The road out toward Woodstock is busy on this beautiful Saturday. Route 4 West is a no-passing, curvy 50-m.p.h. road so indicative of Vermont and if there happens to be a few people out for a leisurely autumn drive who don’t see the need to drive any faster than 37 m.p.h., you will undoubtedly be stuck behind them (along with 20 other cars). This chain of cars I’m currently in the middle of slithers along all the way to Woodstock. Just before hitting downtown, I break the line and make my way out toward Billings Farm.
I live relatively close but have never visited this working dairy farm before. I’ve spent enough years of my life on a farm; I’ve seen cows being milked, I’ve frolicked in pastures with sheep, I’ve had my bare feet stepped on by ponies, so why should I pay a nine dollar admittance fee to see it all on a larger scale? Well, it’s Harvest Weekend at the farm and I want to see the harvest things. Also, I heard there was going to be 19th century games and I’m interested to see what these might be.
I arrive, park on a patch of grass next to a wood-fenced pasture. There are 4 rather large horses, two white and two black, aimlessly wandering around in a horsy manner. These must be the horses the farm uses in the wintertime for their sleigh rides. I walk into the visitor’s center, picking up a couple brochures and a map. The map shows the small area that is Billings Farm & Museum and a huge polygon of green that is the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park.
According to the brochure, after the American Revolution “settlers poured into Vermont. By the middle of the 19th century most of Vermont’s forests had been cut down causing severe erosion and flooding.” A man named George P. March responded to this environmental crisis by… well, it doesn’t say how he responded exactly. He grew up on a Woodstock farm, served in Congress in the 1840s and wrote a book called Man and Nature in 1864. I guess he was one of the founders of the environmental movement. After Marsh’s death in 1869, a Vermont native who made a fortune as an attorney in California during the gold rush bought the Marsh family farm. This man’s name was Fredrick Billings. Then his granddaughter married a Rockefeller in 1934. Yadda yadda yadda, now Billings Farm & Museum and National Historic Park is what it is today.
I’m reading all this as I walk through the Visitor’s Center and out into the gardens and farm area. It doesn’t register for a few more minutes that I probably should have stopped somewhere and paid. Oops. I hurry to the dairy barn to join a tour already in progress. The guide finishes her talk and invites everyone to walk down the rows and read the paper above each one of the Jersey cows. Here, information on how many times the cow has calved, how long the cow was giving milk, etc., is listed. As I’m walking back to the door, not really paying attention to where I’m going, I hear some kids shriek and turn to see the hind end of one of the cows issuing forth a steady stream of liquid shit. It splatters all over the sawdust on the floor and the group of people closest to the growing mess (including me) expands out, radial away, like a swelling balloon. I hear the guide apologize for Darlene’s diarrhea as I make my way outside.
That was a close call, I think, as I look down at my jeans. Closer than I thought. There are four poop marks, each the size of a quarter, on my left pant leg. Figures. I bend down to the grass and start ripping it up by the handful. I use it to try and wipe away the shit, but it’s not really working. As I’m doing this, I tell myself that it’s not bad shit. It’s not. It’s good shit. It’s just processed grass and grains and water. It’s mud. Yeah, it’s just mud. A woman passing by sees that state I’m in and offers me a wet-wipe. I gratefully accept it but it proves to be as useless as the grass. Sigh.
I make my way up and around the grounds to see a large group of visitors partaking in some of the Harvest festivities. The children are playing such 19th century games as “Make the hoop go forward with just a stick” and “Throw the hoop through the air with two sticks to somebody else who has two sticks.” Man, the 19th century must have sucked.
There are some other children participating at some of the more practical displays. Under a tree, ten children are sitting in a circle frantically shucking corn. The dry husks are piled knee-high around them and it’s rapidly growing as the children throw the husked corn into a wide wooden barrel at the center and holler out for more. Is this a race? A small boy, obviously in the lead, violently throws an ear corn into the barrel and screams for another. His mother passes him one, like a relay racer passing a baton, and she looks at the other children as she fingers the next ear she’s going to give him. She tells her son he’s doing a good job and to keep it up. I’m feeling tense just watching and move on.
An old-fashioned cider press is being worked under another tree. A couple boys drop apples into the open top of a large contraption, like an upright meat grinder, as a small girl turns a crank. I see the poor thing sweating and wonder if the 19th century was all about child labor. As I walk away, I hear a farm guide supervising the work. He tells one of the boys to be careful not to get his hand caught in the grinder. I’m almost out of earshot but I swear I hear the man say, “We have to pasteurize the cider that has little-boy hands in it.” I don’t think he was kidding.
Up by the 1890 farmhouse, I buy a cup of pumpkin ice cream at the dairy window. Mmm. Nice and spicy. I take a seat on a stone wall and watch people. Some visitors are helping to build a wooden fence at yet another demonstration. Parents are screaming at kids to be careful. Kids are hanging out over at the edge of the cornfield. The stalks have dried to a gorgeous golden brown and it’s something to see the flocks of birds circling and banking over the field.
I throw my cup away in a wooden trash barrel and move down to the produce tables. On one of the tables there are 33 different varieties of apples laid out. There are some common ones I recognize but many more I don’t: Elstar, Maiden’s Blush, Redfree (which is all red), Black Giliflower, Hubbarson Nonesuch, and a green bulgy Calvile Blanc d’Hiver.
A talk on squash is being given a few feet away and I sidle up to the side. 24 different varieties of squash are shown here. The instructor, Michael, is a nice fellow who obviously used to be a grade school teacher. He informs us that pumpkins are part of the squash family and that cows and chicken like to eat squash. He then starts picking up the vegetables, one by one.
“What do you think this one is called?” he asks, holding a large, bent one. No one answers. “What does it look like?” It looks like a horseshoe. He raises it up to his shoulder and looks around the audience. He smiles as though someone called out the right answer. “It’s a Neck Squash. Doesn’t it look like a neck?” A couple kids answer in the affirmative as he picks up another. “And this one?” He holds this one on top of his head. “What does this one look like?” One little girl says something about a hat and he looks as though he just won the lottery. “That’s right,” he says. “Only, it’s not called a Hat Squash. It’s called a Turban Squash. A Turk’s Turban Squash.” He selects an all-white pumpkin next. This one came from right near me and I see that the little card holding its place says “Lumina.” Michael turns to us. “Now, does anyone here know Latin?” No one answers. “Anyone with a Latin background?” I think I hear crickets. “Well, just take a look at the color of this one. What do you think it might be called?” “Lumina,” I say. Michael turns to me with a look of joyous wonder. “That’s right!” he says, bending a little at the knees on the word ‘right’. He asks more unanswered questions. We learn that the Cheese Pumpkin won’t rot for two years and that the best pumpkin pie he ever had was made with the Neck Squash. After he’s through, I ask him where I might find a Neck Squash. He says ‘Moore’s Orchard’ over in Pomfret.
I take a quick walk through the museum before leaving. The museum was pretty much deserted and therefore, pretty much creepy. I don’t like walking though dark, empty barns full of wax people pretending to make maple syrup and milk wax cows.
I follow the directions Michael had given me. At the orchard I see a guy sitting behind a table. I get the feeling there are not going to be any squash here. I ask about it and guy directs me to the main farmhouse a mile down the road. I pull into the bumpy dirt driveway and walk up to the open garage that had been converted into a mini produce store. An old lady in overalls sits behind the counter, eyeing me. She’s drinking something out of a pickle jar. Moonshine? Turpentine? She sips, places the cap back on with a metallic clack-shhink, uncaps it, sips, clack-shhink.
There are all kinds of pumpkins and winter squash here but I don’t see any of the Neck variety.
“Do you have any Neck Squash here?” I ask.
She freezes with her hand halfway back to recapping jar. “’Neck?’” she asks like I just made it up. She obviously never heard of it. Dammit! Michael must have lied to me!
“Yeah. Um… I think it’s called ‘Neck’. It looks like a Butternut only, like, long and bent.”
She finishes capping her drink, clack-shhink, having made up her mind that I’ve come just to waste her time.
“Can’t say as I’ve ever heard of a ‘Neck’ Squash.”
“Okay. Well, I’d like to make a Pumpkin pie and I don’t really know what to use.”
She gets up and walks over to me. “Well, I like to use this one here. The Golden Hubbard is nice. This one here is nice too,” she points at another, “If you can cut through the skin without cutting your fingers off.”
She looks up at me. “Chop chop then CHOP! There goes your finger.” She starts cackling.
What? I discreetly sneak a glance at her hands and sure enough, she’s missing the tip of her left index finger. If she’s trying to fucking freak me out, it’s working.
I quickly select a Golden Hubbard as she moves back to her seat. I show her the one I chose and ask, “You think this is enough to make a Pumpkin pie with?”
She blinks. “I’d say that’s enough to make four pies with.”
Well that’s just great. I’m just an idiot inventing names of squash just to play mind games with this poor old lady and I ask dumb questions. I grab a jug of apple cider and a bag of Macintosh apples. I pay for everything and head home.
* * *
Sheep grazing: 13
Calves grazing: 14
Men whittling: 1
Piles of Manure Almost Stepped in: 3