Left in Andover: A search for an ideal home

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I lusted after the mug, coveting it for my very own. Henry Little, our hired man in 1956 and ‘57, brought it back to Andover for us from one of his many sojourns south of the border.Each side was more brilliantly glazed than the other. A wave of ultramarine sea splashed across one surface, while the flipside revealed a pumpkin toned tropical sunset.

Henry’s mug.

Throughout my early childhood, Mom displayed this mug just out of my reach on top of Grandma’s ornately carved china closet in our dining room. I cannot recall anyone ever drinking from it.

Dad first met Henry in 1940. Both men were in their early 20s, Henry already married and father to a young son. They were fellow residents of Greenbelt, Md., a visionary “green” city built by FDR’s Resettlement Administration in accordance with principles of the English Garden City Movement.

Dad recalled, “We were practically all young federal employees, thankful for our jobs. We lived very private lives in this Tugwellian experiment in group living. I kept my radical books hidden under my bed.”

Dad described meeting Henry for the first time, both men unknowingly on the cusp of returning to their native Vermont:

“I used to take evening walks around Greenbelt. I noticed a 1930 vintage Model A Ford, only 10 or 11 years old, nothing unusual really, of interest to me only because of its Vermont license tags.” The owner, whom he eventually met, was “a rusty haired, rather horse faced young man” who worked for the Census Bureau, which was ending its work for the 1940 census.

The sunset on a postcard from Cuba, which Henry also toured in 1950, with the view of settling there.

According to Dad, “Henry decided to move his family home to Tunbridge in central Vermont where his father and ancestors before had been born. There were dozens of abandoned farms in the area, available pretty much for the taking, and he was determined to make a go of it homesteading.”

It was 1940, the same year Camp William James was taking root 12 miles away in neighboring Sharon. This work-service project, aimed at supplementing the scant local agricultural labor force, was the brainchild of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a Dartmouth professor who had fled his native Germany at the rise of fascism.

The peacetime youth boot camps that Huessy had designed for the Weimar Republic having been so catastrophically appropriated by the Nazis, he was delighted to introduce the concept into this country, in a completely different context.

Huessy enlisted Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Dorothy Thompson, three of the most influential women of their day, to convince FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps to adopt it as its own.

Henry’s Sky Cottage, Tunbridge, 1953 Mom and family friend Cliff Wooley.

The impact of the camp resonated far beyond any specific work accomplished during the short seven months of its official existence. This New Deal trial-run in agricultural voluntarism directly informed the creation of the U.S. International Peace Corps under JFK in 1961.

Answering American philosopher William James’s call to a “Moral Equivalent of War,”  the Sharon camp participants, Ivy League graduates from wealthy urban families, embodied James’s premise that “A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy.” Youth from all classes and ethnic backgrounds would participate in rigorous non-military national service together, making men of themselves while at the same time strengthening the societal bonds essential to maintaining a national identity.

For most of the Camp William James participants, performing manual labor was a novel experience. These young college men, leaving behind their “sport coats, electric shavers and golf clubs” discovered quickly that “using a pitchfork all day in a hay field could make a fellow too tired to even lift his dinner fork at supper,” according to Jack Preiss in his 2013 book Camp William James.

Henry, home at “Sky Cottage” in his native Tunbridge, surely rubbed shoulders with this intelligentsia-in-residence, who prided themselves on mixing with the locals at square dances and church suppers, after long days mucking out barns and pitching hay.

In the mid-1950s, Henry Little in his hammock in Mexico, as family friend Cliff Wooley looks on.

Indeed, in September 1940, a massive rally was held in Tunbridge to support the work camp project. The class differences between the locals and the Harvard- and Dartmouth-educated volunteers were nevertheless so stark that the latter remained the object of some suspicion. Jack Preiss puts himself inside the head of a ‘townie’ calling the question, “Who was this fellow? A Communist? A spy? Or just a college boy ‘missing some of his buttons.’ ”

Both my father and the snoops who kept tabs on him for the FBI had the knack of appearing on the scene of many of the utopian experiments of the day. The files, by turn amusing as well as tragic, which Dad obtained in the 1970s under the Freedom of Information Act, are a never-ending magical mystery tour of his life and times.

The present topic is a case in point. Was Dad verifiably there in Tunbridge/Sharon, pitching in alongside those specific volunteers? His FBI records point in that direction.

According to the FBI, which tracked Dad after he was dismissed from his job in Washington for refusing to bundle Selective Service cards, his 1940 itinerary included the following:

“… Subject returned to Bennington, Vermont, sometime in 1940 and after a few weeks went to Cavendish, Vermont, where he worked with a number of college students on the HENRY JAMES Farm. … these college students lived at the above farm and went out daily to assist the farmers in that vicinity with their work and that this project was one which he believes was sponsored by some type of an ultra-liberal group.”

The Leader children, Mom and Henry Little at Popplewood Farm.

The above describes to a T the doings of the William James volunteers. I cannot, however, uncover the existence of a Henry James, nor any record whatsoever of this sort of activity occurring in Cavendish. Furthermore, Dad had no connections there. On the other hand, Dad often referenced his time at Tunbridge with his friend Henry Little and even recalled meeting Professor Rosenstock-Huessy.

It is a fact that the FBI made wild mistakes in some of the details it reported. Except in the unlikely case that this was a total fabrication, I speculate that upon returning home from Washington in 1940, while Dad helped his friend Henry at his Sky Cottage in Tunbridge, he may well have fallen in with the “ultra-liberal” James Camp volunteers.

A decade later, in 1952, Henry offered to return Dad’s favor by coming down to help build our farm in Andover.

He offered his services for 50 cents an hour, 50 hours per week for 50 weeks including room and board, with weekends off to return home as his wife and son prepared for their move to Costa Rica. His preference was  greenhouse work, and refused to do “animal slaughter or cutting wood single-handed or with chain saw.”

Henry, disillusioned with homesteading rocky Tunbridge, had, along with others in my parents’ circle of friends, come under the grip of a tropical paradise fantasy. The allure of the good life he imagined just south of the border in Costa Rica/Mexico/Cuba, even the Amazon, proved irresistible.

Henry did not become a steady presence on our farm in Andover for another four years. The greenhouse project that Mom and Dad had such high hopes for never materialized, thereby obviating their need for a hired man until 1956, when Dad became incapacitated due to a brain tumor.

Henry Little on a tractor.

In the interim, Henry lost his family. Elizabeth, coming to her senses after laboriously hand stitching the heavy canvas into a tent, abandoned him and his crack-brained scheme to homestead in Costa Rica. Experiencing a last minute epiphany at the Mexican border that the tent would be more hell than heaven, she declined to cross over. Henry never saw her or his son again.

He remained, however, undiscouraged in his dreams of a jungle paradise. In 1956, when he finally did come to Popplewood to help us through the difficult years following Dad’s medical emergency, he was still clinging to his vision of an Eden removed from the exigencies of a Vermont winter, where a vegetarian could feast 12 months a year off the land.

Working our land driving Dad’s old tractor, long red-goldilocks tucked into a paisley bandana, he plotted his escape, savoring his old Bruderhof community brochures from Paraguay, second guessing his aborted exploratory trip to Cuba, where he had been mistaken for one of Fidel’s advance men.

As soon as I became a potter, I discerned the shortcomings of Henry’s brightly colored mug. The tiny handle barely admits one finger, not enough to steady the clunky, barrel shaped vessel. The cup is too wide for me to want to drink out of, and too featherweight to feel handmade.

The memory of him knocking my brother and my heads together (lightly!) during the time when he was part of our family in Andover leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Somewhere along the line that mug of his – which I finally did inherit, developed a crack.

Next week: Idealism gone awry.

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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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