After a fire devastated a small New Hampshire farm, neighbors came together to keep the owners’ dream alive.
By Mel Allen
Feb 27 2007
Illustration by Ru_iStock
Let’s start just before the fire. Just before flames tore through the hayloft stacked with 5,000 bales. Just before the smoke billowed through the barn, the cows terrified and men fighting back panic, struggling to get the herd out before everything burned down. Because to understand the loss of a single small family farm, it helps to see what was there before.
It’s August 27, 2004. Early evening, about 6 p.m., dinnertime, except farmers don’t eat until the chores are finished and there was still the last wagon of hay to get in, and the cleanup after milking. The farm is called Spooky View, named for the cemetery that abuts its land, and it’s one of only three dairy farms remaining in Epsom, New Hampshire, a small town east of Concord. A generation ago there were eight. It’s an old story — the decline of the family dairy, the land sold to developers for housing lots — but consider: In the 1920s there were more than 14,000 such farms in the state; as late as 1983, there were still 625. On this summer day, Spooky View Farm is one of only 135, and it is one of the smallest.
Inside the barn, Keith Bachelder has just finished milking his 35 cows and feeding an equal number of heifers. Keith owns the cows, having bought them from his parents seven years earlier, but everyone helps out — dad, mom, sister, brother, relatives, friends. It’s how small family farms have always made do. Only a few weeks before, he has finally paid off the loan to buy the herd. Outside, his father, Charles, along with cousins and friends, is throwing the last bales onto the hay elevator that trundles to the second-story loft. Charles and his wife, Ruth, bought this farm in the early 1970s when Keith was a baby. Charles is well into his 60s, and he’s spent nearly every day of his life on farms.
If you look around, you’ll see right away that this is no postcard dream of a farm. Four old tractors and parts lie here and there, ready to give life to another machine. The barn sidles against a garage — the garage to the main house where Ruth and Charles live — all of it useful, none of it especially photogenic. Across the street is the house Keith shares with Sarah, his sister, and just up the road, next door to the farmhouse, lives Brent, their brother. Family and cats are everywhere. A working farm. Home. Where they raised the animals they showed at fairs, and friends came over for Ruth’s home cooking and cakes and cold glasses of freshly ladled milk.
Ruth grew up on a dairy farm right here in Epsom. “We did all the milking by hand,” she says, “my brothers on one side, me on the other.” She and Charles started going together when Ruth was in high school. “He was a farm boy and I was a farm girl,” she says. They married in 1963 and built a home together, waiting and looking to find a farm.
“The first time I saw this land,” she says, “this fella had lost his wife, so he was selling. The house was half tore up, rain was pouring through the roof. A real mess. We went to the bank and said we’d like to buy it. They thought we were crazy. It was $25,000, and I thought, We’ll be in debt forever. We started with nothing. But this was going to be our future.”
That was in 1970. Every night when Charles got finished working at a nearby farm, he and Ruth came up here and stayed into the night fixing things up. “We’ve always been a couple,” Ruth says. “We milked together. Got sawdust together, hayed together. I only got mad at my husband once. I slammed the barn door and then went back and did chores.” They went to auctions together, too, building their herd one cow at a time. “November 12, 1971,” Ruth says. “It was Keith’s third birthday and we had cake and the milk truck came for our first shipment of milk.”
To pay the bills, Charles kept on at the neighbor’s farm and Ruth did the milking and chores at Spooky View, hauling 50-pound pails of milk across the barn. She came to the farm with two small children and soon had two more. By then, Charles was staying here at Spooky View. They joined a milk co-op and checks came twice a month. “Always on the 5th and 20th,” Ruth says. “That’s when you sat down and paid bills. Some years were awful lean. We just had to cut back then. It was just so hard to keep going.” But even while farmers all around them cashed in their land, they stayed. “I can’t tell you how rewarding the farm life is,” Ruth says. “Every kid had chores. Then they’d go off and play, and when dinner was ready, I’d get out in the middle of the road and yell and they’d come running.”
They had only 14 acres of pasture, not enough to grow their own feed. Whenever they had a little money, they added to the herd, building up to 35 milkers. One night, Charles went to the Deerfield Fair to watch the horse pull. He was leaning on a fence and somehow he caught his finger up in a halter, and the horse snapped it right off. When the call came, Ruth gathered up the kids, they got the cows milked, and then they went to the hospital. “It’s just the way it was,” Ruth says. “The cows always had to come first.”
Keith saw how hard his parents were working, how tight life was financially after all that time, and he went into welding, working a lot in high-rise construction. But he stayed a farm boy at heart and kept working here and there for other dairy farmers, all the while looking around for his own land. The farm he was meant to be on was right in front of him all along. Ruth took stock of her age and Charles’s. She wanted the farm to stay in the family. “I said to Dad,” Ruth recalls, “‘We should see if we can sell the cows to Keith.’ Dad asked Keith if he wanted to farm.” Yes, he really did.
And that is why on this summer evening Keith has just finished milking and Charles is throwing the last bale onto the elevator, which is overheating, though nobody knows it. He looks up and sees the flames. “Fire!” he yells, and then everyone starts running for the animals. The next few minutes are gone from Keith’s memory: “I don’t remember nothing. I still don’t and I don’t know as I want to,” he says.
What he doesn’t remember is how the barn seemed to fill with people pulling and tugging at the cows until all but one were out, how the cows ambled about bewildered until they could be herded together in the pasture. Firemen from 13 towns came screaming up Center Hill Road, but the flames fed on that hay and tore through the woodwork until there was nothing left but mounds of ashes. Neighbors came running and carried to safety every scrap of belongings from the house, even Ruth’s cookbooks, because it was touch and go for a while as to whether the house would also catch fire.
Ruth had been out visiting with Sarah; driving back, she saw the black smoke rising and she knew her life’s work was burning down. “I kept saying, ‘Did I leave the stove on? Did I leave it on?'” The finances of a small family farm are always precarious, and Ruth and Charles and Keith had not increased their insurance over the years to keep up with what it would cost to rebuild. The animals were safe, but without the means to rebuild, surely they would have to be sold; Spooky View Farm seemed destined to become one more small-print item in the papers announcing one more auction.
Except the death of this family farm took a twist. Epsom’s fire chief, Stewart Yeaton, is also a dairy farmer, and he never hesitated. He told the Bachelders the cows would go to his barn a few miles away, and, in the dark, the air thick with acrid smoke, everyone around who had a livestock trailer drove to the pasture and loaded up the animals. Before dawn, Keith and Charles drove over to the Yeaton farm and milked their cows. “There isn’t a farmer around here that likes a handout,” Yeaton told a local reporter, “but we’ve got to help them out. It’s just what we do. We rally, pick up, and help the other guy get going again.”
Here’s what happened next: Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help. Farmers from Pembroke, Bedford, and Contoocook delivered hay. One farmer dropped off more than $2,000 worth of it. All the local stores sprouted donation cans and people filled them up. Keith continued to wake at 4 each morning to drive to the Yeatons’ to do the milking and to soothe his cows while emerging from his own shock. “I didn’t know I was going to rebuild,” Keith says. But it was as though everyone willed him to. He designed a new barn in his head, one that would let the cows have more freedom to roam and mingle. People brought supplies, lent their expertise and muscle. A local company brought a crane and put up rafters. A neighbor came by with a loader and another with gravel to level the land. “People just came to help from everywhere,” Ruth says. Slowly the new barn took shape on the land.
For a year and a half, the family missed their cows, as if they, too, were family. “We didn’t hear mooing,” Sarah says. “It was eerie.” Ruth remembers how unsettling it became not to smell manure. “And I always used to hear the chains rattle and the milking machine pump go on and off. So quiet. It wasn’t the same.”
Then last winter, on February 11, 2006, the first truckload of cows left the Yeaton farm to come home to their new barn. “We were so happy,” Ruth says. “We opened the gate and they came running.” They put a sign out front: “Cows Are Home.” If you go by the farm today, you’ll see Keith and Charles on the go from 5 in the morning until past 7 at night. The same chores every day, the days that Keith vows will stretch to months and years, a life that few can understand unless it’s in their blood — and if it’s in their blood, they know better than anyone that there are some fires that never burn out.