Left in Andover: Living off of and for the land

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1979, my parents gifted me two cabins and some land, the one-time ‘back forty’ of our Popplewood Farm in Andover. I have lived there ever since. This head start made it possible for me to pursue my “impractical” life-long career as a potter, and my husband, his as a violinist.

It was equally miraculous that my parents had managed to retain their own title to this farm, which my grandmother helped them to purchase in 1950 for $7,000.

My mother, like most farm wives of that era, did not have a driver’s license and stayed home with the kids — human and otherwise. Here is a letter she wrote in June 1952 to my grandmother in the Bronx:

Dear Mom,

Three Leader children on the back of the family truck and a farm full of other babies to care for.

I’ve been so busy feeding animals I feel like the keeper of the zoo. I have three more babies to take care of — 3 baby calves around 1 week old. Besides that we have 2 goats and a heifer 1 1/2 years old. All the rabbits were sold at auction today for $20.00 and all the remaining puppies for $.50 each – we were lucky to find homes for them. For awhile, 3-4 days actually, I was feeding 36 individual animals! Now I have: 16 chickens, 3 calves, 1 heifer, 2 goats, 1 dog, 2 cats – 25 total. Isn’t that fantastic?

More news: I drove the Jeep alone at night last week, it was real thrilling and perfectly safe. I was the only one on the road – from the Peaseville Schoolhouse up the Oxbow to our house – alone. Herb was driving the truck with a load of sawdust.

On Friday Susan walked 10 steps all by her little self. So we celebrated with a cake. It was such a thrill to see her.

I am working on a Game Party to raise PTA funds. I am so sick of staying home but wait til I get that license. Herb is always too tired to take me out at night.

Love, Miriam – write soon

Mother and grandmother, on one of her visits, with my sister and me.

Occasionally my grandmother made the trek to Vermont to visit. Her New York license plates must have been a real shocker, witness this redacted excerpt from my dad’s FBI files:

“Chester, Vermont … stated that LEADER had a number of visitors on Sunday afternoons in the summer, that the automobiles quite often bore out of state licenses.”

Without warning, midsummer 1955 my father started having frequent seizures. He wrote of that time:

We had no health insurance whatsoever. There were now three children. One remaining cow was a principal source of our lactose-vegetarian diet. I had met the owner of the Bellows Falls Hudson Pulp and Paper Mill socially. I was reluctantly taken on, although “over-qualified.”

Within a few weeks, fellow workers sent a representative to the manager demanding that I be fired for being a communist. He confided this to me, with his response that as long as I did the work he would not fire me. I in turn confided to him that I was probably fatally ill and planned to work only until January, when I would come under the company’s health insurance plan.

Discharge of the late 1950s’ note from the state.

According to plan, my father underwent surgery for a brain tumor. Although he survived the operation — and would go on to live another 30 years — the 1958 Andover Town Report lists my folks as owing $177.45 in back taxes. To help us make it through, my grandmother gave her blessing to sell 10 acres of our farm for $1,000 — down from the $1,500 she initially had insisted we ask.

In August 1957, papers for the sale were drawn up. The would-be buyer was a hermit who occupied a loggers shack on our property. At the last minute, the deal fell through. Even with the help of friends, the hermit was unable to raise the thousand dollars. Whew! Those are the exact same 10 acres that I would inherit two decades later, along with the loggers shack.

Since the founding of most of Vermont’s towns and even into the late 1950s, providing a social safety net was primarily a local responsibility. My parents “went on the town,” as it was called. We survived, making many a trip to a certain dock in Chester Depot, where I remember my dad loading containers of surplus peanut butter, beans and corn meal onto the back of our truck.

Me washing dishes in 1979 in the outdoor kitchen of my loggers shack.

Ultimately our best recourse, given my dad’s medical condition, was to petition for a monthly payment from the state. Vermont obliged, allocating the sum of $63 per month for our family of five. The only hitch – welfare at that time was offered not as a grant, but as a lien against one’s property, to be paid upon death.

We were supported in this way from September 1958 until January 1961, long enough to build up a debt of $2,023 to the state. In a 1972 bill, an enlightened Vermont state legislature voted to forgive all such welfare loans, including ours.

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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. John Hoover says:

    You and I are of a similar age but my childhood was vastly different from yours. You wonderfully convey a time and place that so few today understand. Thank you.

  2. Dereka Smith says:

    Like all your other fans I can only say that I much enjoy your writing and am glad you have a column. Eventually, a book!

  3. Donna J McLaughlin says:

    Susan! Miss seeing you at the Farmers mkt. Fascinated with your stories. A book is what you need to write!!!! Love the Chester Telegraph. So glad you have a column!

  4. Chad Finer says:

    Just great writing – and great life history….hopefully you can find the time and energy to put this all into a book….a wonderful Vermont family history & a story that needs to be told….thanks

    Chad Finer

  5. Sharon Nimtz says:

    Wonderful, Susan, isn’t it amazing what we survived. Youth equals strength.

  6. Donna Gordon says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing.