Left in Andover: Building a utopia from ‘abandoned’ Vermont lands

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1941, Alfred and Norma Jacob, Quaker Relief Service volunteers during the Spanish Civil War, purchased the last standing farmhouse on West Hill in Jamaica, Vt. During the post-American Civil War era, a mere 70 years earlier, an astounding 28 farms had thrived on that very same hill.

In line with their deep-seated Quaker faith, the Jacobs immediately opened up their large property holdings as a refuge for conscientious objectors, peace activists and fellow travelers. In a 1941 essay “Reclaiming an Abandoned Farm” Alfred expounds: “The curious explorer will find spaces full of young growth, which once were fields; apple blossoms on rows of trees in the midst of woods; excavations which once were cellars; heaps of stones which once were chimneys; stone walls through the forest … The forest, rudely pushed back by enterprising settlers, has turned against their descendants and laid claim to its own.”

Hilltop Farm mural and in disrepair in the 1970s.

The El Dorado legend of the abandoned farm, and the romance inherent in reclaiming one, has gone viral for much of Vermont history. In the 1890s, the state recruited “genetically superior” Swedish colonists in a eugenics-inspired scheme to repopulate its hillsides. But the publicly funded advertisement campaign touting the availability for next to nothing of empty lands and abandoned houses was not entirely welcomed by the native population.

According to Vermont historian Paul Searls in his 2019 Vermont Historical Society article, “Montpelier’s Argus and Patriot, which was particularly contemptuous of the program, insisted that there was no good land in the state that had been abandoned.  … The Brattleboro Vermont Phoenix complained  that … efforts had given outsiders ‘false impressions’ of the state as a deserted and desolate place.”

Regardless of how the conversation is framed, it is indisputable that Vermont since its inception has struggled to maintain a stable population. Up until the construction of I-91 in the 1960s, ownership of a Vermont farm, abandoned or not, was within the grasp of most anyone regardless of income bracket.

Mom’s 1950 journal entry outlining what was owed Dad.

In September 1950, Mom notes in her diary that Dad came home — to the cabin in Jamaica where they lived near the Nearing community — saying he had bought Popplewood Farm for $7,500. During my childhood, Dad often made the point that he could have gotten such and such a place in Andover for considerably less had he been willing to get off the main road. In a perverse twist of fortune, these off-the-beaten track places, by and large the first to be “abandoned” by farm families, proved the most valuable real estate.

Also in her 1950 diary, Mom tracked the $7.83 that Jack Lightfoot owed Dad in back wages for chopping wood.

Old Jack liked to reminisce about life in London as a Cockney boy, as a soldier during the Boer War and breaking virgin sod in western Canada.

Hilltop Farm entry in an international catalogue — Community Overseas — Great Britain, 1942

The numerous settlers in Saskatchewan and their poor farming practices caused a dust bowl similar to that in Oklahoma and Arkansas. About to return to England in despair, Jack heard tell of abandoned farms in Vermont that could be had for a couple hundred dollars. He came down here with his family to Bondville, across the road from where — 10 years later, in 1932 — Scott and Helen Nearing would begin their own adventure in homesteading.

Jack proved to be a secret weapon for the Nearings. Although they always claimed to do everything by hand, my father observed that they frequently hired Jack with his two-horse team to break ground, pull stumps and move large rocks.

It was in 1940 in New York City at the Florida Street Quaker Meeting House that Dad attended his first Scott Nearing lecture. “It seemed to me,” he wrote, “that Scott had answers to the great quandaries of our time. War and peace, the inevitability of depression in the capitalist system, fascism and nazism as arrangements that people would accept happily to interrupt the cycle of economic failure.”

A ‘Wanted Poster’ for Scott Nearing.

When Dad lost his job in Washington later that same year and returned home to Bennington, he decided to visit this “clear-headed man” to see what he could learn. Thus began his personal connection with Scott and Helen.

Dad sets the scene: “We were building the stone house and soon I noticed more young people coming around. They had come from a newly established community 4 miles east through the woods at Hilltop, the Alfred Jacob’s place. I was attracted by this young radical pacifist community and decided to join them.”

Throughout the remaining years of World War II, Hilltop was a touchstone for my father. The mural that still dominates the kitchen of the main house was painted by his lifelong friend Cliff Bennett. It was in large part Dad’s refusal to betray Cliff that caused the FBI to follow him for so many years. Dad’s FBI files tell the story:

“4/21/45 at New York City in the case captioned Clifton Northbridge Bennett, FUGITIVE SELECTIVE SERVICE, it is stated that Subject, who is a close friend of BENNETT, was interviewed by Agents at which time Subject LEADER was very uncooperative and unwilling to furnish any information concerning the whereabouts of Subject BENNETT. He advised the Agents who interviewed him to either put him in jail or not to bother him anymore in connection with the case.”

In 1942, Norma Jacob.0 submitted this Hilltop Farm manifesto to the Community Service Committee’s worldwide guide to cooperative communities:

The Hilltop Farm songbook for more utopian times.

“It is hoped by co-operative working to discover some of the things that make it difficult for men to work harmoniously together… We believe that many things considered necessary to happy and successful lives are not in fact necessities for people who are well adjusted in other ways! We expect to face a good deal of physical hardship but to achieve corresponding peace of mind…our hope is ultimately to see this hillside repopulated as it was 60 years ago with a school for the children of settlers and a completely co-operative economy.”

A 2012 letter to me from Norma’s son Piers Anthony, architect of a fantastical science fiction universe, puts the kibosh to his parents’ utopianism: “That painting of the farmhouse on the wall at Hilltop Farm: originally it bore the inscription ‘Let not the seeds of war be found on these our premises.’ Later, that was erased, as the seeds of dissension were found there. I have been wary of Utopian communities ever since.”

The Jacobs’ marriage, which formed the backbone for the community, eventually dissolved. As Alfred once confided to my dad, the sign of true love is building a woodshed for your wife. Notably, Norma never got one. In any case, in line with her intrepid service in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, she soon soured on the concept of curing the ills of society by hiding out in the woods.

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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. Rob Badger says:

    I love reading your articles, Susan.