Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town

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9780739309131: Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town

In March 1986, while living in Brooklyn, Chris Bohjalian and his wife were cab-napped on a Saturday night and taken on a forty-five-minute joy ride in which the driver ignored all traffic lights and stop signs. Around midnight he deposited the young couple on a near-deserted street, where police officers were about to storm a crack house. Bohjalian and his wife were told to hit the ground for their own protection. While lying on the pavement, Bohjalian's wife suggested that perhaps it was time to move to New England.

Months later they traded in their co-op in Brooklyn for a century-old Victorian house in Lincoln, Vermont (population 975), and Bohjalian began chronicling life in that town in a wide variety of magazine essays and in his newspaper column, "Idyll Banter."

These pieces, written weekly for twelve years and collected here for the first time, serve as a diary of both this writer's life and how America has been transformed in the last decade. Rich with idiosyncratic universals that come with being a parent, a child, and a spouse, Chris Bohjalian's personal observations are a reflection of our own common experience.

"Chris Bohjalian is a terrific columnist—thoughtful and thought-provoking. Just like me! No, really, this guy is good." —Dave Barry, author of Boogers Are My Beat

“The best book I’ve ever read about life in a contemporary village. There’s no doubt that Chris Bohjalian has established himself as one of America’s finest, most thoughtful, and most humane writers.”
—Howard Frank Mosher
From the Hardcover edition.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

CHRIS BOHJALIAN is the award-winning author of eight novels, including The Buffalo Soldier, Trans-sister Radio, The Law of Similars, and Midwives.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Now That the Cows Are Gone

The sun wouldn't rise for two more hours, but by 5:00 in the morning Tom Densmore was in the barn milking cows. When the trucks arrived shortly before 8:00-two the length of tractor trailers and a third perhaps half that long-he had finished milking the animals, but he hadn't begun to disassemble the feed carts or milking machines. That would have to wait until the afternoon.

It took Densmore and the truckers three hours to march his sixty-head herd up the metal ramps into the trucks, about what the thirty-four-year-old farmer had expected. By 11:30, the trucks were beginning their slow descent on the steep road that had led them up to the Vermont hill farm, winding past miles of new-growth forest, and then through the center of town, with its immaculate white church, general store, and two dozen village houses with sharply pitched roofs.

The animals arrived at the auction barn, about three hours away, in midafternoon. It took auctioneer Herb Gray less than ninety minutes to dispose of the herd, selling the milking cows one by one and some of the calves in small groups. Most of the cows brought Densmore $800 to $1,100 each, while the calves went for $200 to $700 apiece-not enough to pull him completely out of debt.

Densmore's mother, sister, and one of his brothers stood by him as his cows were scattered to farms across Vermont and New Hampshire. Nita, Nola, and Nicki-alliteration that signaled the cows were from the same family-were separated, as were three of Densmore's best producers: Kim, Amy, and Fayne. Every year they gamely produced well over 16,000 pounds of milk each.

Densmore's sixty-head herd was small even by Vermont standards, but it represented the last dairy farm in Lincoln, and the auction last December formally marked the end of an era. Lincoln, a village thirty miles southeast of Burlington, boasted forty-six active dairy farms as recently as 1945. Today there are none. There may be an occasional cluster of cows or beef cattle visible on the hillsides that roll throughout Lincoln, but there will be no more silver trucks from the Eastern Milk Producers Cooperative winding their way through town or trying to negotiate the narrow roads that link the homes in the hills.

Like many of Vermont's small rural towns, Lincoln has changed. In 1950, there were 11,019 dairy farms in Vermont. Today there are barely 2,300. The farms that remain are bigger-an average Vermont dairy farm has seventy-three milking cows, up from fifty-five as recently as 1978-and the cows produce more milk: roughly 15,500 pounds per cow per year these days, versus 11,500 pounds fifteen years ago.

Some of the farms disappeared simply because the farmers grew too old to milk fifty or sixty cows twice a day, and their children chose more lucrative occupations: carpentry or real estate or manufacturing jobs in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Other farmers got out when they discovered that while they may have been cash-poor, their land was valued by down-country immigrants: Selling a few acres a year might take care of the property taxes. And some farmers simply became frustrated by the economics of the industry. The price of milk today is unchanged from 1978, but the cost of producing that milk-everything from seed to the taxes on the land-has risen.

Some of the changes in Lincoln are immediately apparent: Meadows and pastures that once were farms have become forest. New homes have appeared in the past twelve months on both sides of the white clapboard building that houses the town clerk's office. Other changes may be harder to see, but they are no less significant: The three men and women who are Lincoln's selectmen this year are from Pittsburgh, Boston, and Grinnell, Iowa. One of them has lived in Lincoln barely two years.

What was once a largely self-contained community in which everyone worked his own land or was employed by one of the local mills that peppered the New Haven River, a community in which everyone knew how everyone else would vote at town meeting each March, has been transformed.

And it has been transformed, at least in part, by people like me. My wife and I discovered Lincoln in 1986. At the time we were living in Brooklyn, New York, in a modest apartment with windows that boasted bulletproof glass. She was a unit trust trader, and I was an advertising executive. We had grand visions of upward mobility, something we defined as a bigger apart- ment in a worse neighborhood. We knew the last names of most of our neighbors in the five-story brownstone in which we lived because we saw their names on the mailboxes, but we knew few first names, and rarely could we have matched a last name to a face.

At some point that spring, we decided to move to Vermont. I had never set foot in the state, and my wife hadn't been there since she spent a month at a summer camp near Lake Champlain. We had certainly never heard of a village called Lincoln.

But we had a shared vision of Vermont that drew us north: an image of green hills dotted with black-and-white Holsteins, an ethic of hard work that was symbolized for us by a mythic image of a barn lit before daybreak. We imagined villages in which everyone knew everyone's name and neighbors took care of one another. We imagined a place like Lincoln.

Lincoln sits in a valley midway up Mount Abraham, a 4,000-foot mountain, at an elevation of about 1,200 feet. Geography is destiny here. People do not stumble upon the town by accident or because they are driving between Burlington and Rutland. The center of Lincoln is located three miles off a two-lane road that continues thirty miles northwest into Burlington. The road to Lincoln coils uphill, twisting through rocky hills thick with maple and pine and ash.

Residents take pride in the town's isolation and in the fact that its growing season is ten days shorter than Bristol's, a village only four miles away but situated at a much lower elevation. Some years, there are midsummer frosts heavy enough to kill young pumpkins the size of softballs.

Mount Abraham, known once as Potato Hill, towers over Lincoln and is shaped more like a toppled peach than a potato. The population of the town is about 975 people, an increase of 100 residents since 1980 but still well below the 1,400 people who lived here a century ago. By the time my wife and I arrived in Lincoln, most of the dairy farms were already gone, but there were still enough cows that the place could be mistaken for a farming community by someone who didn't know better.

There were three dairy farmers in town in 1986. There was Tom Densmore, who was renting a hundred acres from Paul Goodyear, land that Paul and his wife, Wanda, had farmed since 1945. There was Herb Parker, with fifty cows and fifty heifers, who somehow managed to cut hay in fields steep enough for a ski slope. And there was Norman Strickholm, a man in his early thirties who was renting land for his cows from retired farmers Fletcher and Harriett Brown-land that, according to the Browns, Robert Frost had once offered to buy.

The road turns to dirt as it passes Paul and Wanda Goodyear's farm. It continues upward toward the Lincoln Gap and over the mountain to Warren, but it isn't plowed in the winter and becomes impassable sometime around Halloween. In the winter, the Goodyears really do live at the end of the road.

Paul Goodyear arrived in Lincoln in 1945, bringing with him ten cows and a pair of horses from Hancock, a town about one-third the size of Lincoln, on the other side of the mountain. He paid $1,600 for 167 acres, a farmhouse, and a barn. According to the town appraisal, his property is worth $209,000 today. For forty years Paul and Wanda ran a dairy farm in the shadow of Mount Abraham, usually with about fifty cows. Their farmhouse looks out on meadows that are already becoming overgrown with brush. "In 1945, the farms were everywhere," Paul Goodyear says. "Back then, most everybody had a few cows. People didn't go to Bristol or Burlington to work." The town had its own creamery, and there was a dairy only fifteen miles away in Starksboro.

While farms have been steadily disappearing in Vermont since the end of World War II, Goodyear witnessed most of Lincoln's farmers give up dairying in the early 1960s, when the milk can was replaced by the bulk tank. Instead of filling large cans with their milk, farmers were asked by the dairies to buy and install refrigerated tanks to store the milk so the handlers could pick it up in large tanker trucks.

"The biggest drop-off was probably 1963, when we all had to put in the bulk tanks," Goodyear says. "They cost $1,200, which was a lot of money back then, plus we had to build a new milk house for it. That cost another $2,000. I guess there were twenty or twenty-five of us farming here before bulk tanks. Only five of us decided to stay in after."

Now in their sixties and seventies, the Goodyears have no less affection for Lincoln than they had when they were young. But there are moments when they no longer recognize the town in which they raised six children. "We don't know each other as well as a community," Paul says. "We can't. People keep coming in, and we don't know who they are. There are more people in the choir now than there used to be in the whole church."

Thirty-five years ago, neighbors would visit the Goodyears' farmhouse without an invitation and stay for supper, which suited Wanda just fine. "Anyone would drop in for a meal, no one would feel a need to call ahead," she says. "It was wonderful. Of course, no one would dare do that now. They' d be embarrassed-or think it was an imposition."

At different times over the last five decades, Paul has been a selectman, an auditor, and the town fire warden. As the town has grown, he believes a volunteer ethic has been lost. "We were all for one and one for all. If anyone had a calamity, a whole gang would join in and solve the problem,&qu...

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