Left in Andover: An oasis in our food deserts

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

My father Herbert Leader (1917-1988), self-described “Bennington boy,”  recollected driving out to the surrounding countryside as a small child with his father:

“Pappa used to take the horse and wagon around the countryside, a rabbi from Slonim looking out for his flock. Sometimes he’d take me along and I held the reins. We clip-clipped the dusty hills and curves of Bennington, Searsburg and Woodford.

My grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Leader, settled in Bennington in 1908.

“On the way back to town he’d sag and fall asleep and I couldn’t wake him up. So, I just sat there, four years old in my knickerbockers while Minnie our horse kept right on going. She knew the way home …

“And … I used to reach down and pet the soft warm chickens half asleep in a holy (sic) sack under the rough board. O the silly hens, the old work horse, the Only Son and the sleeping rabbi. He wasn’t exactly looking for chickens, you know. He gave Hebrew lessons to his flock in the Vermont wilderness, and gathered in chickens as a payment in kind.”

On Jan. 21, 1943, informed by his intimate familiarity since childhood with the local landscape, my 27-year-old father wrote a letter to the editor to his nemesis, Frank E. Howe (aka “Ginger”), the long-time mid-century owner and editor of the Bennington Banner:

“A walk along the East Road, around Maple Hill and down into Center Shaftsbury will prove thought provoking, self-revealing and depressing to Benningtonians. The number of genuine, prosperous farms along that road is appallingly low. Apart from those farms that are wholly abandoned and the half dozen genuinely prosperous ones, all the places on the East Road are now either remodeled summer homes for well-to-do out-of-staters or dependent upon home relief or the factory wages of one or more members of the family in the difficult business of making ends meet.”

Circa 1920 the four young Leader children Bennington, clockwise from upper right, Sadie, Eva, Herbie and Mary.

“A more or less similar condition obtains in all directions out of Bennington, with the result that this village is no longer the focal point in a farming area. The farming done around here is negligible; in the case of no basic foods which come readily to mind except dairy products and probably eggs and apples does this area produce enough for its own tables.”

After conceding how pretty a town Bennington still was despite its smokestacks, Dad concluded with a call to arms, naming 1943 as time to take a stand for the revitalization of rural southern Vermont. The vital skills for both personal and community self-reliance still flickered; they could be resuscitated, plucked from the minds and hands of the older generation even as it died out.

A week later, on Jan. 29, 1943, Ginger blazed back with sixguns.

“Herbie Leader has written a letter to The Banner bemoaning the fact that Bennington is a factory town and soliciting patronage for the ‘back-to-the-farm’ movement which some bright young men in Brooklyn developed out of an economic hodge-podge of Rousseau, Tolstoi, Thoreau and Freud. The letter is an intellectual success and a bucolic bust.”

Fast forward to the present day. Although I am a crafts vendor, peddling my pottery, for many years, I have enjoyed a front-row seat participating in the development of numerous local farmers markets, from Ludlow to Walpole to Norwich to Bellows Falls to Londonderry to West Townsend to Rutland to Manchester to Dorset.

Course offering at Bennington College.

As we erect our booths each market day, we are concerned not only with how we individually can survive economically, but also with how our markets can positively impact the communities that host us: by fortifying the local economy, contributing toward better health for people and for the soil, and by providing a village square for social engagement.

Among its current course offerings, Bennington College (tuition and fees, $53,872) lists: “Understanding Food Insecurity in Bennington County: The issue of food insecurity has long been on the minds of those who live in Southern Vermont. In fact, Bennington County has been identified by the USDA as a ‘food desert’…”

Community members are welcomed free of charge. The hope is that not just analysis, but solutions and a blueprint to move forward will emerge.

Although Dad left Bennington after high school, his hometown remained a touchstone. Three of his sisters — my Aunts Eva, Sadie and Mary — were lifelong residents. Our monthly visits to them when I was growing up in Andover were highlights.

My Aunt Sadie, in Bennington in the 1960s with cats and her versatile wheelbarrow.

Unsurprisingly, food played a major role in my love affair with Bennington. My generous aunts always made sure to ply us sugar-deprived kids with desserts and candy, along with rich cheesy omelettes, crisp sesame crackers and, in the case of my sister who defied my parents’ vegetarian party line, roasted chicken and goose.

My least favorite aunt was the vegetarian one who we caught pushing a wheelbarrow full of free overripe bananas right down the center of Bennington’s North Street. All three are equally with me each and every day as I make choices around what and how to eat.

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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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