Vermont: A Flatlander's Appreciation

January 21, 2016

Paul Webster, nearing 80, wields a peavey to adjust a pile of logs at his Randolph farm in the 1990s. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

I confess. I’m a flatlander. It’s difficult to admit, because, from before I can remember, I was fed Vermont food, lore and family stories. My dad grew up in Burlington. He proposed to mom on the Ticonderoga as it steamed Lake Champlain. But they moved to Massachusetts to raise their family.

Closing my eyes, I can still conjure the delicious feeling of drifting to and from sleep, the ’55 Plymouth wagon trundling for seven hours endlessly north, wipers beating back snowflakes as big as saucers, cheering as we crossed the Connecticut River to gas up in White River, cheering as WDEV first came through on the radio, and cheering again to see the flashing light atop the UVM water tower, high above downtown Burlington and the lake. We were home.

Growing up, I ate, drank, and dreamed Vermont. We came up in every season of the year: to Aunt Kit’s farm in New Haven, to Uncle Win and Aunt Jean’s “schoolhouse” on the dump road in Lincoln, for family camping at Button Bay, Branbury, Silver Lake and Waterbury Center State Parks, to Uncle Merrill’s gun shop on Shelburne Road, for Aunt Bo’s cooking in Milton, to Shelburne Museum with Aunt Lou, to climb Abraham, Camel’s Hump, and Mansfield again and again. I came to college here, as did my three siblings, my father and his three brothers before us.

Nope

It wasn’t a day before I heard the word, “flatlander.” It was generally said with a smile, but the message was clear.

“Try as you might, a Vermonter you’ll never be, for there’s a world of difference between tryin’ and bein’.”

At first I found that sentiment hard. I’ve come to realize it isn’t a sentiment, however: it’s a fact. Vermonters are different from “flatlanders.” It’s a difference I’ve come to treasure. And when I see it, I’m sure to reach for my camera.

In His Element

Whenever visiting Paul Webster, I was prepared to take photographs. As he lived on my daily commute to The Herald, I stopped many times over the years. In a Vermont lexicon his name would be printed bold face; the index would cite him on half the pages.

Born in 1913, Webster farmed the sloping terrain of Braintree Hill from its crest down to the third branch of the White River as it oxbows through the bottomland below his house and barns on Route 12A north of Randolph village. He was a big man and, unlike many big men, he lived well into his 90s, dying in 2008.

One morning in early spring about 20 years ago, I spied Webster atop a load of logs along the edge of the road opposite his home. He was wielding a large peavey, repositioning massive logs to make a better stack.

Several aspects of the scene captured my eye.

Moist clouds hung low in the valley that morning, scrubbing fields, river and distant hills completely away. They simplify the scene, strengthen the composition. Against this background of white, Webster stands in stark silhouette above the huge stack, the circular ends of logs facing the lens.

Here, in beautiful design, is a Vermont farmer, astride his work. Nothing is extraneous; just Webster, peavey, and logs with mud and snow to ground the shot securely in early spring.

The strength of the image intensifies as we realize the man in command of these massive logs is almost 80!

Perhaps on the streets of Boston Webster would seem a simple farmer, but this isn’t flatland. Here, in his element, he is ennobled, powerful.

Catching the Train

Lifelong Vermont farmer, Webster was the subject of numerous Herald photographs over three decades from 1987 until his death in 2008. (Herald File / Bob Eddy) A second photograph of Webster we consider here was from another visit. It was taken in the lower level of the dairy barn, where he still kept calves, years after he sold the herd.

As in the previous image, this scene is simplified. Before, the high key element of cloud helped remove information. Now, deep shadow provides a similar service.

The scene is illumined by grey light pouring through windows and a doorway to the right. It falls on Webster and window frames, but little more. Links of chain descend into complete darkness, just as Webster’s form disappears into shadow below.

He stands open to the lens, gazing benignly out at the viewer. The lighting both reveals and conceals. This portrait is as much about what is hidden as what is shown.

As I took this photograph, Web- ster told me a story about his early courtship of Lucille Warner, his wife of 65 years.

“When I was a young man working this farm, Lucille was enrolled at Lyndon State College. I wrote a letter to her each night before I turned the lights down for bed. It was addressed, stamped and in my pocket the following morning as I did my chores.

“You can hear the train from far off as it comes down the valley from Roxbury each morning. At the first sound of its approach, I’d be up onto my horse like a shot. We’d gallop bareback into town, over the hill, across the bridge and down Main Street to the station, getting my letter into the mailbag before the train arrived. From there, it went south to White River Junction, and north to Lyndonville, getting to Lucille that same day!”

Then, as I moved in for a closer portrait, Webster became very still. I imagine his mind ranging back over the decades to the far off rumble and sound of train whistle, thrilling again to the adrenalinepumping ride, feeling that rag paper envelope, its address carefully inked, as he handed it off.

Breaking the silence, he quietly marveled, “She got it within hours! I never missed a train.”

I never met a flatlander who courted like this.

Some Things Change

Justin Poulin, a young farmer, bought the Webster place a few years back and has been making improvements. Just this month, he was tearing down the old farmhouse and I stopped for photographs. Like Webster, he easily performs tasks which would baffle and possibly kill me.

Again on the farm with my cameras, I remembered my time with Webster adjusting those logs with a peavey 20 years before. He impressed me then.

Today, at 65, still 15 years shy of Webster astride that pile, I am in awe.

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