Before they arrived, Tenney's whole farm erupted in flames. The fire was out of control long before a fire truck arrived. Police said they found a fired rifle by Tenney's bed and a few bones, but the fire had burned so intensely there was little of his body left. Some neighbors refused to accept the coroner's report, and a few went on putting food out in the woods for him for years. "Like leaving cookies for Santa Claus," one remembered recently.Yankee magazine:
In the summer of 1964, Romaine Tenney was a bachelor farmer. He milked 25 cows by hand on his farm in Ascutney, Vermont. He had no electricity in his house, used no gas-powered machinery. He cut his firewood with an axe and a saw; cut his hay with workhorses. He didn’t own a tractor or drive a car. When he went to the nearby big town of Claremont, across the river in New Hampshire, he’d walk the six miles–except that he probably never walked all the way. People always picked him up. Everyone knew Romaine. With his long beard, felt hat, and overalls, he was a familiar sight. Romaine enjoyed visiting on these rides, and all his neighbors liked him. His farm was right on the major road between Ascutney and Claremont; the road hugged his cow barn, and neighbors would often stop to chat. He rose late and worked late into the night. “You could drive by at midnight and there he would be in his barn, fixing some harnesses or just puttering about,” said Deputy Sheriff Robert Gale. It was as if Romaine held the office of Bachelor Farmer in town.
There are at least three songs about Tenney; Sean Murray's "The Ballad of Romaine Tenney" is here.
For many in Vermont and elsewhere, Tenney stands for everything that has been swept away in the rush to modernize, for all the people crushed under the cavalcade of progress.Here is Ellen Barry in the New York Times:
The highway brought change to Ascutney in a great rush. The village green was clear-cut and bulldozed, the wooden bandstand taken down, the dirt roads paved and widened.
In their place appeared the generic landscape of an American highway exit: service stations and highway signs, motels and mobile homes, the staccato of jake brakes on eighteen-wheelers. Romaine Tenney’s farm would be the site of a Park and Ride, where commuters could park their cars and board buses into Hanover.
DeForest Bearse was 8 the year of the fire. Her house was near Mr. Tenney’s, and every time the highway engineers detonated an explosive charge, it shook. Her brother hung a pencil from the ceiling of the living room, over a sheet of paper, so that with every blast, it would leave a mark.
“I can still feel what he felt,” she said. “That feeling of utter hopelessness, when your life changes and there is nothing you can do about it.”
On the other hand: the leadership of Vermont was united behind the new highway. Now, Vermont is an economically thriving state, but it was not in 1960. The textile mills that built Burlington were mostly shuttered, and the state's dairy farms were disappearing; in the 1950s, more than a third closed. Economists and politicians said that without better connections to the Interstate network, Vermont would wither and die. Most likely that is not true, and I-91 by itself had only a small part in Vermont's turnaround. But should cranky bachelor farmers have a veto over what their societies can do?
Romaine’s story stands as a regret. Romaine stands as the lost and the last; he’s the lost authentic life, the unrecoverable past.
How much do we owe to the Romaine Tenneys of the world, and how much do they owe to us?