You don’t have to travel far through rural New England to find reminders of old farms. They are evidenced by tired barns sagging in unkempt fields, stone walls meandering along roadsides or forgotten and crumbling in places it seems impossible there was ever an open meadow, and houses that stretch from front porch to back ell to shed to barn, all connected over time and with towns often grown up around them where there used to be pastures.
There are still working farms here, of course, but the landscape – in town and country both – tell us there used to be more.
In my daily meanderings, I regularly pass two old farms. Both have been farms for many generations and have evolved over the decades in various ways. Both have also sat idle for many years. And in recent weeks both have exhibited new signs of life.
The first is known as Iris Farm, although the sign bearing that name no longer hangs from the post at the end of the driveway. Less than a century ago Iris Farm boasted a proud herd of Ayrshire, which provided milk for local schools and hotels, including the nearby upscale Pecketts-on-Sugar-Hill, which was owned by the same family.
More recently its fields have held Highland cattle, a couple of horses, and a flock of sheep whose lambs were a happy, fuzzy harbinger of spring. Red-winged blackbirds still chitter away from the fence posts in summer, and swallows still swoop around the barnyard, but the farmhouse and barn have been vacant for a couple of years or longer. Without the animals and the big round bales of hay in the fields, Iris Farm has seemed lonely.
So when a small herd of big, black Angus cattle appeared this month people noticed. To tourists traveling along the picturesque road, those cows are probably just another part of the pretty scenery. To those of us who go by the farm each day, they are a welcome sign of life on a quiet, old farm – an indication that, while the farm is not the bustling place it once was, the barn won’t likely be allowed to rot to the point of collapse, and the fields will remain open to the mountain view.
Ski Hearth Farm, a few miles away, has likewise cycled through changes over time. A hundred years ago it was a small dairy farm, not unlike Iris Farm and other small dairy farms all over this region. Mere days before the Hurricane of ’38 knocked down much of the farm’s timber and flooded the basement of the farmhouse where the year’s crop of root vegetables was stored, newlyweds Sel and Paulie Hannah purchased the property.
The Hannahs changed the name from Temple Farm to Ski Hearth Farm, a nod to the property’s new dual purpose of raising food during the growing season and housing skiers through the winter. Ski Hearth evolved into a truck farm, carting vegetables to restaurants and markets around the area and famous for “Sel Hannah’s potatoes.” When Sel died in the early 1990s, his daughter Joan came home from Colorado to run the farm, which she did for a good many years before putting it up for sale.
Since Joan sold the farm, it has had three new owners, a name change, and – for the past several growing seasons – dormant fields. Last month Davis Mangold purchased the farm. He grew up on a farm in Kentucky, became the first in his family to attend college, and started (and still runs) a successful business. Mangold says he never thought he’d want to return to farming – until one day he did.
Besides reviving the Ski Hearth Farm name, Mangold and his crew are also hard at work reviving the fields, the farmhouse, and the locally cherished and sorely missed farm stand. The first crop – six neat rows of strawberries – has been planted in preparation for next spring. Bright new chicken coops now fill some space in the back fields. There are often tractors in the fields these late summer days, plowing and harrowing and planting.
There’s something forlorn about an empty barn and barnyard, indications all around of someone’s long, hard work – life’s work, often many generations’ worth – at some point, for some reason, abandoned. And there’s something beautifully hopeful about seeing animals return to a pasture and crops return to a field, watching an old farm welcoming new life.