Making a house yours sometimes means building upon all that came before.
By Julia Shipley
Apr 01 2017
Making a house yours sometimes means building upon all that came before.Photo Credit : Elinor Osborn
A dozen years ago, acting like a peeping Tom (a peeping Tina?), I scurried across a snow-smothered lawn to peer into the window of a modest 1850s farmhouse overlooking a vast cornfield. It was Christmas Day, and I’d bundled up and driven three quarters of an hour to take a peek at this place I’d seen advertised on a general store bulletin board.
I was in my early thirties at the time, living in downtown Johnson, Vermont, in a third-floor attic apartment above a doctor’s office, where, over the years of my tenancy, I had talked the doctor-landlord into letting me have a kitten, and then some chickens (outside, in the coop I’d built), and then two heifers (on loan for the summer).
Across town, I’d planted a vegetable and flower garden behind the coffee shop, and on another patch of borrowed land I’d dug a potato patch the size of half a basketball court. I was applying the hard-won skills I’d developed working on various vegetable farms and dairies throughout my twenties.
Using my newly minted master’s degree, I had a day job teaching basic composition at the local college, but what I most yearned for was to secure a contiguous place—my own soil and edifice, where I could continuously raise animals and vegetables.
Despite obsessive searching, I found nothing in my price range, and so I began looking in other counties, in more remote rural areas. As the search took me farther and farther from densely populated communities, I realized that my quest for a tiny farm could mean I’d always tend it alone. Newly single, I was fearful of striking out on my own. But I was also determined—even if that meant, yes, I was prioritizing a committed relationship with land over one with a human.
In Johnson, my “family practice” farm—my pride and joy—had reached its limit: The heifers returned to their home farm for the winter; the chickens had begun roosting (thus pooping) on the doctor’s office porch; and the other, once-generous land owners announced they had other, nonagrarian plans for their land.
This house whose glass I pressed my nose against sat alone on six open acres, surrounded by seemingly endless woods and fields. It hunkered beside a rutted dirt road, two miles from the nearest village. There was only one neighbor’s house nearby. My original plan had been to slowly cruise past and get a feel for the place and then maybe contact the realtor. But as I approached, I saw no cars in the driveway; nor were there any telltale tracks. Was the place unoccupied? I pulled over, leapfrogged the snowbanks, and sneaked up to a windowpane to take a look. Inside I saw a bright, spacious room with two armchairs arranged around a woodstove. The floor had wide wooden planks.
In the spring, I returned to the property again and discovered a garden with sandy loam soil and decent fields for pasture. By the following Christmas, my car was parked, legally, in the driveway. And a dozen years on, I am typing these words just inside the window I once pressed my nose against. Looking out, I see the garden and fields emerging from the snowpack.
Yet my occupancy is just the most recent development in the 160-year-old house’s saga. Not long after I moved in with my gray and white kitten and six laying hens, locals began dropping by to let me know who else had inhabited these acres:
“Years ago this was the Lilley Farm—Mr. Lilley had the first tractor in town and paid it off by hiring himself out to work others’ fields.”
“The dairy barn used to be where you’ve got your garden now.”
And the land itself continued to disclose evidence of previous tenants: In the stunted interval before new grass charges up through last year’s thatch, you can see the narrow path through the sloping field trodden by milk cows following each other single file out to pasture.
In another portion, the ground still holds the shape of terraced potato beds, left over from the last century’s tuber heyday.
By the house I’ve discovered slim medicine bottles; in the garden I’ve dislodged pieces of crockery; by the old oak, a tin toy car.
In the town clerk’s office in the village, Yvette Brown, our town’s petite and unflappable town clerk, ushers me to the back room where the record books are kept. She points at the present-day map showing just how all 36 square miles of Craftsbury’s lands are portioned into oddly shaped swaths and strips labeled with owners and acreages. Then she points to the oldest map, the plat—a tidy grid of rectangles filled with the names claiming them—made when the town was first chartered in 1781.
Yvette (who goes by “Effie”) says, “OK, if you follow the [deed] books, beginning with yours, and you’re lucky, and you do it right, you’ll get back to this” [meaning the plat map of Craftsbury]. What she also means is that in the process you will leap centuries and glimpse the forefathers’ pen strokes.
And so I begin with my property’s deed in book 59, page 104, and follow it back to book 38, page 431, and from there I head to book 37, page 344, and from there to book 30, page 181.
I heft book upon big heavy book—following the strand of former owners like a cow traipsing a path to pasture—until I am beyond Mr. Lilley and his first tractor, and into the names of those who lived before the internal combustion engine: the Randalls and the Goodwins and the Allens. I am back to the 1880s, in book 14 on page 202, when Effie tells me she has to close up for the day.
All winter, when the land’s features are concealed, abstracted, my fields might as well be pale ledger pages inked with twig-shadows of legalese. But with April’s warmth and resulting melt comes a renewal of my visceral engagement with this place:
Now I can see—right here is where Penny, my first cow, gave birth, and here’s where Franny had her calf.
And here’s where the butcher and I slaughtered the steer.
And here under the catnip is where that kitten from Johnson was interred.
And here is where I saw the sheep grazing by moonlight.
Here’s where the moose tromped through the field and broke the fence.
Here’s where the foxes pranced.
Here’s where a hawk took my favorite hen.
Here’s where I married my handsome neighbor, almost three years ago.
And here—amid all of it—is where, together, we’ll host another growing season, deepening our allegiance to everything in the deed.