cylindrical container that was emptied by pulling on a chain. I was never big enough to use this contraption, but my brother was. At a guess, the manure pile was a least 6 feet tall, probably 20 feet wide at the bottom, and about 40 feet long.

Every farm with cows had a manure pile. In spring you shoveled manure into a manure spreader and spread it on fields. In warm weather the manure pile gave off an unmistakable aroma, but no one found it offensive, or even noticed it much.

Behind the field holding the manure pile was a second field, a rather dry pasture. There wasn’t much for a kid to do in this field. But it did have pokeberries growing in it. When my stock of b-b’s for my air rifle was still plentiful, I would sometimes fire 15 or 20 of them into the fleshy stem of a pokeberry. This was my reserve; when I really ran low, and every b-b counted, I would remember my hidden stash and cut them out of the pokeberry stem.

To the left of this field was another field leading down to the brook where it crossed Route 85. Just before it ran into the woods the brook was surrounded by an extravagant growth of forget-me-nots. But none of these fields extended very far from the highway before they ended in dense woods.

I never went into those woods behind the barn because rattlesnakes lived there. I can remember standing in the dry pasture next to the woods and peering in, but not daring to enter. These were timber rattlesnakes, and when they came out of the woods they probably followed the stone walls, looking for mice. Sometimes, by following stone walls, a rattlesnake would come quite close to the barn, where there were plenty of mice. I can remember at least two occasions when my grandfather killed a rattlesnake behind the barn. He would carry it to the barn on a shovel, warning us not to touch it even though it was dead.

One of the front rooms upstairs in the farmhouse at the Buell Place was a bedroom that was often occupied by my great-grandmother, familiarly known as Grammie Hannah (as opposed to just plain "Grammie," who was my grandmother and Grammie Hannah’s daughter). The bed in this room was placed against the back wall, and when I was 7 or 8 this bed seemed unusually high - a little hard to climb onto. I never went to sleep very quickly and would lie awake imagining that the dark shadows in the room were monsters, and waiting for a car to come down Route 85 so I would watch the light from the headlights cross the ceiling - and possibly dispel those monsters hiding in the corners. But it was usually a long wait for a single car to come along.

The late 1940s in Gilead marked the end of some very old bits of culture, although probably no one realized it at the time. I can dimly remember the horses that my grandfather plowed with. They were replaced by a tractor in 1945. I can also remember - dimly - a visit from the tinker peddler who came by periodically. He drove a panel truck and did things with pots and pans and scissors. Horses had been plowing in Gilead for nearly 200 years, and a tinker had been probably making his rounds for nearly as long, but both were soon to vanish. Even a little kid could tell that the stone walls that ran everywhere were very old and had not been altered in a very long time, and there seemed to be a kind of safety in a world that contained an implicit promise of stability.

For an odd reason even the landscape conspired to produce a feeling of timelessness. Some of the farm fields in Gilead had been abandoned in the 1920s or 1930s. One of the first trees to appear in an abandoned field is the cedar tree, which usually dies off when taller but later-starting trees overgrow it. So it happened that there were plenty of biblical-sounding cedar trees growing at that time in biblical-sounding Gilead, which was part of biblical-sounding Hebron. All you had to do was look around, and it looked a lot like the New Testament.

As if to make the idea of timelessness absolutely unmistakable, one June day in 1950 we were invited to the 100th birthday of a neighbor lady at a farm about a mile away. I remember seeing her, dressed in a lacey white dress and sitting on a chair on the front lawn to receive visitors. Her daughter, who was then about 82, lived to be 111.

Into this pleasant and unchanging environment came, about 1949, the noisy intrusion of television. My immediate family (two parent, three kids) had recently moved to the farm from the Catskills, and at Christmas, probably as a way of thanking my grandparents for putting up with us, my father drove to Hartford and arranged for a black and white television to be delivered and installed.

The installation involved two men climbing onto the high slate roof to put up the antenna, and then installing the set itself in the parlor. The two men then departed. Television shows as we understand them now were fairly scarce at that time. Often a given station would broadcast only a test pattern.

But at one moment there was a show with people on the screen, and just at that moment my great-grandmother came down the stairs from her bedroom, looked at this strange new box, and saw the people. She was over 80 and had been born and raised in Scotland, where superstition is not unknown. She took one look at the people on the screen and went into a wild fit that none of us kids could understand. I didn’t understand even when she screamed, "There’s wee people in that box!" Only much later did I understand that she meant leprechauns. Somewhere in there my grandmother, who had also been born in Scotland and was also superstitious (never watch a departing guest out of sight) but somewhat more connected to modern technology, took her mother aside and began to explain things. I would give anything to know just what technical explanation my grandmother offered to relieve what was obviously a real terror of leprechauns. Whatever she said, it worked - but not right away. First the two men from Hartford came out and removed the antenna and the television set. Then, when negotiations between my grandmother and my great-grandmother were finally completed, and the last technical detail had been ironed out, the two men returned once more and put the antenna back up on the roof and re-installed the set. True pioneers, those two.

Before the television arrived, the same small table between the two front windows in the parlor was the place where the daily newspaper reposed. One of my most vivid memories is walking into the parlor and seeing on the front page of the Hartford Times the photograph of the B-25 that had flown into the Empire State Building. The crash occurred on the morning of Saturday, July 28, 1945, and the report in the Times was probably the evening of the same day.

Across from the Second Congregational Church was a small, cottage-like building that served (I learned only recently) as the Grange Hall. It was also the place where community dances were held. Early on a very hot summer evening in 1951 I was upstairs in the farmhouse at the Buell Place trying on the first white shirt I had ever owned, and which my mother had somehow found the money to buy for this occasion. Also my first tie. It seems that everyone was at the dance - people of all ages. I spent the whole evening dancing with girls about my age (10).

There were sometimes advantages to being the skinniest and smallest kid on the farm. One day my grandfather was about to drop a post into a deep posthole that he had dug the day before, when he noticed a toad sitting at the bottom of the hole. The posthole was narrow and deep, and there seemed to be no practical way to remove the toad that my grandfather, even in those days a conservationist, was very reluctant to kill. Finally they summoned the skinniest kid (I was about 6) and asked whether I would mind slithering down into the hole and retrieving the toad. My grandmother warned me, though, that I would surely wind up with warts on my hands from handling the toad. My grandfather held my ankles and lowered me down into the hole, where I scooped the toad into my hands. My grandfather pulled me up out of the hole, and I released the toad and watched him hop away. To my grandmother’s astonishment, days and weeks passed, but no warts appeared on my hands.

Our enemies were the woodchucks. The number of woodchucks that can live comfortably on a 186-acre farm that is mixed forest and fields is large, and while they would eat nearly any crop, they especially loved alfalfa. My grandfather kept in the barn a single-shot .30-.30 rifle, and used it to eliminate woodchucks from the long field of alfalfa that stretched north from the barn along Route 85. In the late afternoon in summer, while milking was in progress, he would step out of the barn and spot a woodchuck munching on the alfalfa. I can see him steadying his rifle against a stone wall at the end of the barn. There was an awesome blast and the woodchuck dropped.

One day my brother (then about 13) and I (about 9) were walking south along Route 85 toward the barn when John thought to peek over the stone wall into the alfalfa field. Sure enough, there was a woodchuck in mid-field, working hard at reducing our alfalfa supply. Unwisely, the woodchuck had wandered too far from his hole. My brother quickly dropped down from the stone wall and whispered instructions: We would storm over the wall, taking parts of it with us as ammunition. He would throw the stones at the woodchuck, while I would retrieve the ones he had already thrown and toss them back to him. John already had a reputation as a good baseball pitcher, so we thought that this complicated plan might actually work. We surged over the wall and raced to a spot between the woodchuck and his hole. John started throwing stones, and I danced around the snarling woodchuck to pick up the stones and flip them to John. With a great deal of dancing around and much yelling and screaming, we finally demolished the woodchuck, although it took considerably longer than we had thought it might.

Perhaps because she wanted to introduce us to something a little more elegant than using stone wall parts to massacre a woodchuck, my grandmother arranged for my brother and myself to have piano lessons. We had a piano (in an otherwise unused front room), and the piano teacher appeared in the form of Mr. Shorey. He was an excellent teacher. My brother learned quickly and could soon play some of the pieces in the instruction book. But in me Mr. Shorey found a student with very little coordination and even less orientation. Great importance was attached to Middle C, and I could never bring myself to admit to Mr. Shorey that among all those many keys I could never find Middle C, either visually or acoustically. Probably he had encountered this sort of student before, but I was becoming desperate. Playing the piano, as I understood it, was largely a matter of spelling improbable words (c-a-b-b-a-g-e) with unmarked keys. Finally I placed a very tiny dot of chewing gum on Middle C. This did nothing to improve my coordination, but at least I knew where to start. Mr. Shorey of course (I realize now) spotted the chewing gum, left it there, and let me do my best. I even survived a scary joint recital with my brother.

I have written these five chapters on Gilead in the mid-20th century to offer the reader some idea of rural life at a point just after World War II and just before interstate highways, housing developments and technology made the isolation and simplicity of such a life impossible. Medical care and the automobile and the telephone were, in 1950, probably the chief items that distinguished Gilead from the way it had been in 1850. But the impact of these advances was not tremendous. Lying in bed upstairs in the Buell place and waiting for a car to come down the road, or listening to a screech owl in the swamp made it easy to believe that nothing essential had changed for a long time, and that nothing essential was likely to change soon.

-- Tom Adams, July 6, 2002


Written & Submitted by: Thomas Adams
Copyright July 6, 2002
All Rights Reserved

 

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