David Holmes picked a shiny red apple from the damp grass under a scattered, uncut apple tree. He took a bite and expressed joy at his finding.
We walked down a path in Charlotte near the shores of Lake Champlain, and he pointed to the sites of missing landmarks from what had been one of the most important apple orchards in all of New England and a thriving operation of several generations.
Then in 1923 the bankruptcy ended it all. Hundreds of acres of apple trees were bulldozed into oblivion. The surviving tree, which still produced apples a century later, stood at a bend in the road near the site of what had been the original farmhouse.
This had been the Holmes family’s farm, and it was David Holmes’ great-grandfather, CT Holmes, who suffered the bankruptcy that forced him out of the land in 1923.
Now David Holmes has written a book that traces the history of his family – settled in Monkton in 1788, moved to Charlotte in 1822 and then experienced what he calls the Holmes family diaspora after the farm went under.
Holmes’ book has a long title that conveys its ambitions: “On Being a Vermonter and the Rise and Fall of the Holmes Farm 1822-1923.” The Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont is the publisher, and the book will be published this month.
The story he tells is a family story with a detailed account of life on a 19th-century farm, including revealing photos of rural Vermont. As Holmes notes, “There are no case studies of a farm in Vermont that spans from the early 1800s to the early 1900s.” His book gives one.
He drew information from many sources: city records, family records, ample correspondence among family members, horticultural community records. He tells not only generations of Holmeses, but also families who were connected by marriage: the Johns family and the Ross family. (Holmes’ uncle, Charles Ross, was a candidate in the Vermont Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 1974.)
Over the decades, the family ran one of the region’s leading apple orchards, pioneering methods of agriculture that included irrigation technology, which eventually became a fateful economic burden.
The women’s lives are told, including family members who left the farm to pursue other careers – for example in music and education. The farm relied on a large workforce, especially during the harvest season, when as many as 100 workers were needed to pick apples. The women had to feed them.
Much more than apples
Farming involved more than apples. The family raised Morgan horses and ran them. On his most recent visit to the site, Holmes pointed out the wide meadow where a trail allowed the family to train Morgans as trotters. (Horse racing was so popular in the 1800s that Charlotte alone had two racetracks.) The farm also bred crops and cattle, sheep and chickens, and ran its own brickworks.
The family made barrels of thousands for shipping apples by rail and water – apples were sent off from the quay built at a point on the lake. A new dock now exists, as does an old covered bridge over the nearby river that is said to be the shortest covered bridge in Vermont. An old family cemetery is tucked away in the woods south of the property, but when the family abandoned the farm in 1923, they dug up some of the remains to transfer them to a cemetery elsewhere in Charlotte.
Holme’s documentation of this story is valuable in itself and sheds light not only on his family’s life, but on life in Vermont from the 19th century. But he has a larger purpose and asks whether our collective memory of this demanding lifestyle has left a residual mark on Vermont’s character. Thus, he raises an oft-discussed question: What does it mean to be a Vermonter? And do generalizations of that kind make any sense at all?
Holme’s career as an educator – including periods as headmaster of private schools in Connecticut and Idaho – has led him to new endeavors. He is the CEO of Character Collaborative, a consortium of school officials, academics and others interested in giving character traits a greater role in metrics used by school admissions offices around the country.
How can schools measure qualities such as perseverance, curiosity and honesty? With the declining importance of standardized test scores as a metric for admission to college, greater reliance on character is possible, and the NGO he helped find promotes ways to make that happen.
Define the Vermont character
So what are the characteristics of the Vermont character? Holmes said the discussion of the question was often “anecdotal, humorous, and sweet,” and he tried to focus what he had learned as an educator on the problem of how to define character.
He recognizes that any generalization inevitably “obscures a complex reality.” A generalization about the Vermont character cannot capture the peculiarities of the individual, although it can say something about the “overall character” of the people – and it promotes a sense of community. “A common understanding of who we are as Vermonters has common value,” he writes.
Holmes quotes some well-known Vermont writers who have addressed the same issue, such as William Mares, who wrote: “It is certainly correct to say that Vermont and Vermonters are the opposite of opposites. I see impulses to join America and to run away; to build four megabit microchips and heat with wood chips; having an integrated fiber optic network and still talking baseball and weather at the post office; to provide for anything other than preserving the neighborhood from the homeless, trailers and condominiums. ”
In light of the contradictions, the legacy of Holme’s family has left him with a sense of how Vermont’s history has shaped the character of individual Vermonters today. Traits with good character include qualities like honesty, generosity and bourgeois mind, he says.
During the decades through the 19th century and into the 20th, the Holmes family displayed these and other important qualities: an affinity for action, a pursuit of education, resilience and gravel, expertise and knowledge.
“Vermont is diverse enough that no single list captures it all,” he writes. He points out that Vermonters generally share an appreciation for the beauties of nature and have a sense of belonging to the simple things in life.
And he makes another important point. “Real Vermonters rejoice in the worldly absurdities of life and have a sense of humor about it. This capability is a lum under the radar that gets missed unless you have an ear for it and a sense of irony. ”
Finally, he boils his study of the Vermont character down to a single sentence that he believes captures the essence of what it means to be a Vermonter. These are familiar qualities, but of unique significance to any society. Most Vermonters could probably guess from the foregoing what his single sentence might contain. But it would be a kind of spoiler to quote that sentence here.
His story of a unique family, told with the modesty, thoroughness and thoughtfulness of a Vermonter who has returned home after many years away, is in itself proof of what Vermont culture and character consist of.
David Holmes, born in Rutland in 1942, now lives on the shores of Lake Champlain in Panton, a few miles south of the farm his father left behind as a boy in 1923. On a recent visit to the old site in Charlotte, he noted Holmes about how the old black-and-white photos fail to capture the meadow’s brilliant green, the bright blue sky and the blue of the lake and the distant mountains.
“That’s what they would have seen,” he said.
He also wondered about fate. If the farm had not failed in 1923 – if the family had continued to cultivate the land and look after the orchards – David himself, if he had been born at all, might have felt compelled to stay on the farm and continue the tradition. He might not have become a teacher at all.
But it did not turn out that way. How it came to be is the subject of his book.
Disclaimers for mcutimes.com
All the information on this website - https://mcutimes.com - is published in good faith and for general information purpose only. mcutimes.com does not make any warranties about the completeness, reliability, and accuracy of this information. Any action you take upon the information you find on this website (mcutimes.com), is strictly at your own risk. mcutimes.com will not be liable for any losses and/or damages in connection with the use of our website.