The Farm in Essex
Updated: Aug 10
By Harry Cooley
In 1905, William and Anna Cooley sold the family farm in Georgia, Vermont, and bought another one in an effort to improve their lot, a quest that suffered many setbacks. Here is the second installment of Harry's autobiography, which will be published later this year. Harry, my maternal grandfather, worked very hard as a boy, a habit that never left him. —Sara Tucker
The farmhouse in Essex was a pretty shabby residence, but it had electric lights and running water, both new luxuries for us, as in Georgia we used kerosene lamps and pumped our water or sent the cows to the brook. The farm work was more demanding than at Georgia, and father kept a hired hand for the first year, although he did not peddle his milk at retail. He made a deal with Mr. Holley, a retired man in Essex, to take the milk in bulk for three cents a quart, and Mr. Holley delivered it, also in bulk, for five cents per quart. I don’t think we ever sold two hundred quarts a day. How two families could ever expect to exist on such meager incomes is now a mystery, but groceries were cheap, and the children didn’t cost much to feed and clothe. The second year on the farm saw the departure of the hired hand and increased dependence on “the boys.”
There was a corn canning factory in Essex Junction, and Father decided to plant sweet corn. This called for hoeing by hand, and we spent long hot days in the cornfield during late June and early July and again in picking season, about September 15, when the weather was still warm. Father hired a man and his horse during haying, but except for an occasional day laborer the family did all the farm work for the last two years on the farm.
Father tried to increase his income by trading in cows and horses, but I don’t see that he ever made anything, as our dairy got poorer and poorer as changes took place, and we seldom had two good horses on the place at one time.
Father got the idea that he had made a poor move, that he could do something else besides farming. This was in 1908 during a depression, which I am sure none of the family realized. A middle-aged man with no particular ability had a poor chance of getting a job in a new field. Anyway, with considerable help from a neighbor across the street who had cultivated the family, Father sold the farm to two different parties. The house and a small piece of land went to Mr. Beaulac, a small-time speculator, and the rest of the land and the barn to a neighbor, Smith, in exchange for a farm in the town of Middlesex near the village of Putnamville, about ten miles north of Montpelier, which neighbor Smith had owned long enough to strip it of all marketable timber.
At the same time Father bought the large home on the corner of Grove and Central Streets which became our home for the next two years. After a brief unsuccessful attempt to find steady employment on the railroad, Father took a job as herdsman for Dan Johnson, who owned a farm on the Essex Center Road (R15) opposite the Drury Brickyard. I was finishing my first year of high school. When summer vacation came I took a job at the Roscoe Printing Company in Essex Junction in the region known as Indian Acres. Here I was put to folding Central Vermont time tables, schedules of Vermont Railway trains. I worked in the top story of a flat-topped factory building with three or four other boys and girls. We took the big newsprint-sized sheets, and by folding and refolding reduced them to the size of a large envelope. We worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour off at noon for fifty cents a day. I worked a week, and on Saturday told Mr. Roscoe I was all through, and he grudgingly gave me three dollars and I left the printing business to others.
The next week I got a job for a “butter and eggs man,” C. A. Booth, at one dollar a day. I candled eggs, helped load the delivery wagon in the morning with cases of eggs and butter, milked the cow, fed the pigs, and ran errands. On August 16, Mr. Booth sent me to the Burlington Bank with a deposit of $1,600 to meet a draft overdue, only to find that the bank was closed for Bennington Battle Day.
Another time on a hot afternoon I drove the horse and express wagon to Decatur Street in Burlington with fifty pounds of print butter for Bourne’s Market.
He could, and often did, send cases of eggs and butter by the electric car which ran from Essex to Burlington every hour. The car went right by the store, and the carrying charge was not more than twenty-five cents. Perhaps he thought I needed a change from candling eggs.
Behind his barn was a pile of secondhand lumber which he had hauled from Burlington, which I was supposed to be overhauling in my spare time and getting ready to use in building (something). It never materialized, to my knowledge.
I worked there until school began in September, and frequently after school opened I would get up early and drive the horse and wagon up the River Road to North Williston, where there was a cold storage plant for eggs and butter. I brought back a load which had been stored there through the summer and was needed when the local hens stopped laying in the fall. Mr. Booth also sold produce to merchants in Barre, and we made weekly shipments by railway freight and express.
My father's job at Johnson dairy was too hard for him, and he worked part-time for Mr. Booth, but family income was very small, and it was quite apparent that we were not able to continue as village dwellers.
Father began to look for another farm and traveled all over the area with a real estate dealer, J. E. Hunt “The Bargain Finder.” He had this Middlesex farm on his hands, rented to a tenant. I went with him to look it over, traveling by railroad to Montpelier and by horse and wagon ten miles to Putnamville. We stayed overnight, and I didn't think it was a place we wanted to live. Father and Mother came to the same conclusion, so we continued to look for another place.
The winter passed. Strictest economy was observed by the family. Father was much discouraged and “blue.” The boys all got another year’s schooling, and my youngest brother, Emerson, was born
Mr. Booth had enlarged his business, hired another young man, Guy Nichols, and bought a farm without any buildings near Essex Center, on which there was a crop of heavy hay. Booth hired Father and myself to help in haying. We started out every day with a team and wagon from the Junction, carried our lunch, and came home at night. There was a hay barn on the farm which we filled and hauled several loads home. Father was a good loader and could build loads over a ton of loose hay which would stay put during the four-mile trip home. We finished the job about August 15, and I had some idea that I had earned a short vacation.
Father heard of a farmer at Malletts Bay who needed a little help with his cottages, summer boarders, etc. The man’s name was Rice, and if I had known the family reputation as slave drivers, I would not have gone there, but it was put up to me as a “vacation with pay,“ and I was willing to try it. The first day was rainy, and we caulked and painted an old boat and did the chores. He had thirteen cows.
The next morning, Mr. Rice got out two scythes and sharpened them, and we started to mow around six acres of ripe, badly tangled oats. A man was coming with a reaper to cut the field over but we mowed around it to save wasting any on the “back swathe.“ This grain was not only broken over by heavy rains, but sand had washed over some of the straw, and our scythes soon became so dull that we were pulling straw instead of cutting it.
My scythe developed a limber back and after several strokes the point “lopped down,” so I drove it in the ground at every sweep. Mr. Rice showed me how to bend it back by placing my forehead against it and pulling on both ends.
We got around the field with two wide swathes, and Mr. Rice decided there was a spot in the middle that was badly lodged, and we cut that by hand. We worked till chore time, and I thought our hand mowing was done. The next morning after breakfast Mr. Rice said brightly, “We got along so good yesterday I guess we’d better keep at it.” so we “kept at it” till noon. After dinner he said, “I’ve got to go to the depot to get some boarders! You can keep mowing!”
Back to the field I went. I didn’t hurry, as by that time every muscle in my body was aching, but by chore time I had mowed several more swathes. I got the cows in the barn and started milking. Mrs. Rice said she expected Mr. Rice any time, and I kept milking. I finished the milking, separated the milk, had my supper and told Mrs. Rice I was going home for Sunday. This was Saturday. Mrs. Rice advised me to wait till he got home, but I started on foot for Essex Junction, about five miles. She hesitated to pay me but finally counted out three dollars.
I met Mr. Rice and his summer guests about a mile up the road and told him I was going home to stay. He didn’t say much, but I thought he didn’t care one way or the other. Anyway, I dragged myself the rest of the way home and took the next week to rest up.
During that time, Father came to Randolph with a real estate agent and bought the farm in Randolph Center. He hired a freight car, had it parked on a nearby siding, and we loaded our household goods and some farm tools into it. The next week Father and I took the train for Randolph. Mother and the children came three days later, allowing time for the car to get here. Our new neighbors helped haul our goods the five miles to the farm in pouring rain, and the Cooley’s adventure in village life was over.
We later sold the Middlesex farm. I don’t know how much we lost financially, but I’m quite sure we didn’t make anything. Looking back, it seems that my father had little ability to hold his own with the other Yankee traders with whom he dealt. I inherited his weakness and gave up trying long ago.
Next: The new farm, and the Vermont School of Agriculture in Randolph Center. Also, chapters from the unpublished memoirs of Charles Cooley and Idora Cooley Tucker.
Photo: Anna and William Cooley and their boys, c. 1909. From left: Oscar, Hollis, Harry, and Sumner; the baby is Emerson.