Tag Archive | collecting

Scarlet runner beans and Fred Webster


It had been a strange day. I looked with no success for scarlet runner bean seeds at Agway. They used to grow to 12 feet in the children’s garden at the Old Stone House, where they sported red flowers and enormous pods with multicolored seeds. Somebody whose name was Billy Currington was singing a country song: “Jesus is great, beer is good, people are crazy.” Now that’s a lyric. I’d stopped by the Old Stone House for the first time in months and someone said that Fred Webster (see my post of May 3, 2010) needed a pacemaker, and that, at age 91, he was thinking about selling everything for $200,000. And it was worth a lot more than that.

I hadn’t seen Fred for a very long time. Now he was 91 years and thinking about selling everything! The report was scary.

The next day I drove to Fred’s farm on a high hill. Clouds were lifting, the world was shining the way it will after spring rains. The Phish stage Fred had saved a few years earlier from the last Phish concert, stood like some fanciful castle on wheels, directly past a scribbled sign a neighbor had put up: “Who shot my turkey?”  Why would anyone shoot the man’s turkey, I wondered, and left with no answers, dismissed the sign’s conundrum. The huge barns, showing a few more years of wear, still standing despite themselves, with a monumental history of farming spilling out the doors, were where they’d always been. The farmhouse looked as it always had, worn, and a little haphazard.


I pulled in and went to the door. On the other side of a screen door turned dark with shadows, Fred was sitting at the kitchen table eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup. His wife, Vivian, was napping in the living room, he explained, giving me one of his sweet hugs. I guess he looked older, but not by much, and not as if he needed a pacemaker. His hair was standing straight up as it sometimes does. Hearing that it was me—she’s always liked me, I think, because she likes anyone who likes Fred a lot—Vivian suggested we all sit in the living room, where a clutter of old things was spread across the walls and all over the floor, and where “Murder, She Wrote” played soundlessly on the TV screen. What’s this about a pacemaker, I asked, as I coped with one of the Reese’s cups  Fred handed me. Apparently, there was no rush, and Fred wasn’t sure he’d ever go for something like that. “But I am going to die someday,” he said. “No. I won’t allow it,” Vivian declared. She explained that a couple of years ago, after a whole rash of tests, the doctor had said to Fred, “As far as I can see, you’re good to go for another twenty years.” She was holding the old man to it.



And, contrary to the alarming report of the day before, the guy who had offered to buy everything for $200,000 and take it all down to Plainfield for another and, I presume, neater agriculture museum, hadn’t shown up the day before. Fred was just as glad because he didn’t want to sell. “Am I wrong?” he asked. “I don’t want to sell anything. It’s not the money. I just can’t do it.”

What Fred really wanted to talk about was a typed manuscript from Jack Lazor, an organic farmer well-known in Vermont. It was a hunk of white paper full of detail about his farming methods and to Fred it was all a delight. A year before Fred had been inducted into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame, and he thought Lazor should be next. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the tine weeder that the man described, because he had a tine weeder. He could show him an old one. I’d never in my life given a thought to tines, so he and Vivian slipped on jackets and we went to see Fred’s tine weeder, dodging muddy puddles, tripping across thresholds, wooden wheels, machinery made lame by time, parts spilling out into the aisles. The metal roof rattled; the walls groaned. The tine weeder was missing a leg, but the tines all seemed to be there. Vivian took a picture of it, then another, with Fred smiling and pointing.

Now, he said, he wanted to show us something else. Vivian and I followed him down one aisle and up another to a veritable patchwork of tines. “Do you see what these are?” he asked, grinning. “They have tines,” I said. Vivian agreed. “Tines.” “These are all hay forks,” he said. Vivian set about taking photographs of hay forks. I didn’t quite get the point, but I was pretty sure Jack Lazor would when he saw them.


We navigated the muddy banks of several ditches that Fred, his son and whoever had dug to divert water from one place to another. A man, his wife and a barking dog had taken over a bit of trailer that had served as a tool shed, and electric wires had been jerry rigged to turn it into a temporary home. I didn’t get the story, but I always come away from Fred’s with more questions than answers. He’s been reading Bacon’s “Vicissitudes,” he said. That’s the kind of writing he really likes to do, not just words about one generation’s tools and then another’s, not just careful descriptions of the evolution of everything from milking stools to tine weeders. He likes wise words about life, especially when they’re funny, and in Fred’s life there are many of those.

I left then. I didn’t stay for tea. I never got around to eating the second Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but it was good to know that Fred Webster’s life is as full to overflowing as ever.

“…thousands of little habits…”

Norman Mailer’s sixth wife died a few days ago. I knew nothing about her but I heard a segment of an interview on public radio when she was publicizing her memoir, A Ticket to the Circus. Scott Simon asked her why she didn’t leave Mailer when she’d caught him philandering, as all his wives eventually did. “Oh, Scott, you know, you don’t—there’s times you leave somebody for something like this, but there’s—it’s not so easy to just—you don’t leave a person, you leave your whole life. You leave a family. You leave thousands of little habits….” She went on to talk about their children, of course, but what struck me was her description of what comes with a relationship. Not just a person or people, but “habits.”

She could also have mentioned “things.” Our lives are tapestries of relationships with everything from the rose we planted, watered, pruned and gloried in; to the ritual of brushing our teeth side by side with someone else; to the CDs on our shelves (or tunes on our I-pods). Lately, I’m told, there’s an epidemic of hoarders—people who fill their houses with stuff until they can only move with difficulty and most of what they have is lost under ever-accumulating piles of new merchandise. I wonder if some of that collecting happens because they’re looking for a context, for a network of relationships that locates them in this world.

Of course, it also has to do with that wonderful feeling that can come over you when you buy something new. Santa Claus gives us make-overs.

Collecting things helps us form our identities; you can triangulate from them and find yourself. There are people who collect turtles—not the real thing, usually—and others who accumulate bottle tops, tractors, statuary. I have a friend who collects things that relate to her family, today and for one or two generations past. Old books, quilts, a table, a rocker. I have some dishes that belonged to my grandparents many decades ago. They’re sweet but, I gather they were quite ordinary in their time. Still, there’s no way I could ever give them up. It would be like cutting a link between my grandparents and myself and that, it seems to me, would make me less than I am now.

All of us, even those who are most penurious, are surrounded by things and habits, as well as idiosyncrasies, that help identify us to ourselves and others. We have favorite smells, some we don’t even notice but would miss terribly. We have habitual smiles and habitual frowns. Some of us like No. 2 pencils and others can’t do without ballpoints. All of the small details of our lives are worth their weight in gold. They help us locate ourselves on this very bumpy road.

The time will come when we’ll have no choice but to give up some of it, and eventually all. But in the meantime, as Norris Church Mailer concluded, “To leave an entire life—to go to what? … to go to nothing, to start over again?”

Some stories about old men and Vermont

I drove over to Coventry to see Fred (see my post of May 3) one day last week and discovered an enormous structure about a quarter of a mile from his house that made no sense at all. He’s imported barns, bridges and school houses —but what was this? Fred came to the door, did a double take—he hadn’t seen me for seven years—and invited me in. “What,” I asked, “is that curious structure down there?” Well, it seemed that last year, he heard reports from the Newport County Airport that they were going to get rid of a stage from the Phish good-bye concert six years ago. The concert had brought 30,000 people to a town of no more than 1,000 on a very rainy weekend. Since it was historic and he liked it the building, Fred had somehow come up with $4,000 to buy it and $3,000 to bring it to his farm. At 91 he’s still collecting!

The concert. Unfortunately, Fred's building isn't visible and I didn't take a camera!!! Photo by Dave Kleinschmidt. Creative Commons license.

Fred’s not just collecting, he’s recreating. On a bluff close to the house, he showed me three snow rollers of three different sizes he’d recreated from parts he’d gathered. For the uninitiated, snow rollers were the way roads were made passable before automobiles and plows. They pressed it down rather than pushed it away.

A snowroller. Unpainted. Photo by Just chaos. Creative Commons license.

I’d never seen painted snow rollers before. Fred assured me he’d found red paint on one. Of course, red paint made sense. It was the color of barns; it was cheap and available. But what about red and yellow? They were the most cheerful snow rollers I’d ever seen.

He showed me the carriage he’s rebuilding now, and we toured one of the barns again while a sudden rain fell outside. Despite Fred’s worry that no one will really want  his collection when he dies, there has been progress made. Three hundred hours of video tape have been recorded and paper records have been made. The collection won’t sink into total oblivion, although many of its actual artifacts may not survive and many of Fred’s stories will probably be lost.

Of course, Fred is going to live much, much longer. His wife Vivian assured me and him of that. They still go to local dances to clog.

Another day, in the late morning, I was introduced to a potter in Mill Village, which, I suppose, might be described as a sort of even more rural suburb to rural Craftsbury, Vermont.  Mill Village is one of those places that look perfect, though, of course, it probably isn’t. For one thing, Lynn Flory, the potter, had a bad headache when we arrived. She’d recently lost a dog. She’d lost one or more lovers over the past few years. But her pottery was beautiful. Elegant. And more various than that of any potter I’ve seen in a very long time.

Her studio has long, wide views of hills on every side. She’s also built a house for an old book collection, one I long had my eye on since it always seemed to me that nothing could be more wonderful than the life of an antiquarian book seller in the New England countryside. If you didn’t have to make a living from the selling. Since I would have had to and hadn’t any money, I never bought it, but I can think of no better place for it.

At any rate, back to the story. Lynn Flory was a disciple and student of the potter Otto Heino, who recently died at 94 years of age. He’d been potting until shortly before his death. Otto, I was told, since I know little of contemporary pottery and pots, was a very famous man who, with his wife, had worked for a decade to discover the formula for a buttery yellow glaze that was so valuable the pots he made with it had made him a millionaire.

Otto Heino. Photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times.

Now, Lynn Flory had inherited the formula from him.

Before we left, she showed us the huge brick kiln he’d sent her from California. Soon, I presume, some amazing yellow pottery will be fired there. And there will be more riches from old artists.