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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Eight Generations, One Farm


Sometime in the late 1760s, a middle-aged man named Jonathan Howard came up the Connecticut River and settled in the wilderness that was to become Vermont.

In 1775, his twenty-five-year-old son Abijah came, too. Abijah Howard took up land near his father, on the edge of what had already become the tiny village of North Thetford. He started in to farm.

Eight generations later, Howards are still there, still farming. If you drive up U.S. 5 from East Thetford to North Thetford, you will see the Howard barn and one of the two Howard houses on the right, just before the village. Another house is out of sight, on the left. A series of fields, one below the next, slopes down to the Connecticut River. Howards have been using them continuously for 220 years.

Dick and Rick Howard, the father and son who run the place now, manage them differently from the way Jonathan and Abijah did, to be sure. Very differently. In fact, the Howard farm has been through four distinct stages, and is now in some danger of entering a fifth. Without being systematic about it, I propose to trace this history.

Stage one was a tree farm. When Abijah came up from Hebron, Connecticut, he came to primeval forest. The Indians of the Connecticut River valley had of course managed the forest somewhat, chiefly by burning off underbrush once a year. But they had never felled it. What Abijah saw was huge oaks and pines and maples everywhere. Trees along the river (where his projected fields lay), trees on the hills, trees everywhere but the occasional wetland.

Everybody else in town was staring at trees, too. That included intellectual leaders like the new minister. When the Reverend Doctor Asa Burton arrived in 1777 (he was twenty-six years old, and one year out of Dartmouth), he needed his ax as much as his Bible. Like nearly all frontier ministers, he got a free piece of land as an inducement to settle. Doctor Burton was not pleased with this.

'The land given me was wild,' he later wrote, still grumpy when he remembered all those trees. 'Not one foot cleared.'

No similar complaint by Abijah Howard is recorded, however. If trees were the crop, he would harvest them. One of his first acts was to build a sawmill. Or, rather, one of his first acts was to import the necessary technology for a sawmill. He did this the hard way, there being no easy way at the time. In the middle of winter, he walked up the frozen river from Connecticut, pulling a heavy handsled. On the sled were the waterwheel from his mill, and an iron crank to be the control rod. Both survive; they have been rescued from Gun Brook, and are now leaning against the lefthand Howard house.

Life in the forest town was comparatively simple. Doctor Burton held Sunday services in his humble twenty-by-thirty-foot log church. The townspeople (adults only) paid taxes of three shillings a person-but not in cash. They paid in red squirrel heads, at two pence the head. That comes to eighteen squirrels for a year's taxes, or about a squirrel every three weeks. What was the point? To leave a larger share of the local nut crop-chiefly beech mast and acorns-for a fast-growing population of pigs. These were pigs of the forest, not pigs of the pen. Every single Thetford town meeting for the first twenty-two years debated the question of loose pigs.

The American Revolution came along, and the 300 or so people now living in Thetford built five blockhouses, where they could take refuge from war bands of Indians, and from British soldiers. One of these blockhouses was on Abijah Howard's farm.

Meanwhile, the axes rang and rang, and the acreage of cleared land grew steadily. By 1796, there was a new kind of tax in Thetford. No longer a forest tax, payable in squirrels, but a field tax, payable half in cash and half in either wheat or flax. Stage two had begun.

Like most farmers then and now, the early Howards were far too busy to sit around keeping journals, or writing newsy letters to cousins in Connecticut. Few precise details survive about the Howard farm 150 to 200 years ago, and most of those concern the owners rather than the land. Abijah died when he fell through the floor of his mill in 1818. He was sixty-eight years old. His son, Abijah, Jr., was a town selectman in 1820. Another son, Salmon Howard, served as an army captain in the War of 1812. One of his many grandsons became first an Episcopal minister and then president of Norwich University. Abijah III practiced law on Thetford Hill, was head trustee of Thetford Academy-and then went west to help settle Oshkosh, Wisconsin. His brother Ichabod took over the farm.

But if little survives about the Howard land in particular, much is known about Thetford farms in general. They were rapidly growing in size. By the time Salmon got home from the war, there were 4,100 acres of cleared land in town. There were 298 oxen, a thousand cows, and 300 horses. No one was bothering to count sheep yet; they were present, but they were too unimportant to count or tax.

The typical farm was a subsistence operation. The family grew and made almost everything its members wore or ate. They picked up a little cash by shipping butter and cheese to Boston in the winter, when the snowy roads were most driveable, and butter least likely to spoil. People occasionally drove a herd of cattle down in the fall. A man known as Turkey Tom sometimes escorted a flock of much smaller animals down. Almost every family picked up a little more cash by putting family members to work in the growing number of water-powered (and pollution-free) mills. Abijah and Abijah, Jr., of course, had been getting extra income from a mill right along. That was the second stage: the general-purpose farm, run on land that had only yesterday had been trees.

Around 1830 the third stage began, and this one lasted a long time. It lasted until within memory of the senior Howard now living, Frederick Howard, father of Dick, grandfather of Rick.

There was a boom in wool. Plastic clothing didn't exist yet, and the quality of your winter coat or your spring jacket depended heavily on the quality of the fleece it was made from. High-class Merino sheep had arrived, and woolen mills were springing up everywhere. The price of Vermont wool doubled between 1827 and 1835. The number of cattle in the state dropped by 30,000 during the same period. That was because farmer after farmer was converting his place to a sheep run, lured by those wonderful prices for wool. Fifty-seven cents a pound you could get in 1835. Since beef was selling for three cents a pound at that time, it meant that one pound of wool would buy you a nineteen-pound rib roast. By contrast, a pound of wool in 1993 might get you six ounces of beef.

A Vermonter could make serious money from sheep in 1835. Many did, including the Howards.

'When Dad was a boy,' says Frederick Howard, 'we kept a couple of hundred sheep.' That would have been in the 1880s. These sheep did not usually live on the home farm, with its few acres of corn and wheat, and its level pastures along the river. Sheep can and do thrive on hillsides. Right across the river were lots of hillsides, in Lyme, New Hampshire. 'Everybody on this street,' says Fred Howard, 'kept a back pasture on Smith Mountain in Lyme Center.'

There were no cars speeding through Lyme or Thetford in either 1835 or 1885. In both years it was a simple matter to drive your flock off the mountain, down to the river, over the now-fallen North Thetford bridge, and so into the barnyard for shearing. Then you collected your money.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the bottom dropped out of the Vermont wool market. One cause: The rapidly-growing practice of grazing sheep on government land out west. Taxpayers subsidized competition for the farmers of New England. Some went under, notably in New Hampshire. What most Vermont farmers did was to shift to dairying, and thus to enter stage four.

At that time the head of the Howard family was Roger Strong Howard, Fred's grandfather. He was born in 1825, before the sheep boom began, and died in 1919, twenty years after it ended. By any standard, he was a prominent man: Selectman in the town, representative in the legislature. True to family tradition, he had a lumber business as well as the sheep.

Nevertheless, in 1900 he went bankrupt. Whe his son got married and took over the farm in 1903, one of the things he took over was a $5,000 mortgage. How did he pay it off? With difficulty.[1] At home there were the dairy cows that had replaced the sheep. In the winter, when dairy farming is least onerous, he would take his team and haul loads of boards from the surviving sawmills in Lyme to the railroad siding in North Thetford. Often enough, he and his horses would be crossing the bridge at 6 A.M. on a subzero morning. A good lumber estimator, he scaled woodlots for people. In the summer, when dairy farming is most onerous (all that hay to get in), he did contract work for other farmers. Sometimes his took his horses seven miles across town to harvest grain on the Judd farms on top of Gove Hill.

Old Roger Howard, already seventy-eight when his son took over, kept right on working, too. 'My grandfather was some active,' Fred says. Those were handmilking days. In his eighties and nineties, old Roger would, for example, milk all the cows on holidays, so that his son and daughter-in-law could get to the town festivities.

Until the 1920s, the Howards never milked more than twenty cows, and until 1940 they farmed entirely with horses. That year Fred Howard came home (he was twenty-six, about like Abijah two centuries earlier)-he came home to farm with his father. And that year they bought their first tractor, a Model A Farmall. To pay for the tractor-you can't breed the neighbor's-and to pay the now entirely cash taxes, Fred and his father ran an insurance business on the side. Today there are no horses at all, but there are a great many cows. Dick Howard, the present farmer, has no hired man. He and his twenty-four-year-old son Rick milk sixty Holsteins, feed forty calves, and look after some thirty bred heifers unaided. Well, except by Fred Howard, who like his grandfather is some active. Well into his seventies, Fred is out in the barn each morning at 3:30 to start the morning milking. There is no relief. Dick once said to me with a straight face that he was thinking of shutting down for ten days over Christmas-but a dairy farm, of course, can't shut down for even ten hours.

With a total cattle population of 143, the work is so constant that Dick and Rick can't possibly do outside work for extra money, as so many Howards have done in the past. Dick used to run an excavating business, but that was before he took over management of the farm in 1986. Roberta Howard, however, Dick's wife, is the town clerk of Thetford. Martha Howard, one of their three daughters, is assistant town clerk. With milk prices currently so low that farmers work their hundred-hour weeks more or less to stay even, Roberta's job is important. 'I do miss helping with the calves,' she says.

What does the future hold for this 220-year-old farm? Who knows? Right now, the Howard place is as beautiful as it has ever been, with its many green pastures sweeping down to the river. Dick and Rick cannot keep up their present pace forever, but none of the Howards relish the idea of simply stopping. 'I'd hate to see all this good land go to waste,' Dick says.

The Howards are about as American a family as it is possible to be. On one side there is the long line of Vermont farmers. On the other side, on Roberta's side, there is city experience-she grew up in Boston. There is also a connection with an even earlier past than Abijah. Roberta is part Indian. She, her son Rick, and all three daughters are officially enrolled as Native Americans.

If the Howard land goes back to trees, it will have come full circle. Stage one and stage five will be the same. And there will be some irony in the partly Indian owners being forced to watch this happen, even as the whole family works to keep the farm alive.

But it is not yet clear that it will happen. People who walk up frozen rivers pulling waterwheels don't give up easily. Sheer grit may keep the farm going for a while. Longer range, it is possible that the United States government will modify its disastrous farm policies, and so allow farming to survive in the face of high-pollution agribusiness. Meanwhile, there are beautiful pastures to see in North Thetford.

This article appears in the Spring 1994 issue of Vermont Life and is published here with the editor's consent.
[1]Especially since he was also buying land-inexpensive plots near his farm. The sheep runs in Lyme had been sold around 1900. But now the farm began to grow again as Roger Howard picked up bits and pieces of hill pasture. In six separate transactions, he acquired almost 300 acres in North Thetford. There's a famous poem about land acquisition by Vermont poet Walter Hard. The main character in it is a middle-aged farmer in Bennington County. First this man buys a small pasture on the eastern side of his farm. Then a bit of woodlot to the south. Then a miserable piece of ledge on the north side, which supports nothing but scrub pines. At this point a curious neighbor can't stand it any more, and asks him why he is getting all these parcels. His answer forms the last line of the poem. 'Don't like t'have folks ownin' land next t'mine. That's why.' This feeling, common even among farmers who are struggling through hard times, is one of the chief reasons that the Vermont landscape has stayed open and beautiful.

Last Updated: 5/3/12