Left in Andover: Bill Newhall’s whole grain life

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Technically I was underage the summer that health food nut Bill Newhall tapped me to run his whole wheat bakery in the ell next to the fudge shop in the Weston Mill Yard. In the mid-1960s, baking with whole grains was an anomaly in rural Vermont. This enterprise, like the rest of Bill’s life, was a wild leap of faith.

Certainly, everyone has heard of Mildred Orton and her Cooking with Wholegrains cookbook. But the memory of fellow Weston townsman Bill Newhall has vanished almost completely. Bill operated his bake-oven at his farm up on Lawrence Hill Road, turning out whole wheat loaves to sustain his Angelina Jolie-style brood of kids. Multi-Racial Family is Pint-Sized U.N. a headline of the day blared.

Mother’s hand-cranked grain mill.

While Bill, himself a product of a Yonkers orphanage, managed their subsistence-level farm, his wife Ginny, a painter who had trained in New York City under a Bauhaus master, kept the family afloat financially as an art teacher in Springfield public schools.

My earliest, most vivid, memory of Bill Newhall was when he pulled into our driveway at Popplewood one cold winter afternoon. He was driving a canvas-sided Jeep, wearing a big black bearskin coat to keep from freezing. He marched into our house looking rather like a bear himself, heading for our cavernous fireplace, which he correctly assumed would be roaring. Then, bearskin and all, he crouched down inside it as far as he could get without bursting into flames, to thaw himself out.

My mother was a fellow traveler of Bill, and devotee of Adele Davis. She ground all her own flour from whole rye and wheat berries in an old red hand mill set up at the far end of our breezeway. In passing, she gave it a few cranks on her way back and forth to the barn.

Bill Newhall’s shop sat in the ell of the Mill.

My biggest challenge that summer of 1964 or ‘65 when I worked for Bill was just traveling the 4 miles from my house to Weston. I either walked or hitchhiked or some of each, and spent hours at the end of the day perched on the stone wall curving around the Walkers’ yard, waiting for someone to offer me a lift home up the mountain to Andover.

Not that it much mattered what time I clocked in or out. I was lucky to sell a half-dozen loaves a week. For one thing, there was no one much around, and those folks who did stroll by seemed much more interested in the fudge being made and sold next door.

Nevertheless, Bill was undeterred in his experiment. Being only 13 or 14 years old, my salary requirements were modest, and I contented myself by reading all day long, some days with no interruption whatsoever. That summer I plowed through a good percentage of the oeuvre of Sinclair Lewis. I can no longer account for this choice, except to say that my dad had filled our barn with thousands of used books to sell, and this was the source of my reading material.

Bill’s short-lived bread shop in the ell.

Many years later, I was interested to learn that Sinclair Lewis actually spent time in Vermont. I quote from a speech this satirist of small town American life and boosterism delivered to the Rutland Rotary Club in September 1929.

“In answer to the question of what I think of Vermont – I have given the most signal and honest proof of my admiration for the state by buying a home here. As a native Vermonter of about twelve months’ standing, I speak deliberately on why I came here and what I think of the state … Vermont is the first place … where I really wanted to have my home — a place to spend the rest of my life. There was nothing to prevent me from making any other state my home, but I have found in Vermont precisely the opposite to the peculiar thing, pointed out and boasted of as “very American”; the desire for terrific speed and the desire to make things grow … It is hard in this day, in which the American tempo is so speeded up, to sit back and be satisfied with what you have. It requires education  and culture to appreciate a quiet place, but any fool can appreciate noise …”

Years later, still at the wall of Walker Farm, hitching a ride home.

Despite penning this ode to Vermont exceptionalism, Sinclair Lewis did not linger here as long as planned. But I am certain he would have been charmed by my employer’s low-key approach to commerce.

As may be surmised, Bill’s retail operation at the Weston Mill Yard soon folded. Subsequently he dabbled in mail order and experimented with a bigger, better “Martin’s Bakery” (named after a son who died of childhood leukemia), this time in the dilapidated building, still standing, on the lower end of Valley Street in Springfield, just before the egress from the old A&P/People’s Bank parking lot.

Oh how thrilled Bill would be, were he still alive, that Springfield Coop has recently purchased this prominent downtown property and will soon relocate there, whole grains front and center.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Rosa-Lee Gould says:

    Since my father’s family were from Chester I enjoy reading these posts. I found this especially interesting since I attended North School with some of the Newhall’s children & visited their home in N. Springfield to play with Barbara in the mid/late ’60s. I found it informative & well written 🙂