Left in Andover: Tackling adversity and bridging differences

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Teaching is my job,” wrote Scott Nearing from Forest Farm, his remote Winhall homestead, in 1944.

“I have been sure of that ever since I gave my first sociology courses at Temple University, Philadelphia, back in 1903. Teaching has three essential aspects: 1) to arouse interest,  2) to impart knowledge, 3) to stimulate creative effort. My students were interested, they learned, thought and acted.”

Scott Nearing believed teaching was a way to change society.

“Right there trouble began. The businessmen who control American schools and colleges want trained juveniles, not educated adults. So I was eased out of Swarthmore, University of Pennsylvania and the municipal University of Toledo in 1917.”

For the rest of his life Scott fomented “good trouble” outside the confines of academia. He wrote on all the social and political issues of his day, from child labor to the arms race. After mainstream interests declined to print such titles as “Must We Starve?” and “The World Crisis,” he published them himself.

Scott also made extensive speaking tours each winter spreading his gospel of economic justice and world peace.

This lecture schedule frequently dovetailed with my own family’s winters away in Florida or Massachusetts. Wherever we were staying, Dad gladly acted as Scott’s advance man.

Of course the crowning glory of Scott’s teaching career was as elder statesman to the ‘60s back-to-the-land movement. Accommodating the legions of young pilgrims appearing unannounced at his and Helen’s homestead for a taste of the “good life” became the Nearings cross to bear. It was also the basis for their most enduring legacy.

Herb Leader helped Scott Nearing publicize his speaking engagements.

In “A Vermont Century,” Will Lindner notes that the Nearings departed Vermont in 1952 disheartened:

“From a personal standpoint, their experiment in simple living – deriving their livelihood from the land, avoiding excess and the money economy – had been a success … But they weren’t sure they had taught anything. The man Eugene Debs had called ‘the greatest teacher in the United States’ had envisioned the evolution of a community based cooperative enterprise and a common economy, but their ‘native Vermonter’ neighbors were resistant, rooted in individualism and set in their ways.”

When Scott and Helen first came to Winhall from New York City in 1932, they were mindful of their status as interlopers. Helen took as object lesson the story of an industrious Londonderry native who had married into a Bondville family:

“One of the old Bondvillites reacted to this incursion with the comment, ‘I don’t see why these outsiders should come in here and take work away from our boys.’ ”

Only with difficulty did the Nearings make social inroads into their new neighborhood. Their big coup came after innovating a permanent concrete stack on their sugar house. Ruth Hamilton, “who would be rated even by Vermonters as conservative,” paid them the ultimate compliment when she declared, “Well they may be socialists but they do have good ideas.”

A Nearing produced booklet

After hosting political meetings and vegetarian potlucks that attracted not a single local convert, the Nearings and their circle of friends organized singalongs and square dances. These came closer to bridging the local culture gap.

The pace of this rapprochement accelerated sharply the winter of 1945 when the Postal Department in Washington issued an order to discontinue rural mail delivery to the Nearings’ snowbound valley. The Pikes Falls Citizens Committee, which counted both Scott and Helen in its ranks, was formed.

Differences between natives and newcomers were set aside. The newly unified community sprang into action. Petitions to Congress were signed, letters to the governor mailed, interviews with the press granted and mass meetings held. RFD delivery, Pikes Falls’ only link to the outside world during a time of gas rationing with most native sons serving overseas, became a national cause celebre, covered in the Boston and New York papers.

My 28-year-old father threw himself into the melee heart and soul. The battle having been quickly won, he fired off a triumphant letter to his hometown Bennington Banner April 3, 1945:

Herb Leader supervises Scott Nearing as the Nearings build a new life in Maine in the 1960s.

“We have been disunited and asleep for a long time, but the bureaucrats of today, of our ‘long
presidency,’ are apparently still not sure of their strength, although they certainly have come a long way from their days of mere public service. More Pikes Falls citizen committees (and may their tribe increase), and one day the citizen may yet again feel ‘supreme under law’ in America.”

The Nearings invited then Gov. Mortimer Proctor to headline the victory celebration held later that spring at Jamaica Town Hall.

Helen wrote:

“The theme of the celebration was the importance of building up rural areas. ‘The spirit that is in this room tonight,’ Gov. Proctor declared, ‘is the spirit of the Green Mountain Boys. When you presented your case in Washington, Washington recognized the kind of thunder that rolls out of Vermont when its spirit is aroused.”

Not too shabby a compliment for a couple of rabble rousing “commies” and their collaborators. Or, as Helen remembered overhearing one townsman conclude: “It pays to holler.”

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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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