By S.T. Haggerty/Facebook: Stephen T. Haggerty
On the final day before summer recess in third grade, I glanced back at the round clock on the wall of our classroom. The small hand pointed to two; the large hand almost to three. 2:03. Two minutes left. I shifted my body so that I was seated on the edge of my chair. I slid my right sneaker to the front, ready to push off and hustle from the stuffy classroom into the bright world of summer.
Summer meant hot days splashing in the ocean at our Connecticut beach. When we’d hear the jingling bells of the Good Humor ice cream truck at dusk, my brothers and I would dash out to the street to catch it before it got away. Nothing tasted better than those chocolate bars with vanilla ice cream. Afterwards, we’d play flashlight tag with the boys who lived in the house behind us. We’d hide behind bushes, trees, and at the corner of porch steps. No one wanted to be caught and become “It.” I’d practically stop myself from breathing so as not to get caught as It moved his flashlight across the yard. On those slow, hot summer evenings, we’d capture the color and excitement of lightening bugs in jars. I suppose God created mosquitoes to force us to go inside at some point.
I sprang from my desk after Miss Fraser dismissed us. My arms were free of books at last! As I turned the final corner on my way home, I spotted my father and oldest brother loading suitcases into the back of our Chevy station wagon. It had slipped my mind that we’d be spending another summer in Vermont—the entire two and a half months. We even spent school holiday weeks there. Oh man, I thought. I won’t be about to pitch in the town league this summer. More than anything, I wanted to mow the other kids down at the plate with my fastball.
Weighed down with my parents, us kids, and luggage, our old green Chevy lumbered from Old Greenwich, Connecticut to Route 22 in Bedford, N.Y. Fifteen miles more and we reached Pawling, New York, where the landscape segued into scenic pastureland with grazing cows. During typical trips, we would stop at a picnic area off to the side of the road to eat at its two old tables as dusk fell. Back in the car, we would pass old farmhouses and quaint sagging barns on Route 22, an old two-lane highway I call, “The road that time forgot.” Superhighways had stolen the traffic some years before. Most roadside stores closed up. We didn’t mind traveling an empty highway, though. We felt special having the road to ourselves.
Some twenty miles up the road, the real ole farming country came—meadows against the mountains that stretched for miles. Typically, my father would have to stop the car for black and white Holstein cows crossing the road. Neither farmers nor cows made the slightest effort to hustle, and we were not annoyed. These events were rituals letting us know we had crossed over into the land of no hurry.
After the sun hid behind the mountains, hardly a car passed us, an amazing thing when you’re driving what was once the main highway from New York City to Vermont. At some point I’d become so comfortable surrounded by my family that a pleasant form of drowsiness would come over me. Feeling secure with my father at the wheel, I would fall into a cozy sleep, resting my head on one of my brothers’ shoulders.
A couple hours of hours later, I’d wake when one of them or my sister would declare, “We’re in Vermont.” The sound of bouncing pebbles informed me that we indeed had departed the asphalt roads of New York. We had arrived in the strange but, beautiful and enchanting land of Sandgate, Vermont. Though it was summer, chilly air greeted us as we stepped out of the Chevy station wagon and stood in front of our old farmhouse with peeling white paint and country green trim. Our old cow barn, with its sagging roof, stood before the silhouette of the mountain range. The tall timothy grass with woven heads rose to our belts.
Behind a barbed wire fence fastened to crooked old posts, a sky crammed with glistening stars lit our long meadow. Smiles would grow on my parents’ moonlit faces, which looked rested now that we were far away from life in the stressful New York suburbs. Country life brought back memories of their childhoods. My mother had grown up on our family’s dairy farm in Maryland. My father had enjoyed time on one owned by his relatives.
I absorbed my parents’ enthusiasm for the enchanting place full of wonder. I have a vivid memory of an arrival one year. We were standing on the side of the graveled read next to our meadow. My mother pointed to a short plant with floppy leaves. “That’s rhubarb,” she exclaimed. I can still swear that as I stood shivering, its leaves opened and closed like a mouth. It told me how excited it was to see us.
An old farmer with a mane of thick hair named Millard Smith walked out of our house and rubbed sleep from his eyes. He led us inside, where we warmed ourselves before the fire he had kindled in our woodstove.
Millard’s ancestor Matthew Smith had been granted the land for our house from the King of England in the 1700s. The Smiths had operated their dairy in our barn until moving it up the road to where Millard now lived on his three-hundred-acre farm.
My brothers, sisters and me walked through the early 1700s farmhouse and reacquainted ourselves with each room. In the kitchen, you yanked on the handle to open the 1940s General Electric refrigerator a previous owner had purchased two decades before. A steel locking mechanism snapped it shut. Aluminum pots and pans with the long thin handles of a bygone era hung on nails pounded into the plaster wall.
On our first mornings, we would we walk through the dew of the high damp grass and explore the beloved pristine Terry Brook and our rustic thirty acres between two mountains. Our section of Sandgate, deep in the woods on a secluded dirt road, seemed other worldly. We walked long distances in our sneakers on the riverbed across the gravel road from our house. Speckled trout shot from under tree roots, and we snatched frogs and snakes from the grass. We carried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as we hiked the mysterious mountain that rose in front of our house. At night during an era when deer were scarce, we’d sit on the tailgate as our Dad maneuvered our old Chevy down at a crawl. We felt excited when our car’s headlights finally shined on a herd in a meadow. We counted them before they loped off, flashing their white tails.
That particular year I turned 10. My brothers and I strolled up the half-mile hill up to Millard’s cow barn, only to find it empty. He had sold his herd; a glorious era had ended. Since I was three, we had hiked the hill on our road to Millard’s huge grayed barn. We chased cows into it at milking, pushed shovels, and grabbed cuddly barn cats to stroke their fur. Halfway up a mountain on a grassy slanted meadow, I had pushed my first bale of hay onto a wagon when I was eight.
Discovering Rockwell Country
Our mother’s desire was to find another barn where the farmer had the patience for children. That summer she took us for a ride several miles down the road in West Arlington. Along the way, we scrutinized each house, many of them small “camps,” to who had “come up” for the summer. Most families stayed only a week or two, not the entire summer like us.
Mom parked the old Chevy at a barn next to the Green River, a shallow ribbon of water that flows over rocks of many marvelous colors. She hoped the farmer would fill a bottle she brought with milk straight from the cow. Unpasteurized milk brought back fond memories of her childhood. We waited in the car.
A short while later our mother appeared in the barn doorway. The wave of her arm told us the farmer had invited us into the barn. Soon my brothers, sister and I had jobs ushering cows into the barn, pushing shovels, and pouring milk into waist-high steel milk cans. We soon learned that the farmer, a small, slender, but rugged farmer named Charley Bentley Jr., had lived his entire life among the people who had posed for Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings, such as The Four Freedoms.
Charley eventually sat on the Sandgate Board of Selectmen for fifty years, and had served in the Vermont state legislature. He was all about fixing practical problems like fixing bad sections of road. His family roots in Vermont extended back well into the 1800s. We too began spending time with former Rockwell models in his barn and hayfields, the country store, the gas station, and while swimming under the red covered bridge.
Charley’s cousin Floyd appeared in Breaking Home Ties, one of America’s most beloved paintings. When it was exhibited in the Soviet Union circa 1960, Soviet Premier Nakita Khrushchev called it his favorite.
My parents loved the people and rural ambience that spawned so much traditional American music, literature, and art. Robert Frost, the poet, and Grandma Moses, the most popular American artist during the forties and early fifties had lived close by. My parents were thrilled to have purchased our farmhouse and its three barns through a real estate broker named Bert Immen. Rockwell had also used Immen for the purchase of his two West Arlington homes.
Immen’s daughter Mary appears as the pretty blonde teen in Rockwell’s Christmas Homecoming, the only painting in which the artist included included his entire family. A gathering of smiling people look on as a mother hugs her son who has returned home during winter recess. Immen’s wife Dorothy posed for His First Day of School, an elegant but bittersweet painting that Mass Mutual ran as an advertisement. She straightens her son’s collar while her husband adjusts the boy’s tie.
My parents were thrilled to make more connections to Rockwell’s people. John Whalen, the Arlington lawyer who closed Rockwell’s real estate deals performed the same task for my parents. My mother periodically brought me along to Mr. Whalen’s home office. His daughter, Mary Whalen Leonard, became Norman’s favorite girl model. She appears in several paintings, such as Girl at the Mirror, one of the artist’s most beloved.In the 1954 painting, a concerned girl approaching her teens sits before her image in a mirror, fearing that she may not be beautiful.
Rockwell’s lamenting Farmer
As June segued into July, I found myself absorbed in the enchanting farming life. I especially found it pleasurable haying meadows in West Arlington and Sandgate. My life in Connecticut would fade into the background. My parent’s fondness for the endearing country people rubbed off on me. Many of their ancestors first settled in Vermont before the American Revolution. Some fought with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain boys.
I have a sharp memory of the first time we came across Charlie’s cousin Floyd Bentley, who modeled for Norman’s Breaking Home Ties as the weatherworn farmer wearing work clothes and sitting on the rusted truck bumper at a train station. Next to him, the expression on his dapper son’s face reveals that the young man is anxious to catch the train that will deliver him to college. Norman considered Floyd a favorite model because our mutual friend’s genuine country face draws viewers into the painting.
The town of Sandgate lies in a narrow valley between mountain ranges. Branching off the main route, dirt roads wind through the valley and carve their way up and down hillsides. Water pours down mountain brooks into the Green River and the Battenkill River. During that era, farmers housed their herds in sagging barns dating back to the 1700 and 1800s. The rugged folks sustained themselves by milking 30 or 40 cows. The farms seemed to have just enough grassy hillside and six to a dozen acres of meadowland suitable for grazing.
One day as we’re driving the hilly road that crosses over from West Arlington into Sandgate, my Dad exclaims, “Look up ahead boys. You won’t see this anywhere else.” He slows the car to a walk. Along comes this huge white draft horse pulling this small metal wagon. The same slender country farmer in Breaking Home Ties sits in the seat holding the rains of this huge white draft horse. Wearing a pale green work shirt and pants, his face is wrinkled, his expression melancholy. A sickle bar attached to the wagon makes the noise “che che che” as its blade lays down tall grass on the roadside. We capture the scene like artists. My father gives him a grand smile and holds his hand up in a lingering wave as if he is offering his sincerest gratitude to the farmer for the feat of remaining genuine in a world where pretense is more the rule. Norman Rockwell felt the same way about him.
The farmer gives my father a quick wave and returns his eyes to his sickle bar to be on the lookout for obstructions in the tall grass.
We soon learned that this model of Norman’s, Floyd Bentley, farmed exclusively with horses. He eschewed the gasoline-powered tractors and other equipment people had been using for several decades. Floyd held out longer than anyone in town. In fact, he only used a tractor if he absolutely had to.
Some years later, Charley Bentley told me how the melancholy expression painted itself on Floyd’s face. Floyd never fully recovered emotionally from family tragedies that occurred in 1929. Both his mother and brother Meril died at the same hour a week apart. In that small town, one was hard-pressed to kindle the type of close relationship one experienced with family members. The tragedy became more painful when Floyd had to give up the house himand Meril had recently purchased across the road from Norman’s studio. In 1941, Floyd moved back to what locals call “The Yellow Farmhouse” in Sandgate, Vermont where he grew up, and lived there during the era when Norman painted Breaking Home Ties.
I feel that the melancholy expression that Rockwell found so poignant not only reflects the pain of family tragedy, it symbolizes the lament of the family farmer in Vermont when one after the other sold their herds in the seventies and eighties. Government regulations and corporate farming dealt death blows to the only way of life they knew.
Living among those people in the rural community of West Arlington and Sandgate brought comfort to Norman Rockwell. They allowed him to relax—to be himself. He called West Arlington people like Floyd “dignified,” and appreciated that they were connected to the earth. They were, generally, honest people. In the small they had a long history of depending upon one another for survival. To pull a dishonest stunt was a difficult proposition.
My father viewed the country folks through the same lens as people like Norman. He cherished the summer days he spent with them. My father was an artist who worked in the music business in New York City as a composer, arranger, and editor. At that time, he was working on music for Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’d see music for such shows as Sound of Music on his desk. He helped to arrange, and edited the music for Carousel. With a compassionate point of view, people like them saw people from all walks, rich or poor, honored and scorned, as characters in a dramatic presentation, all God’s precious people.
Though sometimes seen to have a simpler intellect compared to corporate business executives, the locals ran dairy herds and small factories brilliantly. They understood crops and soil conditions, and cooperated with one another, despite a bit of bickering at times—to maintain order and efficiency in small towns. They intuitively knew how to live with heart, a sign of intelligence itself.
Dinner Down on the Farm
My brothers and I found our lives among Rockwell’s people energizing. We loaded hay bales onto Charley’s wagons in meadows along the Batten Kill next to the artist’s former studio and white Greek Revival home.
“No dubbin’ around boys,” Charlie would bark if we lost our focus. If we complained of being tired, he would bark. “Don’t whine. Whiners turn into complainers.” If we said, “I can’t do this, he’d say, “Never say I can’t!”
At noon, Charley would drive his green Ford F-150 pickup truck to his field along the Green River and hack ears of corn off their stalks with a machete. Riding on the tailgate of the truck, we’d zoom up the hilly road from West Arlington back to Sandgate, where we would have “dinner” at noon in the home of the favorite Rockwell model with the melancholy face.
Everyone called it the “Yellow Farmhouse.” Two aging Collies named Laddie and Dixie would greet us at an old wooden screen door. They looked identical to the dog that appears in Breaking Home Ties.
Floyd would offer a few friendly words, such as, “How are you, boys? How are your mother and father?” He would be hunkered down on the couch in front of an old wood stove, quietly watching us dine. Through the window behind him, his sagging gray barn, which we filled with hay, stood before the mountainside. He exuded the same profound sadness Rockwell captured. One of my brothers and I sometimes discussed the sorrow he exuded, but any understanding of it eluded us back then. 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. (To be continued in the next blog post).