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Old Home Day


Farming History in New Hampshire
Donald Hall Poet
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Where I lived, it was a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, called Hamden, and there were sections. My father had grown up in Whitneyville, which was named after Eli Whitney who had an arms factory there and built workers' housing which was Whitney's village. This was in the 18th century - 1795, 1798. So Whitney's village became Whitneyville, which is where I grew up, and Springland [sic] where we lived mostly was two miles away. More recent houses built in the '20s before the crash, and... the house that we bought, we bought in a bank forclosure. I say we, I mean I had nothing to do with it - I was eight years old - but... it... they were set in this place and people near each other, as I've said in Connecticut, resembled each other. Up here the diversity was so extraordinary. Some of my cousins lived in shacks. Some lived in trailers then and still do and others relatively prospered and we'd all been to church together, all classes, nobody very rich I guess. On the... on a Sunday... and there were festivities. New Hampshire has, still has in a diminished way, a wonderful annual holiday - Old Home Week or Old Home Day - and it started... it was planned by the governor in 1898, by the governor of New Hampshire, and I think it's peculiar to this state. It's evidence of the diaspora - beginning even before the Civil War but... but accelerating greatly after it, the farms... farms began to be abandoned. People moved in two directions - people moved down to the mills, textile mills in New Hampshire, they were within a few miles. There were mills in every town but textile mills were the big ones - Concord, Manchester. Along the Merrimack River which originaly supplied the water power for the mill. People went there and they could work just 12 hours a days for six days a week and make a living and that was astonishing to a lot of the farm kids that you could work that little and make a living. My gramp worked in a mill in Andover which is just four miles down the road, which was a mill to make hames, the wooden part of the inside of a horse collar. He had to quit because the sawdust got in his lungs and stopped him. But that was six days a week, 12 hours a day. And when at some point, around the turn of the century, that mill started giving half day off on Saturday, the old folks in town said, 'That ain't a week's work'. Well, the... the diaspora is what I was speaking of. The other people of course went west, and that began early - I mean people started going west in the 17th century, but it accelerated, and west meant Vermont, New York State. New Hampshire is a series of little mountains and little valleys, no room to spread out, very good... very little good earth, good soil for growing things. Along the Connecticut River, on both sides of the river, there are the alluvial plains, which is where now the cows still gathered for... to produce cheese for us - there's a lot of good cheese made around here - but the farms that... well the... kind of this farm, were farms that were not set up for prosperity but for independence and liberty.  And the governing idea of late 17th, early 19th century farmers here was to be a little nation of one, a nation of one family - a man, a woman and a whole lot of kids usually - and they were independent, and they made their own food. They didn't need much money, and that ideal and glory of liberty and independence, separateness, anti-commonwealth really, was a governing ideal.  And much of that notion exists today and it tends to help the corporations which is something which wasn't part of it to begin with because the corporation is theoretically an individual. It lasts in the so-called right wing politics of New Hampshire today. The farms emptied out. When I was a kid up here, when I was 10, 12 years old, my gramp and I would be off in the wagon and he'd point into a little clearing, and say, 'That's where the Barns's house used to be', and sometimes we'd walk in, and there was a cellar hole, and maybe a standing well, but generations of families had lived in these places. Many burned down, but many were simply left, abandoned, and the families died out or went to the mills or went west and farmed on a larger scale, and eventually farmed with machines of course.  And it meant that when... it was easy... easy to transport milk, it became too expensive to make milk at this kind of farm, and... and so on. It was always too expensive to grow any quantity of wheat, that you needed the big plains for, and it was easier with transport. But transportation, and the railroads growing from the 1840s on, opened up the west, opened up better land. The canals started a little, even before that, so you can see it. So I grew up here in a... in a sort of decaying culture. It was... it was probably by 1940 when I was 12, or maybe even later during the war, the population of New Hampshire was lower than it had ever been before or has been since. The population now is up to what it was maybe 150 years ago, but of course its people around lakes and summer people and retired people that have increased the population now - not farmers. You still have some, but in the places where the land widens out, you have enough land to farm.

The 14th US Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018) was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, then earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1951 and a BLitt, from Oxford in 1953. He published many essays and anthologies of both poetry and prose including String too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Without: Poems, and Ox-Cart Man, a children's book which won the Caldecott Medal. Hall was editor of the magazine Oxford Poetry, literary editor of Isis, editor of New Poems, and poetry editor of The Paris Review. He won many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Robert Frost Medal. At the end of his first Oxford year, he also won the university's Newdigate Prize, awarded for his poem Exile.

Listeners: Kendel Currier

Kendel Currier started working for Donald Hall in August of 1994 as his correspondence typist. Later she took on his manuscript typing as well, and in October of 1998 moved 100 meters down the road from Donald and became his personal assistant, adding many various new tasks to her work. As well as working for Donald for the last 10 and-a-half years, Donald Hall and Kendel Currier share a set of great (or for Kendel great-great) grandparents, making them distant cousins and part of a similar New Hampshire heritage.

Tags: New Haven, Connecticut, Hamden, Whitneyville, Springland, civil war, Concord, Manchester, Merrimack River, Andover, Vermont, New York State, Connecticut River, Eli Whitney

Duration: 7 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008