78 year old Vermont farmer Stuart Cheney shares memoirs with Lindsay Debach, daughter of a Pennsylvania-based butcher, after reading her Small Farm Quarterly piece “Slaughter Daughter”.
By Stuart Cheney
My Dad was a big muscular fella about six foot with heavy broad shoulders. His arms were huge, and he had hands more like paws. It has been said that he and Bob Henry who was even bigger (Bob used to be the milkman back in the ‘40’s) once picked up the front end of a Chevrolet car six inches off the ground. But that was before my time, I only know what I’ve been told.
About 1945 or ’46 we were sugaring and it was the end of the season. We had a lot of sap and it was a real warm day and Dad was in the sugarhouse boiling. Gramp and I were outside working up some wood when I heard Dad holler. I ran in and saw Dad slumped over the pan like he was trying to hold himself up and I yelled to Gramp to come help. Dad’s face was beet red and Gramp and I tried to get him straightened up so we could walk him outside.
I know I was awful scared and didn’t exactly understand what was happening. Well, we finally got him over by the wood pile and quickly made a place so he could sit down. Lord his face was so red. Gramp mentioned that he might be having a heat stroke. Well, I went over to the little stream that runs by and got him a nice glass of cold water and he chug-a-lugged it right down. I brought the horses and sap sled around and we loaded him on and took him up to the house. I took off his boots and he went and laid on the couch.
The next day, my mother made an appointment at the doctor’s office and my father was a little better and was able to drive them both. Well, the outcome was she (lady doctor) said my father had a bad heart and lots of eremitism and he should give up farming. (I think my mother and the doctor were in cahoots).
The upshot of the whole thing was that they had an auction and sold off the cows (all ten) and the young stock, half of all the sugar buckets, and a couple of small portable buildings, but they kept all the haying equipment and the horses. Dad took a job downtown at a huge furniture shop and moved right up to be foreman and worked there until they closed up about 1955.
Meanwhile, back at the farm I done all the haying every summer and there was a boy down the road who would come up and help put the hay in the horsebarn for the horses.
Before my mother and father sold the cows, I thought a lot about asking if we could keep them and I could do the chores before and after school. I thought about it a lot but I never said anything to them about it. They never talked about money matters in front of me and I knew nothing about money matters myself, absolutely nothing. Inside I knew, too, that getting up early and doing the milking and feeding and cleaning for the cows and feeding and watering the horses, all in time to get a ride at 6:30 with my father into town where my high school was, just wouldn’t work. So really I was smart enough to know that especially in the winter. As much as I loved the farm, getting up at 3:30 AM in the winter was out. So I never mentioned it.
As soon as spring came when I was a freshman, I asked Dad if I could sugar and he said, go ahead. I made about 74 gallons that year but it tested a bit light, so one Saturday Dad helped boil it all over and we ran water in behind it so the pan wouldn’t burn down. We lost a little when it mixed with water, but I guess you can’t help it.
As soon as I got my license in 1951, I got a job hauling bagged chicken feed for a large poultry farm in town. We’d go to the railroad siding and find the car and get the door open and back up to the door with the truck and load on about 120 bags and deliver it around to all the different chicken farms—they farm out broilers for other farmers to raise. I also hauled chickens to Manhattan Poultry in Upper Manhattan where they were slaughtered. I made three trips down there. There wasn’t any throughway back then. I was only 17 years old, but I had another boy with me.
On my first trip my boss went with me to show me the way. Somewhere down in Connecticut we came to an underpass and I started slowing down. My boss started hollering, “Keep going, keep going!” (He was kind of a nervous cuss sometimes.) I tried to tell him that on top of the seven tiers of chicken crates there were four more roped on top in the middle. He said, “No, no, you don’t need to slow down. I know it fits, I been there myself with seven tiers. Keep going, keep going.”
CRASH. The truck went under but the four crates on top didn’t quite make it. Well the cops came from nowhere. They got out and paid no attention to us but grabbed those chickens and wrung their necks so fast, opened the car trunk and threw them in. They must have gotten a dozen or so. The officers got back in the car and said, “We’ll leave it up to you to tell the owner of the chickens what happened.” That sure was no fun.
After I got the job in school driving the truck, Dad sold the horses and the equipment, and in 1950 he and my mother sold the farm. They bought a house in West Brattleboro and I lived with them until November 1956 when I got married.
My dad worked around a bit at wood-working shops and then had a stroke and died in the middle seventies. Mom kept teaching for quite a while and retired in the eighties. She received a large silver tray for her good teaching efforts.
Stuart Cheney grew up on a 145 acre diversified farm near Brattleboro, VT. He resides in a small 5 room house built by his grandfather in 1940.
To read Lindsay Debach’s story, “Slaughter Daughter”, which inspired the Cheney-Debach correspondence, see http://smallfarms.cornell.edu/2012/01/09/slaughter-daughter/