The Cheney Letters

78 year old Vermont farmer shares memoirs with Lindsay Debach, daughter of a Pennsylvania-based butcher, after reading her Small Farm Quarterly piece “Slaughter Daughter”.


In late February of this year I received a letter bearing the name of Stuart Cheney. A native of Brattleboro, Vermont, Stuart wrote to tell me that he enjoyed my memoir piece “Slaughter Daughter” featured in the Winter, 2012 issue of this magazine. I was flattered and surprised to receive such a heartfelt message, especially in the increasingly rare form of a hand-written letter. Stuart continued on to tell me a bit of his own childhood growing up in a farming community; the yellow legal-sized pages of his letter recounted of his early childhood days killing chickens in the barnyard, taking a pig down to the old slaughterhouse and salting hams and bacon. Charmed by Stuart’s unashamed and sincere style, I asked him if he wrote much and offered to read any stories he might like to share.

In the months that followed, Stuart and I became pen-pals. Nearly every week, I received a carefully addressed stamped envelope from him, each containing a new tale about Stuart’s life: a jeep accident when he was a teenager, a missed encounter with a pretty girl at a barn dance. He shared the heartbreaking account of losing his childhood dog, and the humorous tale of a Halloween spent in jail. Be they tragic or comedic, Stuart Cheney has a lot of stories to tell and I am so thankful to have the opportunity to share these humbly-written tales with our SFQ readers. Over the next few issues, please enjoy some segments of what I tenderly refer to as “The Cheney Letters.” I hope you are as blessed by these authentic recollections of Vermont farm life as I have been.

– Lindsay Debach

The Cheney Letters

Hello Lindsay Debach: Please let me introduce myself. My name is Stewart and I live alone up in the hills of southern Vermont. As I sit here at my table, I can look out over the hills to the west and see two ridge lines and quite a few open fields and pastures. I lost my good wife to lung cancer 13 years ago.

I read your wonderful story in the Small Farm Quarterly paper of January 6th, 2012. I have read it over at least every other day since then. You do such a good job of telling it like it is. As for myself, I started out when I was about 6-years old killing chickens. My father would go to the chicken house and catch one, and give it to me. I had to take it out back and lay the chicken over and old log and chop its head off. Well, those big axes were pretty heavy for a little guy like me to handle, and sometimes it didn’t always go where I aimed – I have three pretty good scars on my left index finger to prove it – but, one way or another, I got the job done.

My Mother would have a pail of water all heated up and as soon as the old hen got through dancing around, I tossed her in the pail. At just the right time, I’d hang it up on a beam and pluck off the feather onto a newspaper that was laid underneath. When I got that all done, I’d take another newspaper and light it a fire and singe the whole hen. Then, I’d take it in on the sink shelf, which was wood, and draw the innards out, and give it a good rinsing; and it was ready for the pot. By the time I was eight, I was an expert chicken killer.

Meanwhile each fall, I’d help my Dad and Grampa kill and butcher a couple of pigs…By the time I was 13, all the wooden tubs we had were getting kind of worn and leaked pretty badly. So, my father made an appointment with the local butcher shop to butcher one of our four pigs. Saturday morning, Dad said to help him take the back seat out of the car. Then, he had me back the car around on the far side of the pen next to the barn. He opened the door to the back and we hustled Mister Hog right in, and shut the door. Then he told me, “You can drive it down to the slaughter house”, which was about 6 miles, all back roads.

So, off I went to Bert Whittermores slaughter house. They had some pretty big smiles on their faces when they saw me pull up to the old barn that served as a slaughter house. It was just a wooden table, pair of pully-blocks, a tub with hot water, and a 32 Winchester Rifle. It all done the job, and pretty soon, the guts came tumbling out and went down through a hole in the floor below. They showed me how to go down stairs, so I could hear the “music,” as they called it. There must have been a million big, black, hard-shelled beetles down there. Sounded like a thousand soldiers rattling their sabers. I didn’t stay long.

A couple hours later, I drove back home with two sides of pork laying on an old sheet in the back. When I got home, Dad carried the sides into the pantry and cut them up. The salt pork shoulders and ham went into the crocks with brine to cure, before we hung them in an old barrel and smoked them with nice dry apple wood. Later on, when winter moved in we cut some of the cured salt pork up into one-inch squares and put them in a kettle. We set the kettle on the back of the wood stove. After the pork was melted down, we poured off the lard to get the tastiest fat scraps to eat – nothing better. Yum, yum!

Read Lindsay Debach’s story, “Slaughter Daughter”, which inspired the Cheney-Debach correspondence.

Avatar of Stuart Cheney

Stuart Cheney

Stuart Cheney grew up on a 145 acre diversified farm near Brattleboro, VT. He resides on the farm in a small 5 room house built by his grandfather in 1940.
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  1. Avatar of Pauline Bahlmann Pauline Bahlmann on November 9, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Dear Lindsay,
    I enjoyed reading the letter sent to you by Stuart Cheney.
    I confer with you he is witty and sincere when he tells a story. I have had the privilege to know Stuart and his family for many years, and I adored his wife Angie. In the summer of 1991 I helped with the calves on their dairy farm. I also helped raise two pigs. We slaughtered one and shared the meat. I will forever consider the Cheney’s family and Vermont my second home.
    Pauline Bahlmann

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