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Cherry Brook Farm: Spinning the Yarn of Family

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Nancy Humphrey's loss of her family's ancient farm shines new light on old memories.
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Though the author keeps her family's spinning wheel in her living room still, she's realized that her memories are more important than the objects that were part of them.

On a chilly fall day, my husband, daughter and I pulled into the driveway of the Connecticut farm where 10 generations of my family have lived: Cherry Brook Farm. The place where Holstein heifers once waited, innocent-eyed, for feed, and where weeds had turned brown. My Uncle Sam greeted us outside. He smiled, but his shoulders sagged like the rooflines of the old barns. He and his siblings had just sold the farm. 

Our family had come to choose our heirlooms. But suddenly what I wanted more than anything was to know all the things I’d never thought to ask while licking drippy Eskimo Pies as a girl in my grandfather’s kitchen, trying on hoop skirts in the attic with teenage cousins, or roaming among rows of prickly firs with my own children. Who were our ancestors, anyway?

“Gardner Mills built the house in 1815,” Uncle Sam began, “although the land had been in the family long before that.” As he went on, tracing connections through the branches of our family tree, his gentle storytelling voice sounded as familiar as the gurgling of Cherry Brook across the road. Whenever I’d visited this place, older folks had told stories until you could taste them as well as the plums in the pudding we ate at Aunt Ruth’s Christmas parties – juicy tidbits in a rich, dark past. 

We stepped inside the horse barn, and I struggled to relate its white-washed walls to the story of a buggy crash, and Grandpa as a toddler crying not because he was hurt but because the horses’ grain had spilled. Then we made a sweep of the other barns – the long, tall tobacco barn, the cow barn, the creamery, and the icehouse. I thought of my father’s story about delivering ice in the summer to women fanning themselves on porches, saying, “My, you have a nice, cool job,” while he lugged the heavy blocks, dripping sweat.

The small engine house was the most familiar outbuilding. A few years earlier, my daughter, Bronwyn, and I, as well as a slew of cousins, had crowded around the woodstove there, collecting money from the sale of the farm’s Christmas trees.

I glanced up at the steep wooded slope far above the farm and remembered something about a Native American who had lived up there when my father was a boy. “His name was Crump,” Uncle Sam said. “He did some cooking up there on the side of a cliff. We called it Crump’s oven.”

Soon my dad and older daughter, Christa, arrived. We went inside the once-proud farmhouse and ate lunch at the same table where aunts in aprons had fed us children our holiday dinners. My dad, now in his 90s, waved his hands around, telling stories that made everyone laugh – as he had once made me laugh with the tale of freezing his lips to the iron bars of the bull pen when he was a boy.

Finally, we got up to look over the antiques up for grabs. I had received a 35-page list of appraised items: antique high chairs, a Chippendale chest, an 1875 geography book, a Revolutionary War powder horn, rope beds and more. I’d put a star beside the spinning wheel and a pair of child’s snowshoes, which the appraiser guessed had been made by an Indian “due to weaving and fineness of gut.”

We wandered among the antiques, but with new eyes I also studied the house. Three fireplaces warmed its core, the largest with a massive stone hearth and iron hooks for cooking. “I think there’s a beehive oven behind this panel,” Uncle Sam said. He pried it open, and we all laughed. There in the brick recess was a deceased relative’s stock of liquor. A new story was born.
Outside, fallen maple leaves were curling, turning brown. Urgently, I turned to Bronwyn. “Look,” I said, pointing to the ceiling over the living room hearth. “That grate was how they heated the upstairs long ago. My cousins and I used to lie on the floor up there and listen in on the grown-ups’ conversations.”

“Cool,” she said, and went on looking over some songbooks. How could I pass on the meaning this place held for me?

Finally, we headed for the attic through the Dark Chamber – a windowless passageway above the woodshed where artifacts of rural culture lay strewn as if stuck up there just last month – ox bows, maple sugar molds, wooden skis with leather bindings, hog scrapers, a butter churn, a cider press, and a framed pedigree of Glendower, a prize bull. In the attic we pored over Time magazines from the early 1900s, jingled sleigh bells, and with dust on our lips, opened hatboxes holding things like baby shoes with tiny buttons up the side. Uncle Sam annotated everything with more tales from the past.

I found the child’s snowshoes and fingered them, wondering about Crump and his ancestors. Then something in a far corner caught my eye. “Oh, yes!” I exclaimed, dragging the heavy oak pieces of the spinning wheel out into the open. The wheel was close to 4 feet in diameter.

“Mom, what are you going to do with that?” Christa asked.

“I might use it,” I said. “Dad wants to get sheep.”

She burst out laughing. “Dad wants to get sheep?” I knew using the wheel was a long shot, but I yearned for at least one thread to connect all this history with the living present.

Before we left the farm for good, we sat around the kitchen table with relatives. I longed to again hear the stories that rooted us there, especially my favorite story about the rescue of draft horses that had fallen through the ice, harness and all. Instead, the conversation revolved around tight credit and extra charges on bank statements.

“It’s hard to believe this is the last time,” I whispered to my cousin Marianne. Nodding, she lifted a tissue to her face, and I curved my arm around her shoulders. When we finally parted, Marianne said, “Someday I’d like to come and see your house in Vermont with the spinning wheel in it.”

The relic has rested in my living room for a year now, along with the child’s snowshoes. I’m glad to have them, but I’ve decided it’s not the objects that make up the fiber of my family’s history. It isn’t even the farm itself. It’s the stories that continue to spin. Like this one.  

Freelance writer Nancy Humphrey Case contributes a regular column in Vermont Magazine on Vermont Farms. She and her husband live in an 1840s house on a small horse farm in Hyde Park, Vermont.

Published on Oct 7, 2011

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