Poore Family Farm | Here in New England

In New Hampshire’s North Country, an old farmer left a legacy unlike any other.

By Mel Allen

Apr 11 2013

John Calvin Kenneth Poore

John Calvin Kenneth Poore

Photo Credit : Laino, Joel

Imagine a house that held everything that you’d ever touched. The books you read; diaries and journals; your toys; your clothes; your shoes; the board games you played and the jigsaw puzzles you pieced together on winter nights by the glow of lantern light. Baseballs plucked from the weeds after Fourth of July games, when the town men challenged the country boys; the quilts that warmed you as a child and that still warmed you when you were old. The school papers you wrote; the maps that showed a world that seemed too big to ever grasp; the letters and cards that friends and family sent you telling of births and deaths and news from afar. The clothes you wore as a child, and those you wore as a grownup; the newspapers that recounted the comings and goings in your town from the day you were born to the day you died; magazines with cover stories on President Teddy Roosevelt. Every button that ever fell off; every fragment of cloth and string; pots that boiled beans and pans that fried bacon. Tools that helped you make a living; carts and buggies and harnesses and horseshoes and yokes for oxen; receipts for anything you ever bought, telling a story of hard times deeper than the numbers.

Then imagine the same house holding the life of your grandfather and of your father, too, who was born in 1835. And your mother; a sister; a brother. All the things needed to live a hardscrabble farm life in a five-bedroom house that had never known indoor plumbing, electricity, or running water; where the food was cooled in a room that stood above a clear, cold spring. And all the things that entered your life never ever left. Because if you paid for something, you needed it, and if you needed it, there would always be a way to use it. Always. The leather sole of a boot worn to the nub would resurface as a door hinge; a piece of wire mesh nailed to a stick killed flies. Layers and layers of stuff, a stratified human geology waiting to be unearthed. What would that look like?

On this summer day in Stewartstown, New Hampshire, seven miles north of Colebrook on Route 145, in Coos County in the far north of the Granite State, I am about to find out.

The sign for the Poore Family Foundation for North Country Conservancy, which everyone calls simply the Poore Family Farm, comes up abruptly. It’s a clean summer morning, puffy clouds, bees buzzing, the smell of newly mown grass leading to walking trails through land that stretches for 100 acres on both sides of the road. I see a few cars parked in a shaded area, and a truck with Pennsylvania plates, bicycles tied to its roof. On a small rise is a pretty flower garden and a farmhouse and barn.

Richard (Rick) Johnsen and Mark Winer wait by the information booth, the size of a lemonade stand. A sign requests a donation to tour the grounds and the homestead/farm museum, but nobody is ever turned away. They’re six-footers, in their early sixties: Rick with the ponytail he’s worn since his youth, Mark in a white ball cap and a Poore Family Farm T-shirt. Their New York accents haven’t been dulled much by their nearly 40 years in the north.

Rick hands me a map–a walking tour of all the outbuildings, with highlighted details. “A lot of people just want to wander,” he says. “Others like to be guided.”

“I want to tell you about Kenneth Poore,” he begins. “We’re here because of him. John Calvin Kenneth Poore was born in 1885 and died in 1983. He lived here his entire life. Mark knew him first, but I’ll give the spiel.” But before he says another word, a man bounds up to us.

“Can I interrupt you guys?” he says. His voice fairly trembles with excitement. “I don’t know who you are. I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I’m on my honeymoon, and I’ve just spent the last hour here. And it’s unbelievable, fascinating. Without a doubt, this should be preserved with every ounce of effort. You have to sell the rights to HBO and they’ll make a series. All the stories here!”

His name is Chris Lisowski. He tells us he’s 35, a high-school art teacher and artist in the Pittsburgh area with hopes of one day teaching kids how to renovate old houses. He and his wife have been biking in Vermont and are now taking the North Country route to Maine. They saw the sign and pulled in. I ask what has him so excited. “You’ll see it,” he says. “It’s a step back in time. It’s a hoarder’s dream. Everything in there is history.” He’s quiet for a moment, trying, it seems, to contain himself. “The letters–I just sat there reading the letters. You can’t stop looking at stuff!”

Hours later, as I drove away, after I’d walked through the house, the barns, the sheds; walked through the fields and woods down to the stream; read the letters and heard the story of Kenneth Poore and the young people he embraced and who embraced him, and the promise they made, I thought that there may not be any other place like this anywhere. This is history peeled back, stripped of ceremony, as if the spirits of those who lived here still hover. If only the teacher from Pittsburgh had known how all this had come to be, all that he’d seen and touched. How excited would he have been then?

In one sense, the story begins with Moses Heath, “a Paul Bunyan-like character, ” Mark says. Heath cleared the land and built the first structures in the early 1820s, until he sold the farm to Job Poore in 1832, who left it to his son, John Calvin Poore, Kenneth’s father, who, when he died in 1918, left it to Kenneth. “They were not rich people,” Mark says as we walk to the farmhouse. “The rich people had the bottomland, the riverland. These are the hill people. This was the far north. They came because they could homestead.”

I could continue with who begat whom and how the branches spread, but those stories could once be told about any of hundreds of old farms where people were born and died under the same roof. Most of those farms are gone now, the stories all but lost, while this one still stands, so that’s why this story begins on a spring day in 1974.

“I’m renting a house around the corner [from the Poore Farm],” Mark says. “I was a back-to-the-lander, escaping my upbringing. Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had an old station wagon. I was driving by, and I see this old man shuffling up the road, tattered overalls, old hat. He was walking up from the cemetery with clippers in his hand. I soon learned that he was paid 50 cents each time he cleared around the headstones. I’m thinking I could give this old guy a ride. So I pull over. And I look out at this old, wizened face, and I look up to these blue sparkling eyes. He’s nearly 90, and he has the eyes of a 5-year-old. And before I can say anything, he says, ‘I guess you’re looking for me.’ I said, ‘Do you want a ride?’ ‘No, I live right there,’ he says. I said, ‘I live around the corner.’ He goes, ‘Oh, I heard there was a hippie in the neighborhood.’

“There were 64 years between us. But he was totally different from my grandfathers. They were from Russia, the old country. One was a very religious Hasidic Jew. The other never spoke to me. So I started going over [to Kenneth’s]. I’d go into the house, and he was living now in one room. His housekeeper, Alfa, really the love of his life, had died 10 years before. You ever been with somebody you don’t know that well and the silence is okay? It was fine with us. I’d come down and pitch hay or give him a ride to town. We got friendly. He was a true American Victorian. If he was working in the garden and a woman stopped by, he’d take off his old battered hat. Always polite. No teeth. Hard to understand him sometimes.”

Rick Johnsen moved north from the city too, not long after, along with all the other young people who came looking for a sense of belonging in the ’70s, who found one another and found in Kenneth Poore a touchstone. A man whose life was as straight as the blade of his axe: He woke early, worked hard for little money. He sold butter, cut wood, set traps in the freezing streams, traded with neighbors, dabbled in taxidermy: a little of everything, enough to keep going, enough to pay the taxes. There was food from the gardens and animals and the woods and waters. He read anything he could get from the town’s tiny library. He wore frugality like a skin. He told stories of his father’s Civil War and the day his father came back from Colebrook in his horse and buggy, carrying the news that Sitting Bull was dead.

“He loved people,” Mark says. “He never married, never had children, and he loved this renaissance of people who came up from the cities. People were interested in the old skills, and Kenneth had lived those skills. He became a kind of celebrity to us. We took him to parties and came to the farm for parties. We took him to movie nights. We celebrated his birthday with him on July 5 every year.”

“We wanted to get back to the land,” Rick adds, “but Kenneth was already there. He’d never left it.” Once Kenneth told them, “I don’t know about this country, but with you young people maybe there’s hope.”

We enter the house gingerly. With the help of volunteers, young and old, they’ve strengthened it, bolstered it, put in electricity so that visitors can see better, but its hard life shows. We go to the bedroom where Kenneth slept on a straw-mattress rope bed; into another bedroom with women’s clothes hanging from a line, all pressed as if waiting for someone to slip into them; into a parlor; and slide our way into the kitchen, which looks as if Kenneth has just left on an errand. In a corner hangs a calendar from 1953.

“He had the same breakfast every day,” Mark says. “He had overalls on, he had his longjohns on. I don’t care if it was July or January, he wore the same clothes. He’d start a fire in the woodstove. He’d boil potatoes in the pot. He’d put coffee on. He’d fry some bacon. He’d take the bacon out, then fry the potatoes in the bacon grease. And he’d put the bacon back in and crack an egg in there. He’d eat all that for breakfast. Then he’d eat a doughnut with a piece of cheese and a second cup of coffee. He’d do that 365 days a year.”

They warn me to watch my head as they lead me upstairs to a room that looks out to the garden. In 1975, when Kenneth Poore took a fall and could no longer care for himself on the isolated farm, Mark moved into this room. He tapped maple trees, pumped water, shaved Kenneth, shared his table. “I was a mystery to my father,” Mark admits. “He couldn’t understand what I was doing here.”

In 1979, when Kenneth was 94, he told his friends of his vision and his hope. His vision was that somehow the homestead could be preserved after he died. With a lawyer’s help, he formed the Poore Family Foundation for North Country Conservancy. When he died, the land and the buildings and all the things they held would go to the foundation. But a foundation is merely a name on paper. His hope was that his young friends would be the ones to keep it alive. Mark said he would. Rick said he would. Others said they would. On a summer day in 1983, Kenneth Poore suffered a heart attack, lingered a few months, and then died in October.

He was buried in a plain wooden box in the cemetery whose stones he had kept clipped, beside his father and mother. Mark and Rick and their friends dug the grave by hand. They were now responsible for a farmstead that had stayed untouched since long before the Civil War. A house and barns, all falling down. No money. They had made a promise, but they had no idea how to keep it.

They call the next decade “the dark years.” They had a foundation but no training: raw material, but no clear plan for how to make it a living museum. Rick crawled into attic eaves, looked beneath beds, searched outbuildings, finding boxes and trunks filled with papers and clothing, diaries and journals. So many things; unpacking them was like sweeping sand from a beach. Every foray into a dark corner, every climb into a barn rafter, unearthed something more. Mark moved back to the city for a while, and the homestead proved impossible to keep secure. Even today, 30 years later, Rick will receive a call or a letter saying that someone has found a Poore family keepsake in an attic where it didn’t belong, and it makes its way home.

In 1994, with little meaningful progress toward opening a museum, and with even the local newspaper urging Rick and the others to give up the dream, the state attorney general took the foundation to court, seeking to dissolve it, wanting to sell the land and the buildings, with the proceeds going to other nonprofits that seemed to know what they were doing. “It was do or die,” Rick says.

“That got us going,” Mark adds. “[They] put our backs to the wall and we realized we’d gotten into perfection paralysis. We needed the public to see this.” They reorganized the board, and Rick Johnsen became the chairman. “We fought, and we came out on top,” Rick says. In 1995 they announced that on Kenneth Poore’s birthday, July 5, they would open with cake and lemonade. They spruced up the grounds and repaired the split-rail fence. The house was too shaky for visitors to come inside, but they filled the upper floor of the large barn with displays. Rick’s wife, Michele, made signs that announced Museum Open by the side of the road.

But would anyone show up?

The first day, maybe 100 curious locals came; word spread, and the next day it was double that. For many it was like seeing the lives of their grandparents come to life. Eugene Reid, who teaches building trades to high-schoolers in nearby Canaan, Vermont, came on board with his students, and for the past 15 years they’ve poured their sweat into making crumbling roofs and walls solid and whole. Volunteers cleared decades of manure from barns, cut trails; Rick learned the nuances of applying for grants. Volunteers built a sawmill and milled the lumber from the woods; they built a nature-center cabin and a stage so that performers could play to people sitting in the meadow. Exhibits grew, and still more stuff came out of boxes.

And then one day in 2004, a woman came for a tour and found her life’s work. “We took on all these projects,” Rick says, “but Linda Tillotson took on the house.”

When Rick Johnsen first showed Linda around, she was stunned. Raised in Montreal, she had married Rick Tillotson, whose father was the most influential man in New Hampshire’s North Country. “They were all doing the best they could,” she says. “The rooms were packed with artifacts. I’m the type of person who likes to dig into dirty drawers and make them neat. I jumped in and I didn’t stop.”

She stripped the closets and drawers and boxes of their clothing, boiled and ironed every piece from longjohns to dresses, and then displayed them in the house and barn. “I don’t love ironing,” she says, “but I loved every second of ironing those clothes–bringing these dirt-filled clothes into new life.”

She carted home thousands of pages of diaries, journals, and letters; hour by hour she transcribed each one. “They gave an insight into a whole other world,” she says. Now visitors can spend hours with the light slanting through the barn and relive the ordinary and extraordinary moments of lives long past.

“I grew to love the farm,” Linda says. “I’d sit outside on the balcony, drink a cup of coffee, and feel Kenneth’s father. I relived his life. Relived the Civil War.” And one night she typed these words from John Calvin Poore’s diary: “1885. A baby boy born 4 this morning.”

“I still have all of Kenneth’s papers to do,” Linda says. “It’s part of my world, and I won’t stop until it’s done. This is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in my life.”

At the end of the day, I asked Rick and Mark about what lay ahead. They said that each year they run out of money; then they scrap and fight for a way to keep going. They want to put together a book of the Poore family’s Civil War-era letters as a fundraiser. They’ve hosted weddings here and want more. Each August they hold a big country concert, and they want other events. “I believe this area needs this,” Rick said.

“We’re just the stewards,” Mark added. “We don’t own this. This is part of Coos County. This is living history.”

I drove away thinking of Kenneth Poore, thinking that I felt I already knew him, and thinking that if a place has the power to change lives, then sometimes people, too, can change a place. I’d found here on a country road people who cared about an old farmer and what his way of life meant, who found a way to keep it from vanishing, from the land and from memory. And I kept hearing Rick’s voice as I said goodbye: “There’s still so much stuff to unpack. So much stuff!”

For more information or to make a donation, visit PooreFarm.org.

Web Extra: View more photos of the Poore Family Farm.