There can’t be many farmers in New England more well known or loved by neighbors than Bert Southwick, who lives in the same farmhouse his parents found in 1918 on a ridge set back from Zion Hill Road in Northfield, New Hampshire. Except for a stint with the National Guard in the late 1940s, he […]
By Mel Allen
Apr 25 2008
“A clean egg tastes better,” says Bert Southwick.Photo Credit : Kalinowski, Matt
There can’t be many farmers in New England more well known or loved by neighbors than Bert Southwick, who lives in the same farmhouse his parents found in 1918 on a ridge set back from Zion Hill Road in Northfield, New Hampshire. Except for a stint with the National Guard in the late 1940s, he has spent nearly every night of his 84 years on this ridge.
The house needs work. His parents papered the walls some 60 years ago, but there’s no time for cosmetics. He never married, his parents died, his brother left for upstate New York, and not long ago his sister moved across the river to assisted living, leaving Bert to move relentlessly from one chore to the next until daylight is gone. “I have to do what five of us did,” he says.
Some of the outbuildings that sprawl across Bert’s 250 acres seem to be hanging on for dear life, but each has a purpose: a henhouse, a slaughterhouse, a sugaring shack, buildings to store machinery and the old tractor and plow he uses to clear his neighbors’ driveways, a shed for an ancient green milk cart with red wooden wheels that he bought as a teenager for $25, a barn filled with horses and pigs. Sheds filled with so many bits and pieces and scraps of a farm family’s life it seems that little that wasn’t edible has ever left the land.
Bert ended his formal education at age 14 so that he could help full-time on the farm. “The only place I ever did work,” he says, counting off what seems like a thousand ways he and his father made money here: growing vegetables, spreading manure, selling firewood, haying, selling homemade pork sausage, selling horses, pigs, pumpkins.
He’s the most famous man in town — two towns actually, since only the Winnipesaukee River separates Northfield from Tilton, and Bert belongs to both. Over the years reporters and TV people from near and far have found his farm, always on Fridays. They come on Fridays because that’s when he hitches his horse to the boxy green cart with red wooden wheels and takes his eggs and vegetables to town, winding through the streets of Northfield, across the river, and through downtown Tilton, stopping at houses, apartments, fire stations, post offices, a nursing home, libraries, a beauty salon … door after door, carrying cartons of eggs he’s collected, sorted, and cleaned from his dutiful hens. They come because he may well be the only horse-and-buggy egg man left in the nation, but also because in a world of change, he’s now into his 71st year of bringing eggs to his neighbors.
Since he began in 1937, seven horses have pulled Bert’s cart: Ned, Dinah, Dolly, Misty, Miss Gray, Bob, and Mischief. “I like horses that like to sleep and ain’t too anxious to get to some other place,” Burt says. “The first day I took Dolly alone was the day President Kennedy was shot,” he remembers. “Dolly went with her mother, Dinah, and when her mother was over 30 and failing, I took the harness off her and gave it to Dolly. Then when she was 14, she died with no warning in the heat of summer. So I had to educate another. Misty was three colors. Pretty wide awake. First couple years, had to make sure she was tied. After three or four years, she got used to it. Hard to get any better by the time she stopped.” Bert’s customers remember when Misty died; tears rolled down his cheeks whenever he’d talk about her. Now Mischief, Misty’s daughter, is into her 14th year.
For years Bert’s egg route covered some 200 stops, scattered over a six- to eight-mile route that would take him all day, what with kids feeding apples to his horse and small talk with customers. In time, a lot of them moved away, or died, but he still delivers at least 100 dozen eggs a week. He figures he’s sold close to six million eggs. If you add up the miles he’s clip-clopped down these roads, he’s crossed America eight times.
In 1995, when a spanking-new elementary school was built on land he and his family had cleared years ago, the children asked that it be named Southwick School. At the entrance is a fine engraved sign showing Bert’s famous cart and horse. “It was the horse and wagon who named the school,” he says, “not me.”
Bert made his Friday rounds with horse and cart no matter the weather, sitting beside a small heater, “on days snowing so hard couldn’t see two telephone poles ahead of you,” he says. But just after Christmas 2001, he lost his footing and stumbled while hoisting himself back into the cart. If he had let go of the reins, people say, he would have been okay, but he held on and the cart rolled over him. He broke four ribs, and pneumonia set in, while Northfield and Tilton held their breath.
His friend Harold Kelley picked up the deliveries in his truck, but the first Friday Bert got out of the hospital, he climbed in beside Harold. He keeps the cart under cover during the winter now and lets Harold truck him around until spring. Then when the snow is gone and the fields green up, he tells Mischief it’s time.
One late winter morning with snow piled high on the ridge, I join the men on the route. I find Bert in the barn, carrying hay to his horses. “Good morning,” I say. “Where’d you find a good one?” he answers. With the barn chores finished, he squeezes through his narrow front door into the warm kitchen. His knees are shot, and if he sits for a while he rises stiffly before picking up momentum, so he doesn’t sit much, except to sort his eggs and pick feathers off them here in the kitchen, which is heated with the same black Glenwood stove his father bought after World War I for $35. That stove and a wood furnace below have warmed him since birth. I ask about backup heat as he readies his eggs. “Backup is me putting in more wood,” he replies.
Bert changes into a faded gray coat — “his Friday coat,” Harold points out, “only times he wears it” — and the men fill the truck with eggs and set off. At the end of the long rutted drive, Harold turns left onto Zion Hill Road, past the school that bears Bert’s name, and then pulls into the heart of Northfield. Bert tells of the changes in Northfield and Tilton brought by I-93 racing past their borders: how he’s seen houses that sold for $1,800 now fetching $240,000, his watery blue eyes reflecting amazement at how that came to be, and how for the past two decades he drops off eggs and rarely sees anyone at home, where for so long he’d be met at the door by mothers with a smile and cozy conversation.
Through the morning Bert fills his arms with cartons and places them inside the doors of houses, and from time to time he finds a few dollars tucked inside an empty carton. He carries a pencil in his pocket so that he can jot down figures, but he rarely does. At one house Harold asks, “Isn’t she away?” “She said to leave two dozen a week until she gets back,” Bert answers. “She eats more eggs when she’s not home.”
We stop at the local fuel oil company. A man named Walter Hill sees me sitting next to Bert with a notebook. “So they’re still after you,” he says. “Well, they’re down to pretty small entertainment,” Bert quips. The local librarian says, almost apologetically, “No eggs this week, Bert.” “Didn’t you work up an appetite?” he replies. And so the morning passes, up and down stairs, snatches of hellos whenever someone sees him.
We’re back at the farmhouse by early afternoon. Hours of chores stretch ahead. Hens are laying the next week’s batch. Slouching against the wind, Bert will soon head off to the henhouse with his wire basket. In a few days he’ll slaughter one of his pigs; there’s a waiting list for the sausage. The winter would be a lot longer, he says, if he didn’t have so much to do. With so much snow it’s hard to see spring, but Bert does. As soon as the soil warms, he’ll plant Swiss chard, potatoes, cranberry beans, corn — enough vegetables to feed anyone along his route who asks.
And one Friday in early May he’ll hitch up Mischief, load the cart with eggs and some horse feed and a cheese sandwich for himself, and he’ll start down the ridge, swing left on Zion Hill Road, eggs jostling behind him: a man with work to do who has found that he needn’t travel more than a few miles to see all he’s ever wanted or needed.