Romaine Tenney vowed he would never abandon his family’s Vermont farm, which lay in the path of the future Interstate 91. In the end, he loved his farm to death.
By Howard Mansfield
Mar 31 2013
Romaine Tenney at work on his land in September 1964, about a week before the fire, with one of his beloved dogs, Spot. The home’s porch and dormers had all been removed by the time the photo was taken. Tenney lived not in the main house, but in the ell.Photo Credit : Courtesy of the Weathersfield Historical Society
In the summer of 1964, Romaine Tenney was a bachelor farmer. He milked 25 cows by hand on his farm in Ascutney, Vermont. He had no electricity in his house, used no gas-powered machinery. He cut his firewood with an axe and a saw; cut his hay with workhorses. He didn’t own a tractor or drive a car. When he went to the nearby big town of Claremont, across the river in New Hampshire, he’d walk the six miles–except that he probably never walked all the way. People always picked him up. Everyone knew Romaine. With his long beard, felt hat, and overalls, he was a familiar sight. Romaine enjoyed visiting on these rides, and all his neighbors liked him. His farm was right on the major road between Ascutney and Claremont; the road hugged his cow barn, and neighbors would often stop to chat. He rose late and worked late into the night. “You could drive by at midnight and there he would be in his barn, fixing some harnesses or just puttering about,” said Deputy Sheriff Robert Gale. It was as if Romaine held the office of Bachelor Farmer in town.
Romaine’s house, trimmed under the eaves with Gothic-style gingerbread, stood behind a row of majestic maples. Tourists loved to take pictures of the house, and he’d sometimes pose for them. If they wanted a true, old-time Yankee, he’d oblige them. He was the real thing, happy to play the part for a moment, sending a tourist on his way with his prize catch: Look at this old farmer I found in Vermont. Milks his cows by hand. No electricity, no car, no tractor. Romaine Tenney was the Vermont they wanted to find.
Romaine looked good in every picture. “What I remember are his beautiful blue eyes and his eternal smile,” said his niece, Rosemary Safford. “He was always smiling.” And that’s what everyone said. “He had a wonderful twinkle in his eye,” said his neighbor, Rolly Cann. Romaine was born on the farm and spent his life there. He loved his family: his many brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. He loved his animals. He was a happy man–until his farm was destroyed to build Interstate 91.
Vermont’s first six miles of Interstate highway, a section of I-91, opened in 1958. It ran from the Massachusetts border to just south of Brattleboro, and drivers marveled at what we now take for granted: It was straight and smooth. It was the shape of things to come, and they couldn’t wait. When a new section of I-89 opened up near Montpelier in 1960, 300 cars lined up to drive the six miles to Middlesex. The Interstate was more than just another road; it was a belief in progress. The highway would rescue Vermont–take the state “out of the sticks” and put it “right in the economic mainstream of the country,” said Elbert Moulton, the state’s economic development chief under four governors.
“The Interstate was seen [as] the answer to many, if not most, of Vermont’s problems,” said Paul Guare, executive secretary of the state Transportation Board at the time. “It was universally applauded.” When the government condemned houses and farms in the way, filled wetlands, and leveled hills, “people were mostly happy to settle with the state.” Progress as a religion permitted everything. It was the gravity of America; it was the force that held everything in its course.
Dedicating a new section of I-91 in 1961, Senator George Aiken said, “We’re on the verge of the greatest development Vermont has ever seen.” That section of highway had buried the senator’s boyhood home.
Romaine Tenney’s farm was 90 acres of good pasture and woods, with a southern exposure and plenty of water. There was a spring up the hillside that almost never went dry, a brook, and a hand pump in the kitchen sink. The fields were good for three hay crops a year. There was an orchard and a 10-acre woodlot. In the farm’s prime, in the 1950s, Romaine milked 50 or 60 cows and had about 100 head of livestock total. He kept two teams of workhorses and a couple of dogs to bring the cows home.
Romaine’s father had bought the property in April 1892. The following January, Myron and Rosa Tenney came over Mendon Peak in a wagon with all they owned in a trunk or two, so the family story goes. He was 45 and she was 25. The house had been built around 1843. The family who sold it to the Tenneys had dressed up the home and the barns in the latest fashion, Gothic Revival, giving the house leaded windows in a diamond-pane pattern, gingerbread trim, two false dormers, and a big porch. The Tenneys liked to sit out on the flat porch roof to enjoy the long view down the Connecticut River Valley. “It was a real showplace when my people came there,” recalled Ruth Tuttle, their oldest child. “My father was very proud of the big meadow beside the house, and he used to sing and whistle as he worked there.”
Myron and Rosa had nine children. Romaine was their fourth, born in 1900. His father died when he was 14, leaving his mother alone to raise the large family and run the farm. At times all they ate was oatmeal. All the children, except for Romaine, left the farm. He lived there with his mother until her last years, when she moved in with a daughter nearby.
Romaine was closest to his brothers Myron and particularly Emerson, who was the youngest and lived in Claremont. Emerson saw Romaine all the time, picked him up for Thanksgiving dinner, and brought his children by to play and work on the farm. They loved it; it was a thrill. “I remember all of us piling into the car and just so excited,” Rosemary said. “I remember stretching my neck, and I could see the train trestle, and I knew we were almost there. And then the big metal bridge that crossed the river. You’d look down–the floor of the bridge had holes in it, so you could see the water–and then you knew the farm was right up there. And then the beautiful trees with the house just nestled in. And we were there. And I think perhaps before Daddy even got the car in park, those back doors were open, and we were gone.
“When we got there, Daddy would say, ‘Don’t go near the horses.’ We always rode the horses.” They rode them through the fields for hours, ran barefoot all over, played in the barn, drank from the cows’ trough, rolled down the hills. “Can you imagine four or five little kids running in and out of the barn, in the house, and up the fields?” Rosemary asked. “And he’s just smiling. We’d run by and he’d squirt the milk toward us … I can remember running behind the hay wagon, and thinking we were really helping. It took two of us to lift a bale of hay. We’d pick it up and drop it, and pick it up and drop it, but they were so patient. They were all very kind, gentle people–all the brothers and sisters.”
Her sister, Gerri Dickerson, remembers her uncle cutting the tall grass by the house. “His broad shoulders swung in harmony with the scythe,” she wrote. “The muscles in his forearms moved like liquid in a repetitive pattern. It was difficult to tell whether it was the man or the tool that led and controlled the motion. This exercise would have me spellbound. Watching and listening would soothe me as I sat in the soft swath of grass left by Uncle Romaine’s rhythm.”
Thinking of those days, Gerri said she could still smell the freshly cut grass and hear the “swishing cadence of the scythe … I am brought back to a safe and happy childhood. It is not just an image of Uncle Romaine; it is as well an image of Vermont.”
The new highway was inserting itself into that image of Vermont. Rod Tenney, the oldest of Emerson’s children, had worked on the farm for several summers. He had a friend who was on the crew surveying the route for the highway down the valley.
“They were coming from the north,” Rod recalled. “And it was toward the end of the day, and people were ready to call it a day and go home. The guy in charge said, ‘We’ll get just one more site. We’ll just shoot it on that barn down there,'” picking out Romaine’s cow barn. “And that’s how the Interstate highway ended up going right through the middle of the property. If it had gone five degrees one way or the other, you know, things would have been very different. But highways have to go somewhere.”
By 1964, the Tenney farm had seen better days. “The barn and parts of the house were just coming down around him. He wasn’t a carpenter at all,” said another nephew, Ron Tenney. The woodshed toward the end of the ell was falling in, and the porch was gone. Tourists who liked their Vermont picture perfect would ask his neighbors why someone didn’t buy that house and fix it up.
Romaine lived in the ell, which had a large kitchen with a wood-fired cookstove, a soapstone sink, and waist-high piles of newspapers and magazines–agricultural journals, National Geographic–and a transistor radio by any chair he might sit in. He cooked simple meals, things like oatmeal, biscuits, or beans. He didn’t have a garden, except for a large rhubarb patch. On hot days when he was haying, he drank switchel, a homemade mix of ginger, vinegar, water, and molasses or maple syrup. He slept in a room upstairs over the kitchen. He followed his own routine; he didn’t change his clocks for Daylight Saving Time. Why bother? The cows didn’t know the difference.
He never went into the main house, which sat just as it had been 40 years earlier, a dusty museum with lace tablecloths, curtains, kerosene lamps, portraits, sepia-toned family photos, mirrors, and an old organ–all sitting in the dark because there was no electric light, and the big maples shaded out the sun. No one ever entered the house, except when his nieces and nephews would sneak in, and just once when he invited his neighbors Rolly and Lois. “He showed us his mother’s dresses still hanging in the closet. He never wanted to give them away or anything,” Rolly said. “He hung onto his earlier life.”
Romaine’s dairy operation was in decline. Small dairy farms like his were closing in record numbers. The creameries were no longer picking up milk cans; they required bulk tanks, a setup too expensive to be supported by the average herd, which at the time was just 17 cows. All across Vermont, families had to face the end of their dairy farms. In the 10 years after the first bulk tanks in 1953, one-third of the state’s dairy farms closed.
Romaine did attempt to modernize. He had some arthritis in his hands, so a neighbor helped him install electricity in the barn for milking machines. But Romaine didn’t like the machines and soon went back to milking by hand. He also hired hay balers, who came with their machines; before that he had stacked the hay loose in the barn.
The highway was pressing in. He was supposed to be out by April 1, 1964, but he didn’t move. Romaine’s old house and barns were an island in the midst of piles of dirt and boulders. By June the crew was dynamiting within 100 yards of the house. Rocks from one blast had gone through a wall. They leveled the rolling meadows, removing 100,000 cubic yards of earth on both sides of the house. Bulldozers crossed the front yard; the diamond-pane windows were covered in dirt.
Neighbors pleaded with Romaine to auction his antiques and buy a trailer to live in. They’d look after him. They offered him a room and a barn for his animals. They offered to raise money around town for a new house. Romaine refused; he’d take care of himself.
The Tenney family looked into moving the old brick house, but a construction company told them it couldn’t be done. And anyway, it wasn’t the house alone that Romaine cared about–it was the farm, too. The state offered $10,600 for the land and buildings, and then a jury increased the offer to $13,600. Romaine owned the farm with his eight siblings and his mother’s estate; that amount would be split 10 ways. But it didn’t matter. He wasn’t leaving his land, he said repeatedly. He’d been away only once, for military service.
Under eminent domain, the government has the power to take private property for public use without the owner’s consent. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the owner must receive “just compensation,” which has usually been defined as market value. But you couldn’t put a market value on Romaine’s love for his land.
On the afternoon of Friday, September 11, one week after Romaine Tenney’s 64th birthday, Sheriff Melvin Moore and his deputies arrived with a court order. They emptied the horse barn and the sheds of tools, plows, harnesses, wagons. The men “moved gingerly,” one report noted, looking at Romaine, who watched from a side porch for a few minutes before going inside. They stacked it all in two piles under a big elm on the hillside: including the beautiful old bridles with a gold T on the blinders that he took pride in, and an old sleigh. “He loved that sleigh. He used to spend hours polishing it, painting it,” said Emerson’s wife, Peggy.
The first call came in at 2:50 a.m. on Saturday, September 12. The alarm could be heard for two miles; the night sky glowed orange. Romaine’s house, sheds, and barns were blazing. The cow barn across the road was on fire, as were the two piles of harnesses and tools.
Rod Spaulding was one of the first of 30 volunteer firemen on the scene. The whole ell, where Romaine lived, was burning. Spaulding and the fire chief tried to enter the house. The front door was spiked shut. They knocked the door down. Romaine’s dog Spot charged in after them. But a few feet inside there was another door–the one that lead to where Romaine slept–and it was either nailed shut or blocked.
“We just couldn’t go any farther,” Spaulding said. “At the time, we didn’t have any breathing apparatus. That entryway, the hall, was all filling up with smoke. There’s nothing more we could have done. The fire was crackling and setting to burn overhead. Just too far gone.” The fire chief ordered everyone out, knowing the worst: that Romaine was in there. They had to hold Spot back.
Sometime after midnight, Romaine had let his horses and cows free and set the barns on fire. Neighbors believed that he had timed the fire so that no one would see it. The local machine-tool companies were between shifts; no one was on the road. He put his beloved dogs outside, barricaded himself in the house, and set it on fire. Then, probably, he shot himself.
It was an extremely hot fire, so hot that it melted the plastic light on top of the fire chief’s car, which was parked about 80 feet away. “With our little engine with only 100 gallons of water on it, we couldn’t do a thing,” Spaulding recalled. The nearby town of Windsor had also sent 10 men and an engine, but it was no use. The firemen rounded up the cows and spent a half-hour reviving one calf. Neighbors would take the cows and Spot; Romaine’s niece Rosemary would take his other dog, Prince.
Almost 50 years later, that night still upsets Spaulding: “It’s a terrible, helpless feeling. Been through it a couple of times. It’s just terribly hopeless. You go because that’s what we do, and you get there and there’s nothing you can do.”
On the solemn morning after, Romaine’s family stood by the smoldering ruins with hundreds of others. They had been there all night. “‘This can’t be true. This can’t be true,'” Rosemary recalled thinking. “I didn’t know where the animals were. I didn’t know where he was. It was just a total, total loss. And this beautiful farm and this beautiful man and those animals loved him as much he loved them. And it was gone. All over a ridiculous highway–which could have, and should have, taken a big old turn.”
She had seen Romaine just hours before, around midnight. She and her sister, Joan Newcity, and her brother Ron had gone over to the farm with her father to move some of his things to their house. They thought he was going to move in with them. Romaine and her father always took a long time to part, chatting by the car. “That night Romaine cried,” Rosemary recalled. “I remember him saying, ‘I didn’t even milk the cows today.’ He was very emotional.”
“Don’t worry,” Emerson had told him. “We’ll fix you up. There’s got to be some way out of this.”
The firemen searched the woods for Romaine all night and the next day, hoping that he was “sitting up in the back somewhere,” having a good laugh. Rolly and Lois also thought he might be hiding. They put food out in the woods: “We hiked all over the area, calling his name and telling him that there was food and where it was.”
Joan kept seeing Romaine in her dreams. She would dream that he was hiding in a small cavelike space among the ledges up behind the house, where they used to play: “We used to crawl in. In my dreams he was in there, hiding. I always used to think that.”
“For the longest time,” Rosemary said, “we all just expected him to come out of the woods.”
He had said that he was going to burn down his farm. “I was born here and I will die here,” Romaine had said. When his closest neighbor heard the fire siren, she knew: “He has done what he said he was going to do.” Rolly had offered him big boxes to pack his things to move. Rolly was on the school board, and they had just gotten a shipment of new desks that had come in big cardboard cartons. “Well, yeah,” Romaine said slowly after a minute, “and if I don’t use them for that, they burn well.”
He had said goodbye many times, but no one had really believed him. “Toward the end, you’d ask him how he was when you saw him, and he’d say, ‘Living now, but I won’t be living long.’ But it was hard to know if he meant it,” said Deputy Sheriff Gale, who’d known him well. “One minute he spoke like that, and the next he’d be joking and laughing.”
On Friday night, in his last hours, Romaine had visited one of his sisters, Lena Simpson, in Claremont. “You won’t be seeing me anymore,” he’d told her. He’d said the same thing a month earlier to Emerson’s oldest son. Rod had gone off to college and the Army. He was home on leave in August, and he went to see Romaine with his father: “His closing comment was: ‘This will be the last that I see you.’ At that time I said, ‘Oh no, I’ll be back, in six months or so, and I’ll see you then.’ But it was the last time I did see him.”
“Maybe none of us knew him as much as we thought we did,” Spaulding said. “We didn’t know just how he felt about progress.” It was like watching someone drown close to shore.
All weekend, thousands of people drove out to the farm. They stood silently, staring at the smoking ruins, and then drifted away. The state fire marshal arrived on Sunday. Spaulding and a few others worked in the cellar hole all day, carefully moving bricks. Emerson sat nearby on a brick wall, chain-smoking. The fire marshal would pull some bit out of the rubble and hold it up to Emerson, asking, “Know it?” Then he’d return to the grim task.
“In the afternoon we came across an iron bed with a rifle that had been fired, and underneath the iron bed we found some bones,” Spaulding said. They wrapped the blackened bones in brown paper and put them in a metal box, to be sent to the state pathologist.
“How do you know why he would do such a thing?” Emerson said in answer to a reporter’s question. “Pride,” he said. “Progress.” That was the collision.
Emerson “just aged terribly after that,” Joan said. “You could almost see his hair turn white.” Rosemary agreed: “You did see it in his eyes.”
No one in town had ever seen anything like the huge earth-moving machines that were building the highway. They could be heard wherever you went. In the summer heat, in the grip of a long drought, windows were shut against the dirt drifting everywhere.
The town had just lived through another huge project. A few years before the Interstate arrived, the Army Corp of Engineers had built a large flood-control dam and reservoir, submerging for all time Lower Perkinsville. When they put the reservoir in, they took six farms, four covered bridges, and 40 houses.
Spaulding didn’t understand Romaine’s decision at the time of the fire–he was only 24–but as he grew older, he saw that this had been “a traumatic time [for the area] … It seemed to be upheaval there for four or five years, with jobs, the Interstate, the dam. What in the heck [was] going on here?”
When Romaine killed himself, some neighbors and friends felt guilty that he’d been left alone to fight for his land; others were angry with the state for not finding a way to accommodate him. “You can’t treat all old men the same,” Deputy Sheriff Gale noted. “They don’t make old men like machines. Each old man is different. You can’t just move him out like you would a younger man. They didn’t have to do it. Think of it: Here’s a highway that’s costing a million dollars a mile, and they can’t find the money to take care of an old man.”
The construction crew and highway officials were shaken. They respected Romaine’s stubborn stand, even as he was in their way. “He was a damned good old man,” the construction superintendent said. The workers “[went] about it as if they didn’t really want to anymore,” said one news report. “Do you think we wanted this?” said a state highway official. “I’m sick about it.” And yet no state official ever called on the Tenneys to offer condolences.
Tim Murphy, a deputy sheriff in Ascutney, was 74 that summer. He had known Romaine since Romaine was a boy, and he had seen his town changing. “It’s like chess, this progress thing,” Murphy said. “It gets so you don’t run the game anymore. It runs you–or over you.”
The suicide of the old Yankee farmer was national news, picked up by papers from New York to Los Angeles. Romaine rapidly became a symbol: the stubborn Yankee, the farmer who wouldn’t be bought, the man who chose his own death. He personified Vermont. He became the man who stood up against Progress, a lone dissenter against the rush to build 43,000 miles of Interstate across the U.S. The Tenneys got letters from all over the country, from every state. “Lengthy letters, short letters, condolences,” Rosemary said. “Oh my goodness. Yes, hundreds of letters.”
Shortly after the fire, the big machines covered over the cellar hole, dumped thousands of yards of fill to raise the road level, and finished laying out Exit 8 through the blasted rock to meet a rerouted state road. The old farm was cut up and buried. To figure out where it once was, you have to use the construction plans like a treasure map. On the plans, Romaine’s house, sheds, and horse barn trail out like geese trying to cross the road, heading from the proposed southbound lanes and grass median toward an on-ramp. His cow barn sits a couple hundred feet on, square across the southbound lanes.
A couple of parcels remain. The Tenney family owns about 25 acres that the highway missed, and there are two maples. One of them is marked on another plan for a recent improvement of the Park & Ride lot by Exit 8: “Existing 36-inch Tenney farm maple.”
In the years since, Romaine’s death has become an iconic tale. There’s a song (“The Ballad of Romaine Tenney”); his story is told in the Vermont Book of Days and the Rutland Herald/Times Argus‘ “20 in 20,” a roundup of Vermont’s “top 20 stories of the 20th century.” In a way, Joan and Rolly were right: Romaine is still here. His farm is gone, but his spirit won’t leave people alone.
Romaine’s story stands as a regret. Romaine stands as the lost and the last; he’s the lost authentic life, the unrecoverable past. He’s as vanished as the road under our wheels at 65mph. We know that “all is change”–yet we don’t know that. It’s the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. We want Romaine to be there on his farm forever. He is the Vermont we want to believe in. As his niece Gerri wrote, “He not only … represented what Vermont stood for, but also unwittingly took so many of us to task to do the same.” We want the old life, accessible, and we want the new things. Why do we have to give up one for the other? Regret is the literature of progress.
Romaine’s nephews and nieces–the living generation of witnesses to his life–will tell you that he wasn’t a protester. He never waved his pitchfork or shook his fist in anger. He wasn’t an agitator, or even someone who wrote letters to the editor. Romaine was a farmer minding his own business when the world came to his door. In that way, he’s like most of us. History comes and finds us. A terrorist’s bomb announces his grievances and kills people we love. Our government says we have to fight a war in a distant country, and our son or daughter dies there, thousands of miles from home. Or a factory closes and we lose our job and our home. As Americans, we think that we’re masters of our fate, until the truth humbles us. The Interstate was built to speed us along, built to leave things behind, but you can’t outrun history.
Romaine Tenney had the misfortune of living right in the path of the largest peacetime construction project in U.S. history. In fact, the surveyors laying out the highway sited the peak of his barn and aimed I-91 right at it. Any of us can end up in the crosshairs of some surveyor, some big project in the public interest, our house sliced in two by the dotted line on a plan. Romaine may belong more to our future than our past. Look at the scale of the projects now facing small towns and rural places: cell-phone towers and windmills; power lines, gas lines, road widenings; tank farms, runway extensions. The scale of these developments, unimaginable just a decade ago, overpowers the old houses and towns we love. All the easy places have already been built up. We’re all in the way of something, and we’re all as married to our routines as a bachelor farmer. As the New York Journal-American wrote just one week after the fire, “One has the fleeting suspicion that … there may just be a little of Romaine Tenney in each of us, too.”
The loss of this one farm nearly 50 years ago should be a distant event, but the story seems to come at us head on. One online story catches its immediacy. The writer mistakenly called eminent domain imminent domain–but that’s exactly right: imminent, meaning impending, threatening, “in imminent danger of being run over.” It captures the way the state suddenly appears on the horizon and bears down on you, and only then do you discover that your little ship–the Pursuit of Happiness–is just a rowboat. By calling it “imminent” domain, the writer caught the mismatch and how the act of taking is completed at the moment of its announcement. It’s like being told you have cancer: You’re now imprisoned in a story you did not choose.
For us today, Romaine Tenney’s death is the story of “imminent” domain–a story told hundreds of times a year as neighbors face some new road, big-box store, or cell tower. It’s the story that’s being played out right now in the battle over New Hampshire’s Northern Pass power-line project (see “‘My Roots Are Deeper Than Your Pockets,'” in this same issue of Yankee Magazine). Somewhere this week or next, someone will approach the microphone in a tense public meeting and say, “I was born here and I’m going to die here. I won’t sell out. All I ask is to live in peace on this small plot of land. Why can’t you let me live in peace?” And at those times, Romaine Tenney is in the room.
But that’s not the whole story, either. Talk of Romaine’s death overlooks his life, obscuring his gentleness. What people don’t see about this bachelor farmer is that this is a love story. “It’s all centered around love and dedication,” Rosemary said. “He was born there. He loved the land. He loved farming. He loved–I’m talking truly loved. He worked hard every day, seven days a week, and it was all out of love–not out of duty or commitment or need.”
“We put that on his gravestone,” Joan said, “and it’s true: ‘Guardian of his land & friend to all.’ And that’s what he was.”
“It was the love of the land,” Rosemary said. “That’s all it was.”
And that is what makes Exit 8 on Interstate 91 in Vermont just about the saddest spot along thousands of miles of highway.