Photo 1. Click Here For CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING
Summary of last week’s blog, the first half of this prologue to my upcoming book, CALL ME NORMAN. The Stories of Rockwell’s Beloved Vermont Models. My parents took us from our Connecticut suburban home to spend 2 1/2 months in rural Vermont. Once we were an hour into New York State, the landscape segued from suburbia to dairy farming country. When we reached our Vermont home, I was mesmerized by the long meadow of tall grass and a sky crammed full of stars about the silhouette of our mountain. A short walk up our graveled road was a dairy farm that the Smith family had run since before the American Revolution.
My brother’s, sister and I began herding cows, shoveling the barn clean, loaded our first haybales on old wooden wagons. When the Smith farm closed, we met Charley Bentley Jr. and began working on his farm of 30 or so cows in West Arlington. We found ourselves at the center of that quaint town where Norman Rockwell had found his models for the country’s most treasured paintings. Charley introduced us to these people, including his cousin Floyd Bentley, one of the artist’s favorite models, who appeared in Breaking Home Ties.
Charley would lead us inside to the dining room. “Wash up boys.” The aroma of fresh bread baked by his and Floyd’s cousin Marie Briggs wafted in for the kitchen, where Marie would be preparing sumptuous meals made with farm-raised meats and vegetables. She had worked as the Rockwell family cook and housekeeper fifteen years earlier.
Marie appears in a Rockwell charcoal drawing, called We the Peoples. Today it hangs in the United Nation’s building in Manhattan, and was recently viewed by the Pope and American President. In We the Peoples, Marie stands to the right of a flag and behind a woman holding a baby. As in real life, Rockwell depicted her as a genuine country woman with the head scarf we knew her to wear. Marie, the type of down-to-earth country person Norman had come to love, dressed in long skirts and pale flowered blouses that kept the emphasis on her warm smile.
As she brought a roast, bowl of baked potatoes, sweet corn, and freshly baked bread from the kitchen, Marie would offer us the same warm smile that comforted Norman’s wife Mary during periods of illness in the early fifties.
I recall asking Charley Bentley several times, “Why did Norman Rockwell leave Arlington.”
His eyes would droop with a sadness he rarely revealed. “His wife got sick.”
Charley would have heard the details from Marie, but he said little about such issues. He maintained a compassionate point of view and did not gossip He used to caution me, “Never say anything bad of the dead.” I have to assume he felt he’d be on the verge of gossip if he gave us the details of how Mrs. Rockwell suffered from low moods and needed to be hospitalized in Stockbridge, Mass. at times. He had lived in a tiny village all his life and was acutely aware that gossiping could result in trouble.
Here we were, a world away from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, with two of Norman Rockwell’s favorite Vermont people, passing around platters of farm-raised beef, chicken or pork; bowls of steaming potatoes; and vegetables. Charley would slit his hot baked potato, make a fist, and pound it open. When I tried it, I merely dented the potato and hollered, “Ouch. Hot gravy made my plateful it all the more delicious. Charley’s sweet corn fresh from the field topped off the meal.
Billy Brown, the son of Billy Sr., an oft-used Rockwell model, us once told us, “You’d have worked for Charley even if you didn’t get paid—just so you could have dinner at Marie’s.” Billy Jr. hayed with us on the farm. His father appeared in such paintings as Going and Coming, the beloved illustration of a family with two mischievous boys leaving for a day at the lake and coming back exhausted.
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the sheer joy on the faces of Charley and Floyd’s hogs when we fed them their dinner. Marie would scrape food scraps from our plates into a bucket. Charley would pour dry hog feed, splash water into the bucket, and stir. When they saw us coming, the pigs would bolt from their shack to their long wooden trough. They’d stick their heads in. When you poured the slop into their trough, you could avoid dropping some on their heads. They simply shook off as much as they could as they gobbled and grunted.
Visitors from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut would come to sit in Floyd and Marie’s lovingly worn lounge chairs. The country experience soothed the tension caused by city living. Locals stopped by to talk town business. Sitting by the wood stove, people chatted about cows and horses, repairing and borrowing equipment, and livestock auctions. Eavesdropping, I learned that road commissioners had a devil of a job. Keeping the gravel roads in good repair was no small task. No matter how hard the crew worked, ruts carved themselves into soft areas after the snow melted. Dust rose from the roads in hot weather. A few summer folks, who were accustomed to gliding on New York City and New Jersey paved roads showed no mercy to the longsuffering road commissioners.
The Lincolnesque Model in Freedom of Speech
Some afternoons as we helped with chores in the barn down the road, Charley would send us to fetch sodas at the gas station a short walk away. We became friendly with the proprietor Carl Hess, who appears in Freedom of Speech, another of Rockwell’s most beloved. Rockwell depicted the tall, handsome man with black hair dark-haired man as one who has stood to offer his opinion at a town meeting. In an attached room next to Carl’s white clapboarded garage, he sold hunting rifles and ammunition. Skulls of deer hung on the front of the rustic garage. We hayed the meadow behind Carl’s home and garage while he pumped gas out front.
Carl had given up on a broken soda machine that stood against the back wall. Instead, you’d lift a rounded Plexiglas lid and reach down into a long cooler that sat on the floor. We’d wait until Carl returned from pumping or climbed out of the rectangular pit where he worked under cars. Many gas stations did not have lifts then. We’d give Carl quarters for the sodas. By that time, he had grayed and wore glasses.
I’d ask, “How are you?”
“Bout so,” Carl would reply. He left it at that.
As did Charley and others in West Arlington, Carl seemed to survive using a minimal amount of words. Another way they answered questions was simply by saying, “Ayyy-yup.” In a place where you knew everyone’s business, and they knew yours, one has to be careful to not let sensitive information slip out. If a person, say by the name of “Joe” annoyed Charley, he’d say, “He’s quite a Joe. Isn’t he?” or, “He’s an oddball.” He’d quickly move on to the next topic. Even if someone infuriated him, his criticism never ran more than a sentence or two
Sometimes a kid with a flat would walk a bike with a flat tire to Carl’s. Carl would patch it, often for no charge. Adults said Carl was a man who would give you the shirt off his back.
During the late thirties, forties, and fifties, Norman and Mary would stop at that same place regularly for repairs and gas. It was in front of that same pit that Norman approached Carl to pose for Freedom of Speech one day in 1942. Norman had been so excited over his concept that he woke up in the middle of the night with ideas percolating in his brain for the Freedoms paintings.
When he arrived at Carl’s he exclaimed, “Carl, you have a noble head.”
“Yeah, but there ain’t much brains in it.”
Both Norman and Carl laughed. Like many in town, they used self-deprecating humor as a lubricant.
“I’d like you to pose for a painting I’m doing.”
Carl agreed, and posed in Norman’s first studio at the north end of River Road. Millions of people around the United States bought prints after it appeared inside the Post. The U.S. Government printed the painting on World War II bonds. Norman paraded Carl around New England with other Arlington models to promote the bonds. The artist and models helped to raise $130 million (The equivalent of $2 billion today) for the war effort. During that era, millions of Americans recognized the handsome man from West Arlington who appears with the stature of an Abraham Lincoln.
For many years we filled up at Carl’s station. Towards the end of his life, it took him perhaps five minutes after we pulled up at the pump for him to walk down from his seat on his porch and pump. Back then this was just part of living life in Rockwell country.
My brother John still tells the story of how he learned just how famous Carl’s face had become. In about 1980, he drove to the Western part of our country for a vacation. As he drove through a national park, a radio newscaster took him by surprise. “Carl Hess, the model for Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom of Speech died today.”
Rockwell’s Tom Sawyer
A truck driver and heavy equipment operator, Billy Brown Sr. lived between Charley’s barn and Carl’s gas station. As a child Billy loved spending time on another dairy farm a mile down the road and next door to the Rockwell’s home. Jim Edgerton, who became Rockwell’s closest native Vermont friend, ran the farm. Rockwell was delighted to discover this lively kid, who became his favorite little boy model. Norman discovered the Tom Sawyer spirit in Billy, who dutifully assumed any pose a painting required.
My favorite is the one featuring Billy in the Post Cover Going and Coming. Rockwell created two different frames. In the first, an enthusiastic family is traveling in their car for a day at a lake. Billy has thrust his head and shoulders outside the car window. In the second, the family returns exhausted.
When I was about 11, one of Charley’s cows died behind the barn one afternoon. I feared he would make us dig a hole halfway to China so as to fit the huge animal into the ground. Nothing was said, but I thought we’d have to do the job the next morning. When we arrived the next day, I was relieved to hear that Billy had dug a hole with an excavating machine.
After they tore down Charley Bentley’s first barn next to Carl’s gas station, he rented one a mile down the road across from the Wayside Country Store. Some days after work, we’d sit on the porch and have a snack beside a trailer where a Rockwell model named Charley Lindsey lived. Charlie had modeled for Freedom from Want as a balding man seated on the right side of the table. Also known as “The Thanksgiving Picture,” people seem to recall this painting of Arlington people better than any other.
Charley Lindsey came to Vermont in the early twentieth century from Ohio. He drove his sheep from the nearby Shushan, New York train station to the property he owned high on an exceptionally hilly road not far from our place in Sandgate. Sadly, wild animals killed Charley’s dream of being a farmer when they ate his sheep and chickens. He became a carpenter instead, and owned a large house on a high hill.
Models at the Red Covered Bridge
We also became friendly with the Vermont Rockwell models during our trips to Arlington to purchase fresh milk at cow barns, shop for groceries, or to attend to church. The IGA in East Arlington had been the location for Shuffleton’s Barbershop. Rockwell painted several men in a glow of light as they play acoustic instruments in the back room of a barbershop. Rose Hoyt, who appears as the blonde woman with braided hair in Freedom of Worship churned the bricks of butter we purchased in waxed paper wrappers.
I must have been twelve the day Charley Bentley’s nephew Ronnie King led us on foot from the hayfields to the red covered bridge. The bridge spans the river in front of Rockwell’s former home and studio. Across the field from the bridge, two identical white colonial houses stand prominently on the West Arlington Green, just beyond a little white church and a dance pavilion. From 1943 to 1953, Norman lived in the house on the right. “1792” is posted in black letters above the door. Jim Edgerton, a farmer and friend of Floyd, Marie, and Charley, lived in the second of the “Twin Colonials.” Jim became a close friend of Rockwell’s. He modeled for several pictures, including Food Package from Home, a 1941 Post Cover. Occasionally we’d see the respected farmer around the area of the Green.
We were sweaty and our arms were scratched up from loading hay bales for on old wooden hay wagons Charley pulled with a 1950 Farmall tractor. The energetic, wiry Ronnie showed us how to grab a rope tied to the bottom of one of the bridge’s trusses. We stood on the second level of the structure’s concrete foundation. From this “abutment,” as they called it, we swung into the brisk but refreshing river. I think I can speak for all us “Haggerty boys” when I say swimming at the bridge became our favorite activity.
I learned later that many a Rockwell model found it a special thrill to jump from the forty-foot-high roof of the bridge into the river. Back in Norman’s day, the artist’s sons; Jim Edgerton’s son Buddy, and Tom Pelham swam at the bridge. Tom, son of Rockwell’s photographer and assistant Gene, called it a “rite of passage” for Arlington boys.
Buddy appeared in a number of Rockwell Boy Scout paintings, such as A Helping Hand. A Boy Scout teaches a Cub Scout the art of tying a knot. Jarvis Rockwell posed for Saying Grace. Tom Rockwellposed for Reading his Sister’s Diary. A grinning boy looks over a notebook. Peter Rockwell was in Boy on High Dive. He lies flat on a diving board peering down fearfully at the water below.
Every year, some kid would cut the screen in the window, which gave us access. We’d join the Vermonters, and climb the wooden trusses. At first, I felt a bit fearful as I pushed through the window and reached up to the roof. Looking down, forty feet to the water looked like a long drop.
Just as those Rockwell models, including Norman’s son Tommy, did during their youth, we would either climb into the window or run down the peak of the roof, and leap with our arms stretched over our heads. “You have enough time to solve a math problem before you hit the water,” Mark, our childhood friend Connecticut, put it.
The cold water would shoot up my nose as my toes penetrated the soft mud of the riverbed. I especially enjoyed noticing vivacious country girls looking at us.
We hayed it and swam with Bob and Billy Brown Jr., sons of Rockwell’s “Tom Sawyer.” I learned one of my first lessons in business from Billy. We were out in one of the meadows across from Carl’s gas station throwing hay on a wagon. A city gentleman walked up to the wagon, and asked Charley, “Can I see a bale of hay?”
Billy threw a square bale down from the wagon.
“How much is the bale?”
“One dollar,” Charley replied.
“How ’bout 40 cents?” the man asked.
“Throw it back on Bill,” Charley replied.
Bill grabbed the bale-of-hay strings and lifted.
The city man replied, “No. No. I’ll take it! I’ll take it!”
Marjorie Squires Coulter, who swam with her children to the bridge, modeled as the girl lying on the right side of the bed in Freedom from Fear. In that 1943 painting, a mother tucks her two children into bed. Her husband wears an expression of grave concern. He holds a newspaper telling of the horror of a World War II bombing.
From the bridge, if you look closely between the house and the big tree to the right, you can see the huge window that covers nearly the entire front wall of Rockwell’s studio. Marjorie’s father, Walt Squires, constructed the 400-sq. ft. studio sitting behind the main house. He appeared in half a dozen paintings, such as The Horseshoeing Contest. Two muscular men bang on iron with mallets at their anvils.
Yvonne Cross Door, a blonde woman with a friendly smile, brought her children to the bridge. We got to know her vivacious daughter Brenda. Yvonne appears with Billy Brown Sr. as a little girl blowing a bubble in Going and Coming, and as the smallest girl in G.I. Homecoming. Hailed as one of the illustrator’s finest, an overjoyed family greets their homecoming soldier at the close of World War II.
We became friends with other families at Charley’s farm and the swimming hole, such as the Crofut and Wright families. Glen Crofut’s father Roy, a painting contractor, appears in The Voyeur with Yvonne Cross Door. A young girl observes a boy and a girl necking on a train.
The mother of our friends Debbie and Beverly, Doris Crofut Wright, appears in The Gossips as a young woman with curlers in her hair. A chain of people pass on negative news from on to the next. Rockwell also included Doris’ mother Rena. She appears as a woman with her hair tied up with a beret next to a woman with a green scarf. Doris’ grandfather Charlie Crofut posed for Grandpa and Me Skating. An elderly man comes youthfully alive as he skates with his grandson.
Charlie’s wife Nettie posed for the Charwoman. During a break, two cleaning ladies relax in an empty Broadway theater after a show.
Some summer days of swimming continued into the evening. As the sun began to set below the lush Green Mountains, we’d often see a brown Morgan horse pulling a spit-shined black wagon from Norman’s former white colonial over the graveled road. Under a straw hat with a wide round brim, an elderly man named Curnel Vaugh drove the animal with the gleaming brown coat. He stared ahead with a strong gaze. I recall my mother chatting with him at the bridge as if he were a neighbor she had known during her childhood on the family farm in Maryland. A small but feisty farmer during his younger years, Curnie posed for Rockwell in the Long Shadow of Lincoln. The illustration, a collage of people affected by war in various ways, makes the viewer contemplate the tragedy armed conflict brings. Curnie owned a thriving farm behind the dance pavilion to the right of Rockwell’s former home. No one could have outworked his daughters, Sherry and Sylvia. They also stocked a roadside stand heaped with fresh produce. My brother Chris recalls working in the hayfields with Sylvia. At the end of the day, he was noticeably worn. She turned to him and said, “Sorry I worked you so hard.”
During those afternoons lingering at the bridge, we’d listen to those intoxicating folk and popular songs of the 1960s and 70s. Elvis Presley sang tragic songs like In the Ghetto and Suspicious Minds. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s song Leaving on a Jet Plane became a theme song for boys leaving home to fight in Viet Nam. John Denver sang the most appropriate song for our West Arlington. He called the tune, Take Me Home Country Roads. Jesse Colin Young sang the most beautiful Jesus song, Get Together.
Though we listened to Viet Nam protest music, the world of Woodstock and hippies seemed a distant land and alien to most of the traditional farm folks and Rockwell models. In the pavilion, where Rockwell and the models once square-danced, we listened to artists covering such songs as Neil Young’s Down by the River, and Credence Clearwater Revival’s Lookin’ Out my Back Door. We danced on the hardwood floor where Norman once collected tickets and stared across the floor at people whom he thought people across the United States might like to see in one of his paintings.
Back to Reality, or, to Unreality?
My father wanted to make sure we enjoyed every last drop of Vermont. He always waited until the afternoon before the first day of school in September to take us back to Connecticut. One time we actually missed the first two days. He wrote a note to our teachers telling them our experiences among the Vermont people were more educational than our classroom studies.
When we pulled into our driveway in Old Greenwich, we’d find that our grass had grown as high as the Vermont hayfields. My brother Chris and I can’t imagine how it could have been that none of neighbors squawked.
Sometimes during the school year, I would see a Rockwell book on a friend’s coffee table. I’d open it, and point to Floyd in Breaking Home Ties.
“We had dinner at his house on the farm where we worked!” I’d say.
Every Rockwell book displayed Freedom of Speech. I’d explain, “Carl Hess owned the gas station next to one of the barns where we worked.”
As those days warm days of summer transitioned to chilly autumn, memories of summer would simply drift to the back of my mind as I became absorbed in my life in the New York City suburbs. As childhood goes, I never found myself discussing the stories of my summers with my friends in any detail during the school year. I merely offered teachers a taste when they assigned us to write, What I did on my Summer Vacation.
It’s been decades since my parents took my brothers, sister, and me away from our Connecticut home and drove us over that old hilly, winding road to spend our summers with Norman Rockwell’s models in a quaint village in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I have finally made time in my schedule to tell the story of these the people Rockwell loved. I consider it a great privilege to have lived among them, and to be able to go back and reminisce.
End of Prologue to my upcoming book, Call Me Norman, The Stories of Rockwell’s Beloved Models.