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Between the Lines

A brief mention of "the Sullivan County Farm"in the memoir I'm editing provides a glimpse into how New Englanders used to deal with the poor.

By Sara Tucker

In my grandfather's book about his life as a Vermont dairy farmer is a reference to "Beatty," a young woman who was hired to help with housework and childcare on my grandparents' farm in the 1920s. He explains that Beatty, whose real name was Beatrice, was adopted by "Aunt Lizzie" from the Sullivan County Farm. Aunt Lizzie tried to teach Beatty to read and write, but she didn't get very far in her schooling. There are many family stories about Beatty, who lived on the Cooley Farm for about 12 years, until my mother and her sister Ruth were old enough to take over Beatty's chores. Grampa describes her as "a good-hearted girl of low mentality," but says nothing about Beatty's origins.

So what, I wondered, was the Sullivan County Farm, and why was Beatty there?

The county farms were the New England equivalent of poorhouses, a tradition that, according to the New England Historical Society, stemmed from the English poor laws of the 16th and 17th centuries. The laws required communities to take responsibility for their poor, which towns or counties did in various ways, not all of them favorable to the poor. If you were in really bad shape, you might live at the county farm for years. Often people moved in during the winter when they ran out of heating fuel and moved back home in the spring.

The postcard, above, came from a box of family photos. It is addressed to an E.C. Long and signed by "Your father, L.L. Balch," who says he is coming to visit and will stay "as long as you will have me." I'm theorizing E.C. Long is Aunt Lizzie, the adoptive parent of Beatty. The Balch family had roots in a place called Skunk Hollow, near Woodstock, Vermont. Some of them lived in pretty rustic conditions. I remember Gramp visiting a Jenny Balch over in Skunk Hollow in the 1970s or 1980s and being impressed that the house had no running water. He was even more impressed that it also appeared to have no outhouse. He went looking for one and, finding none, relieved himself in the garden.


The book: Harry H. Cooley's life story. Working title: "Farming: The Life of a Vermont Dairy Man." Follow this blog for updates.


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