Left in Andover: Big house, little house, book barn

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Until I came across Thomas C. Hubka’s transformational book Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn, I assumed that the purpose of our Popplewood Farm “little house,” as we called the honey room, and breezeway was just to make it easy to get to the barn in the winter.

But Hubka, exploring the architectural and cultural history of the connected farm buildings of northern New England, offers a deeper perspective into this vernacular:

Popplewood Farm circa 1900.

“New England farmers developed and popularized the connected farm building arrangement in the nineteenth century because it was well suited to the multi purpose agricultural production employed by most of the rural population. … it was a system of mixed-husbandry, home-industry and small-scale family farming. Mixed husbandry or mixed farming meant that the New England farmers never put all their agricultural eggs into a single product basket but produced a variety of crops and animal products. Home industry meant they relied on non-agricultural sources of income to help support the family farm, including lumbering, clothing and craft occupations.”

Since reading this book, I look with newly appreciative eyes at the rambling older homes and farms in our area, imagining how each family — then as often now — managed to get by running one or more small business enterprises out of their back sheds.

The author at 16 in front of Chez Les Trois Vaches

After my dad’s operation for a brain tumor in 1956, we began moving to town for a couple months each winter, and gradually divested ourselves of farm animals. Starting in 1961, when I entered fifth grade, we rented a house for the entire school year in Northampton, Mass., where my mother secured work as a secretary. We drove back and forth up Rt. 5 most weekends, and were home each summer.

Sometime in the early 1960s, in the same spirit — if not letter — of Yankee ingenuity expressed in Big House, Little House…, my father began to fill our now empty barn with used books to sell. The trips back and forth up Rt. 5 proved most fruitful for book hunting, as we stopped at every second-hand junk barn along the way.

My dad had long-harbored the ambition to be a book dealer. I quote my favorite family historian, the FBI:

“Chief of Police XXXXXX advised that the subject was employed by the Town of Springfield School Department at South Street School as janitor and bus driver … On October, 30, 1952, Chief XXXXXX advised the writer that the Subject … is said to be planning to open a book store in Springfield.”

Hunting for old books became our shared family sport. I enjoyed it especially. Rainy summer days, my father would wake up first, start a fire in the wood cookstove and fry up a big paper bag full of egg sandwiches on white bread with lettuce and mayo. We kids tumbled out of our beds and off we’d go for a day of adventures.

Although a Springfield business location never panned out, Springfield did prove a rich source of used books. Harold’s on South Street, the big orange house opposite what is now Jake’s Market, was a favorite hunting ground.

One of Scott Nearing’s remaindered books.

Sometimes we had to move whole dining room sets and sofas to get to them, but my father could magically extract treasures from among the mountains of junky novels, outdated textbooks and encyclopedias piled high behind and underneath. The same was true at Bruce’s Furniture just around the corner. I learned quickly how to spot the worthy books: biographies, first editions, Vermontiana.

Home again, Dad lingered lovingly over each newly acquired volume, hand-pricing each in his inimitable chicken scrawl resembling some rare Yiddish font. As a rule, he paid pennies on the volume, and resold them for 10- or 25-cents each. I still have in my possession one first edition — Heavenly Discourse by Charles Erskine Scott Wood — that he uncharacteristically marked “not for sale.” Try as I may, I find it unreadable — yet remain unwilling to part with it.

Over the years, Dad filled the entire front section of our barn with bookshelves. He even convinced me to start a little shop of my own, which I dubbed Chez Les Trois Vaches,  in one of the empty stalls. Eventually, long boards sagging under the weight of books marched up the entire length of our breezeway as well.

Dad had inherited a mountain of remaindered political books from Scott Nearing. For years they remained in their unwieldy cartons, propped up on 2 by 4s so as not to touch the damp earthen floor of the barn. These he had to cajole customers to take away for free.

Herbert Leader in his later years — in the 1980s — ever the bibliophile.

The Book Nook, as he named it, turned out to be a great way for Dad to hold court. Half the folks stopped to ask or directions to the Weston Priory. The other half stopped and talked, then talked some more. Dad was in his element. He knew every book on the shelves. Often enough, the customers stayed for dinner and became fast friends.

Whenever we left the farm — whether for a day, a week or a couple months, the Book Nook remained permanently open. The instant we pulled back into our driveway, it was a race to see which of us kids could get to the self-serve money can first. Usually, we got to keep some of the money.

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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. Tory Spater says:

    Thank you Sue for your wonderful family tale.

  2. Patti Hughes says:

    Such an interesting adventure!! Thanks for sharing…..