Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Ballad of Romaine Tenney

Since we've been talking here about the issues surrounding building in America, it seems like a good time to bring up one of infrastructure's most famous victims: Romaine Tenney. Tenney farmed 90 acres of southern Vermont that happened to be in the way of Interstate 91. Many country folks protested the new highway, but except for Tenney they all eventually took their buyouts and moved on. Tenney refused to leave. He went on milking his cows and cutting his hay as construction got under way around him. Eventually the state ran out of patience and sent sheriff's deputies to remove Tenney.

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.

Over the years there have been dozens of stories about Tenney; his defiance strikes a chord with many people. Here is Howard Mansfield from 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?

Howard Mansfield:

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?


David said...

Interesting story. Part of why it's compelling is that both sides have a good case. Romaine Tenney wasn't just a nasty old coot; he liked his neighbors and they liked him. And the interstate system wasn't just a glory project for people who like to move fast and break things, or for the fancy that it might give citizens a common purpose and a more noble spirit, or to score a point for change over stasis. The sad but important fact is that, for every Romaine Tenney, there were who knows how many Vermonters who were truly happier with a more modernized, prosperous Vermont. But I have plenty of patience for the Romaine Tenneys of the world and for those who want to spend time missing them. To which of course Tenney might reply, "Patience is cheap."

D. Walker said...


He apparently also would say "Life is cheap", as he seemingly chose to kill himself and destroy everything he owned rather than build a new life elsewhere.

That mentality seems insane to me, a third generation immigrant. My grandparents on both sides, like so many others, came to America with nothing, and built lives for themselves despite not even speaking the language. They didn't just give up their old farms and homes, they gave up family, they gave up country, they gave up everything they ever knew, because the alternative was to try to stay and cling to a failing way of life that had little to no prospects of improving.

In contrast, Tenney seems to have been pretty well off - he owned 90 acres, after all. He may not have owned a car or had electricity, but that pretty clearly was a conscious choice, not a necessary deprivation of poverty. He was well liked by his neighbors, and clearly enjoyed the life he led. He was a fortunate man, who could have easily just accepted the reality of the situation, sold his land, walked away with a bunch of money, and bought himself a new farm elsewhere, and been just as fortunate there if not more so.

But instead, he blew his brains out and burned everything he ostensibly loved to ashes, out of spite and stubbornness. And for what? For some sort of symbolic last stand in the name of a cause long lost? He couldn't stomach the idea that things didn't go exactly his way?

My grandparents faced terrible deprivations and cruelties, victims of economic and social forces far larger than them and well beyond their control, and yet they nevertheless managed to go on and live their lives and fill them with happiness despite it all. They were forced to give up everything for the mere -chance- to continue living and find happiness, their refusal to give up is why I even exist.

But this well-off, well-liked gentleman farmer who could have walked away with his pockets full of money and all his needs met; who would have been leaving behind only his farm, rather than him entire country, people, and even language; this man, whom fickle fortune favored so much more highly than my ancestors, couldn't stand to weather such a small reversal of his own good luck, and decided to instead destroy everything including himself in a fit of madness?

Well, so be it. It was his life to waste. He chose to die over nothing, while my ancestors chose to live despite everything. The horse was led to water, and refused to drink, outraged at having to change where it drank from. I can find no pity for him, just sad confusion at the selfishness and wastefulness of it all.

David said...

@D. Walker

Sincerely, your grandparents sound heroic in their endeavors. But I think it's a bit uncharitable to withhold sympathy from anyone who isn't quite as heroic. I've never been a fan of "so-and-so did it; why can't you?" approaches. That probably reflects my own deep lack of heroism.

G. Verloren said...

My grandparents weren't heroic - millions and millions of poor immigrants from Europe just like them flocked to this country, driven by poverty and hope for a better future. They weren't special - they just wanted to survive.

Clearly Romaine Tenney did not. He preferred suicide to selling his old 90 acre farm and relocating to a new 90 acre farm somewhere else. That's irrational to the point of incomprehensibility for me. What sympathy I have for him is as someone who I can only assume was mentally ill, and unable to appreciate his own good fortunes.

I can't resent the man, as in my mind he got exactly what he wanted and what he deserved as the natural consequence of his choices. I just pity him, and wonder why it is we mythologize the loner who decides to throw his life away senselessly, while ignoring all the rest of his community who took their own misfortunes in stride and went on to lead their own lives.

We clingingly remember the name of the one sole crazy outlier whom we romanticize for their obsessive self destruction, but we don't care one whit for the countless anonymous others who actually made the best of a suboptimal situation. What does that say about us as a people, except that we inherently value conflict and destruction over adaptation and growth? We worship the rare disaffected and miserable loners who tear down the world around them, while simultaneously ignoring the countless people who quietly and consistently work to make the best of life and find happiness.

Ann said...

I have a different take on this. I don't think he held life cheaply. I think those that destroyed his home and life's work held (that aspect of) life cheaply. His act was one of defiance and despair, and as such I don't applaud it, but he wasn't, after all, fleeing a failing country or escaping poverty for new opportunity, but instead experiencing the destruction of something that wasn't broken and in no particular need of improvement. I would liken his reaction to that of indigenous tribes who mourned the loss of their beloved woods and way of life, and often reacted violently. Again, this is not to praise such actions, but rather to extend empathy for the loss that to the sufferer can seem so pointlessly inflicted. Consider too how modern, city-dwelling Americans react - often with considerable outrage - to the loss of their neighborhoods to gentrification. They are often greeted with bemusement - 'how can you mourn the loss of your home when there is the possibility of acquiring something new and potentially better elsewhere?'. For these individuals it is not merely a question of being priced out of a market, but of the loss of an entire community and web of associations and memories that even the humblest domicile contains.

For a man who had worked every inch of the land, listened to the birds each morning, watched the sun rise and set, and felt the wind gather and fall each passing day - who may have had family members buried there and who would at the very least have had each day centered on his beloved home - the loss is incalculable and perhaps difficult for us to appreciate in this age.

G. Verloren said...


Oh, clearly he and you believed that things weren't broken and didn't need improvement. But many other people did believe that, and a decision was reached legally through the proper channels as carried out by duly elected and/or appointed representatives. Tenney had the chance to promote his cause and oppose change, and his cause lost in a fair contest. That's life in a society.

Likening that to the suffering of Native Americans is outrageous and disgusting to me. They were forcibly driven from their lands by armed invaders from across the sea who saw them as less than human - that isn't remotely comparable to a local community reaching a peaceable and lawful consensus. Native Americans weren't offered fair market prices for land, by their own duly elected governmental representatives, with the majority approval of their own people. They were cheated or murdered, not given a chance to argue their position as a community but failing to secure the outcome they desired.

And more than anything else, what disgusts me about the comparison is this: like my grandparents, like the millions of poor immigrants my grandparents exemplify, only EVEN MORESO, the Native Americans were victims of outside forces beyond their control, suffered massively, and yet they still wanted to keep living. They had everything taken from them, and yet most of them they carried on with life, even driven from their homes and forced into the attractions conditions of "reservation" living. Their misfortunes are incalculable and monstrously unfair, and yet they had the respect for life to not burn it to ashes senselessly.

You can mourn your misfortunes without resorting to devaluing life to the point of suicide. Bad things happen to all of us. Romaine Tenney had something slightly unfortunate happen and shot himself and burned his farm over it. Untold millions have had much, much, much worse done to them in far more awful and unfair ways, and yet they got on with the business of living, because they valued their own lives and the capacity to rebuild and to carry on their values elsewhere more than they did a specific piece of land.

As precious as Romaine Tenney's farm was to him, for untold millions, life itself is even still far more precious than their own homes which they, too, lost.

Where other people mourn their losses but count their remaining blessings, Tenney chose to transform a relatively small loss into a total one, senselessly.

And for that people literally sing his praises? No, I cannot condone that. It is his name that should be lost to anonymity, and the names of the untold millions who held life far more dearly than he did that we should sing the praises of.

G. Verloren said...

typo - "attractions" = "atrocious"

dang auto correct