Our Neighbors: A Dummerston state of mind
Come March, or whenever spring edges into winter these days, Larry and Carol Lynch will greet their three grandsons at their East Dummerston home.
The young men will tromp up and down the slopes of the neighborhood, once known as Slab Hollow for the sawmill that used to run there, tapping maple trees, running lines, collecting sap. Back at their grandparents' house, they'll get the fire going in the sugarhouse and tend to the evaporator, until the many gallons of sap have condensed into syrup, which they'll poor into slender glass bottles and sturdy jars.
It's another season's harvest from the Lynch Sugar House. One way or another, this family has been finding sweetness in the land, this very spot, for 77 years.
"I was 2 when we moved here," remembers Larry. It's a chilly, rainy January day, and the house seems to tuck itself more stoutly into the short, steep hill.
"My parents married in 1922, moved to Brattleboro, and my father, his name was Albert, worked in the trucking business," he says. Tall, with a long face and bright, kind eyes, Larry speaks in a square dance cadence, cheerful and matter-of-fact.
"But he always wanted to be a farmer, and in 1936, he and my mother came here, 50 acres plus the house and the barn, which is gone now. He got into the Farm Security Administration and got started farming, he farmed with horses, and he bought cows. One winter we milked 18 cows."
Larry grins. These are old stories, strong memories, not nostalgic, but well remembered. He leans back into the couch in their cozy living room, the wood stove pouring heat into the air.
"I remember, in the summer we were haying, I was 10, 11, my dad baled the hay and my mother and I would pitch it on the wagon, well, my mother would do her side then come around and help me finish my side. Then when I got a little older and bigger, I'd do my side then go around and help her."
Farm work defined Larry's childhood -- cows to herd, milk, water and feed, fields to hay, stalls to clean, stove wood to bring in, trees to tap, eggs to collect. The Lynch dairy farm wasn't a fancy operation; the Farm Security Administration was a New Deal program aimed at helping combat rural poverty during the Depression. And Albert and his wife, Helen, had seven children to clothe and feed.
"We were poor," says Larry. "But I don't remember being unhappy."
Carol leans forward from her end of the couch. Framed black-and-white photographs from Larry's childhood, books on the history of Dummerston and a cherished autobiography of Jack Delano, a photographer who created portraits of many FSA families, extend across the cushions.
"They were poor as a state of being, not as a state of mind," she says. She has thought deeply about this history; her searching mind and big heart push and lift her words. "True, the house was, oh, decrepit might be a fair word to use. There wasn't much money. But the community was strong. Larry's memories are largely happy ones."
He remembers going to school down the road in the Slab Hollow School: "One room, one teacher, eight grades." He remembers sledding down the steep dirt road when his parents were in town grocery shopping with the milk check: "$25 and my mother would fill up the back of a pick-up truck. Today, $25 of groceries won't fill up your hand."
He remembers that they had maple syrup for sweetener, eggs, a pig each year: "It's a poor farmer who goes hungry." He remembers people helping each other. He remembers his mother walking down the road to visit neighbors. He remembers her sharing extra ration tickets for sugar and gas with those neighbors. He remembers her toughness and fierce love, her haying, her shoveling manure, her cutting a corn field for silage with a sickle bar.
He remembers few, if any, cars on the roads. He remembers calling two sets of neighbors Grandma and Grandpa, though he doesn't know why. He remembers that they'd kill a rooster for Thanksgiving dinner: "We never bought a turkey."
"And some roosters are obnoxious and better off as dinner," Carol adds.
He remembers loving the farm. "When I was a toddler, I said to my father, ‘I want to be a farmer just like you.' I liked the cows. Still do."
He's quiet for a moment. Carol watches him. "I always thought that if my dad had lived, we'd still be farming, on a bigger farm, today."
Albert died suddenly in 1950, when Larry was 16. Before his death, an illness in his legs led to severe gangrene and successive amputations. For most of Larry's life, Albert farmed on prosthetic legs.
Larry nods. "Yep. I don't really remember him with full legs. I never knew exactly what was wrong. By the time he died, he was 54, and his legs were gone."
"So you took over the farm," Carol says.
"I did," he says. "I dropped out of high school and ran the farm, took care of my mother. It came to me because I like the farming, and my older brother was more mechanically oriented, not really interested in the farm. And my sisters all married and moved on, though Delia helped a lot."
"She was his farmerette," Carol laughs gently.
"And we made it work until 1959."
By then, costs were too high to see any profit in dairy farming. Two years earlier, Larry had even started working nights at the Book Press in Brattleboro to supplement the farm income. It wasn't enough.
A small, rueful smile settles into his face. "All the cows were gone, May 1959. I sat down and cried."
But he kept busy. He worked at the Book Press for 30 years. He served as Dummerston's emergency management director. He volunteered with Dummerston Fire Department for 40 years, earning an award for outstanding services. He became deeply involved with the town's Evening Star Grange. He married Carol, after meeting her at a square dance in Newfane, in 1964.
"We raised children instead of cows," Carol laughs. "Our own and the several generations of kids who came to the daycare I ran here."
Larry and Carol built new memories over and around the old ones, and time moved them forward into retirement and grandparenthood, further away from the past.
Then, in 1998 or so, their neighbor Kevin Ryan brought them a photograph. He asked Larry if he recognized anyone in the picture.
"I looked and looked, but I didn't," Larry says. "Kevin said, ‘Would you believe me if I said that one was you?'''
Carol points to a photo, seven children sitting at the edge of a porch, with a solemn-faced, towheaded, barefoot 6- or 7-year-old perched third from the left.
"Larry had never seen a picture of himself as a child," she explains. "Photographs were a huge luxury."
Larry nods. "My folks weren't picture-oriented," he says with perfect Yankee understatement.
But this photo wasn't taken by his mother or father. In 1941, Jack Delano, the FSA photographer, made a trip to the Lynch family farm. Four of Delano's photographs of the Children of Albert Lynch are stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
"You know, some schoolchildren in the Young Writers Project wrote some nice poems based on the photograph of Larry alone," Carol says. "To them, though, he looked sad, desperate, just poor. He isn't smiling here, I guess none of them are, but he probably was thinking about chores or he wanted to go run around. Like I said, they were poor as a state of being, not as a state of mind."
Larry picks up another photo. "Here are most of my brothers and sisters from just a few years ago," he says. "On the very same porch."
Carol and Larry dive into more stories, like the time young Larry attempted to drive an enormous load of hay into the barn, with skeptical neighbors looking sidelong to tease him and help him if the load toppled. They remember dances and their devastating house fire and how Helen Lynch, who lived with them until her death in 1989, kept her kids from misbehaving. They remember when their grandsons starting sugaring, first in the kitchen, practically steaming the paper off the walls, and how Carol literally threw the "Backyard Sugaring" book at Larry.
As they talk in the warm living room, the black-and-white photographs seem to blur into the color portraits of grandkids and great-grandkids. It is all one story in this old Dummerston house. The past and the present twine together the way they always do, and will again, when the sap rises and the grandsons tap, come March, or whenever spring edges into winter these days.
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