John Clark remembering today.
Where you grow up defines many things, ones I suspect many folks don’t understand unless they’re put in a place where they have time to ruminate on them, or are forced to examine them by unusual circumstances. Some of what I remember about Sennebec Hill Farm comes from things my parents told me over the years, others are first-hand experiences, now viewed through the lens of 66 years on this planet. The more I write, the more I realize that my way of looking at the world has been greatly influenced by those collective experiences.
We moved to Union in 1948 when I was a year old. My father had a degree in horticulture from Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts. He and my mother worked in New Jersey, he at Revlon, she at Hoffman La Roche. They wanted to get away from the city. Mom had grown up in Old Forge, NY, my father in West New Portland, Maine. I’m unclear how they settled on the house overlooking Sennebec Lake, but I do remember Mom telling me that Dad wanted to set up a greenhouse and orchard. Unfortunately, my grandfather, who I suspect was somewhat of a tyrant, opined that he’s helped them buy a chicken farm and by God, my father was going to be a chicken farmer. There was a three story barn along with the house which had a sagging ell. Giant elm trees grew on the lawn and lined the field across the road. I remember being awed by their majestic spread and how we used to watch Baltimore Orioles nesting in the leafy canopies. One memory that recurs often, usually when I’m driving past a house near the White Oak Grange in Warren, is that Mom once pointed to a house near it and said we’d almost bought it instead of Sennebec Hill Farm. I’ve pondered who I might be and what my life would have been, had I grown up there instead. Who would I have married? Where would I have gone to college? What would I have done for work? Would I have become a writer?
Kate was born prematurely not long after we bought the farm. East Sennebec Road was pretty rural, but my parents began making friends that would last for a lifetime quite quickly. There was Norman and Mary Clark, he the family plumber, Sandy and Mary Helen Hardie, she of the Eastport Rae mustard clan, and Norman and Mary Smith. The Smiths and the Hardies were also poultry farmers like my parents. I remember Norman, an avid ham radio operator, talking on his shortwave radio, describing himself as a Feather Merchant. His son, Sandy, became one of my two best friends during my youth, a friendship that included double dating, marathon chess matches and an early fascination with horror movies and Frankenstein’s Country Jamboree. For those who never had a chance to view this show, it aired on one of the Bangor TV stations at midnight on Saturday from this furniture store in Milbridge. Anyone fool enough to get up in front of a TV camera and sing got the chance and we loved it for the suspense of which singer would be the worst of the week.
My other friend was Andy Payson whose father Curt was a lawyer in Rockland. When we were middle schoolers, Curt often worked at his office on Saturday mornings. He’d drop us off at Oakland Park, the candlepin bowling lanes on Rt. 1 in Rockport where we could bowl from 9-12 for a dollar. I never got good and often left with a swollen hand, but it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning when you were a kid. Just up the road on the opposite side from the bowling alley was the Rockport Drive-in. One of my early memories is of Kate and I standing in the back of our 1949 Dodge pick-up, listening to the soundtrack of A Night To Remember and straining (without much success) to see the movie because the fog was so thick. In later years, that place was a summer date staple, as were dances at the Rockland Community Center.
The geography of Sennebec Hill Farm plays a big part in my growing up as well as my writing. The farm had 189 cares. West of the road, we had a long stretch of shoreline on the lake, bordered by an old stone wall with big oak trees to the north and a gully with more oaks to the south. Most of that side of the road was hayfield and gardens, with a few old apple trees. Dad grafted a Wolf River branch on one of them and for years, we were amazed and delighted by the monster pie apples it produced. There was a Macintosh beside it, two sour cherry trees (I used to drive our Farmall Cub tractor underneath them and stand in the seat so I could pick the fruit), and two pear trees that still produce an abundant crop every year. During pear season, we learned to be careful when collecting fallen fruit because yellow jackets tended to gorge themselves on the fermented parts and pass out in the small cavities they created.
We had a regular swimming spot with a nice sandy beach shaded by oak and birch trees. Beth and I were married there and my sister Sara and my father are buried under lilacs and a clump of birch trees off to one side. Most of Mom is in the lake. The path from the back door of the house goes down two hills before reaching the spot. It was always a race down and a slow walk back. Mom generally swam from late April until early October and had a cadre of swimming buddies right up to the day she had her stroke. South of the swimming area was a boat launch at the edge of what everyone called Katie Cove. I don’t know how it acquired the name, perhaps my sister does as it’s been associated with her for more than 50 years. One hard and fast family rule that continued long after we became adults, was that you raked leaf mulch (the ground up leaves that had fallen into the pond the previous fall) and filled one of the colorful egg pails lining the rocks above the sandy beach. After they dried, you ere expected to carry one back to the house. Mom mixed wood ashes with them to neutralize the acid and composted them in raised beds behind the house. By the time she died, I’m willing to bet that her garden had 18 inches of really soft, rich soil.
Across the road were the barn, a two story hen house, built in the early 1950s, a blueberry field, an orchard Dad planted and lots of woods. There was a time when I knew pretty much every inch on that side of the property like the back of my hand. Dad took me hunting for the first time when I was nine and I was hooked. Times were pretty lean when we were in the poultry business and I made spending money shooting porcupines and collecting the bounty. You had to cut off the feet and present them to the town clerk in order to get your 50 cents for each one. I hunted all fall and winter, tossing the feet in a bag that occupied one side of the chest freezer. When spring came and I hauled them into town clerk Marion Alden’s kitchen, she was less than thrilled to see me, but that, along with collecting returnables from the roadside ditches (something I still do today), helped me have spending money until I started taking care of chickens for a neighbor and raking blueberries when I was thirteen.
The woods were my sanctuary. I wasn’t very good at socializing, feeling extremely self-conscious as a pre-teen, so disappearing into the woods was almost automatic when the weather permitted. I had places where I could go that nobody knew about, particularly the ledges on the hill across from the house. There were unique spots up there, a place we called the deer’s bedroom, a spot where I built a lean-to that overlooked the swamp, and certain pine trees where I could climb 40 feet into the canopy and feel the gentle movement as wind off the lake made the tree sway. I became fascinated by the sounds of wind through pine boughs, imagining it to be the voices of wood spirits. There’s one spot halfway up the hill on the other side of the swamp where our property line touches two other towns. You can sit in Hope and have your left foot in Union and the right one in Appleton.
When Mom was active in the Methodist Church, we often had bunches of kids spend a Saturday afternoon on woodland treasure hunts. My parents blazed three not so obvious trails (red, blue and white) through the woods with a canister of buried treasure hidden near the last marker. These went on for several years and were extremely popular.
No childhood is complete without mysteries and discoveries. I remember several, starting with the Saturday in November when I was hunting on the woods road that went from the back of the orchard down to the swamp. I looked up and was astonished to see two large black creatures walk across the road. They were easily eight feet from nose to tip of tail and black as coal. I was so shocked I just stood there until they vanished. On New Years Day, we saw one of them playing in the orchard. I tried to make a plaster cast of the print, but failed. The distance between leaps, however was twelve feet. Despite what anyone said then or since, I’m convinced they were mountain lions. The other true mystery happened when we were on our way to church one Sunday and saw two UFOs hovering over a silo on the North Union Road. They might have been weather balloons, but It’s more fun to believe they were otherwise. Later, possibly that same year, I looked across the lake one night and saw lights streaking along the top of Appleton Ridge. They were just above ground level and moving way too fast for cars or trucks. I watched until they disappeared.
As for mysteries with solutions or natural adventures, Kate and I explored the farm a lot and one time, we dug some clay streaked with minerals from the gully at the back of the orchard. We were excited at the idea we might have discovered something valuable, so Mom took a sample and sent it to her former boss at Hoffman LaRoche who had his lab do an analysis and send us back a printed report. We hadn’t found anything particularly rare, but we were excited to be able to show our friends the report.
There was a cellar hole at the back of the adjoining property we called the Teal Place. I don’t remember how it got that name, but it was a great place to hunt partridge and harvest Concord grapes in early October. One day when Sandy Smith and I were exploring out there, I found the remains of a weather balloon that had a transmitter attached with an address where the finder was to mail it. In return, you received a report on where it was launched and what it noted while in flight. I got mine several weeks after mailing the part back to some place in Illinois and it was the highlight of one of our sciences classes.
Kate and I were also fascinated with ‘goldies’, the fat yellow-shelled clams that lived on the bottom of Katy Cove. It was our dream to find one with a freshwater pearl in it. I think we did finally find one small misshapen one. I used this bit of our personal history as the way Berek and his sister Kylin saved the family farm from foreclosure in my second Wizard of Simonton Pond book, Hither We Go.
There was little or no money in the poultry business, but we were stuck in it for years. Despite a string of hired men, I had certain chores associated with the egg side of things. For a long time, I was required to clean and grade five pails of eggs every night after my homework was completed. This involved taking each egg, examining it and using a small sandpaper pad that was held in my palm by an elastic band, to sand any hen poop off before it was set on a slight metal incline that was part of the mechanical egg grader. Each egg was sent along a rail and when it reached the slot where its weight tripped a lever, it rolled into a larger square area that was padded. Each size, peewee, small, medium, large, extra-large and jumbo were packed 2 ½ dozen in a molded cardboard flat and then stacked in a cardboard box that had the egg size checked off on the side. We had somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 laying hens at one point, with almost every one laying an egg a day. You can understand why I went four years after we got out of the poultry business unable to eat any eggs or chicken.
When a flock of hens reached a certain age, their production dropped to a point where they no longer earned their keep. When that happened, a crew from one of the processing plants in Belfast came at night when the hens were sleeping and set up a modified corral with a chute leading into it. The crew would chase the hens into the corral where they were packed into wooden crates and sent off to Belfast.
Once they were gone, one of the more odious parts of raising laying hens took place. All the manure which had built up while that particular flock was producing had to be broken up and removed. The upper floor wasn’t so difficult, at least it wasn’t when we located the removable squares in the floor. Someone Dad hired would back a dump truck under the hole and we’d start pushing giant clods of crap into the cargo area. It was a fact of life that rats would set up housekeeping under the manure and feed on grain and broken eggs. I remember one clean out when we had a rattathon and by the time we had the upper floor cleaned out, dead rats were lined two deep all across the large door that was the size of your basic garage entrance.
Once everything was cleaned, we fumigated to kill lice and any remaining rats. A day later, fresh shavings were blown in, spread and the next batch of baby chicks were delivered. We had to set up large six sided metal covers with gas burners near the top to keep the new chicks warm. If we got a new batch during the winter, my father lost a fair amount of sleep because he had to keep checking to make certain the gas burners stayed lit. I remember one hen house a couple miles down the road going up in flames because of a gas heater malfunction.
When I turned thirteen, I started taking care of chickens for a neighbor two houses down the road whose husband had dropped dead while grading eggs. That, along with raking blueberries, became my main source of spending money when I was a teenager. Berta Dirion, the widow I worked for, experienced a very unusual loss of several hundred chickens in the mid 1950s. It happened the first time a military jet broke the sound barrier over Knox County. The chickens panicked and piled up in one corner, smothering the unfortunates who were at the bottom of the pile. I think she was able to prove that her loss happened at the exact time others in the area reported getting scared to death by the sonic boom.
Next time I’ll talk about hot cars, Mercury, Grandpa’s sex manual and more memories of Sennebec Hill Farm.