Toil and Talent Turkey / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Fairfield Vermont ~est. 1763~ The picture of HOPE, GRIT AND SKILL

"HOPE:  When the world says, “Give up”, ... Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” 

I recently donated a very large sculpture to the village I come from in Vermont – Fairfield – to celebrate their 250th anniversary. As a part of the sculpture, I made this turkey from dozens and dozens of old tools. I call it my “TOIL AND TALENT TURKEY.”  The larger sculpture was designed to pay homage to three key elements in the town of Fairfield’s history: Our picturesque and expert Dairy farming legacy, our world-class Sugaring industry, and my “Toil and Talent Turkey” honors the range of other critically important,  back-breaking and skilled work that has gone on to build our wonderful community. I have to thank my mother (Dr. Lynda Ulrich, who is also a metal sculptor) for being a great mentor and a “Wandering Junk Yard Scavenger” for the last 20 years, as most of those bits and pieces in the turkey came from her precious collection of old tools and special scrap metal finds.

Now, if I may, I’d like to tell you a little about the history of Fairfield, that I learned while researching for this sculpture:

Firstly, you might be interested to learn that  Fairfield got its name because most of the original grantees were from Fairfield, Connecticut. The original grant for the town of Fairfield was obtained by a man named Samuel Hungerford in 1763, but the first settler – Joseph Wheeler – did not clear land for another 24 years, which was no small task; the rocky hills and valleys were dense with enormous old growth maple trees.

The original settlers were few and the migration to our area really did not start until 1820’s when land elsewhere in New England was well out of the financial reach of many New Englanders.  In the 1840 and 1850’s, the potato famine in Ireland brought many more immigrants directly to Fairfield and was when many of the well-known Irish families of today were established on the local farms.

GRIT: Unyielding Courage in the face of hardship, danger, or grueling work.

Fairfield is the largest town in Franklin County Vermont by area – with 38,000 acres. It was originally comprised of several villages and neighborhood: East Fairfield, St. Rocks, Pumpkin Village, North Fairfield, Shenang, Egypt, Lapland, Lost Nation, and Across the Swamp, Fairfield Station, and Fanton Station. 

 All these little hamlets had their own tiny schoolhouses, (the old school house beside our current elementary school was once the town hall and our school.  It cost the tax payers a whopping $1,056 in 1809.

Dairy cows were not always a part of our landscape.  Fairfield was initially cleared of much of its original forests to make room for 6,600 sheep that roamed the hills in the mid-1800’s. Cattle were used only for POWER!... They were the forerunner to the horse because they were easier to come by, required less food and a simple wooden yoke was all it took to harness them. The early Fairfield cows gave little milk because breeding of cows specifically for quality and quantity of milk had barely begun in the 1800’s.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1950 that Fairfield was one of the pilot areas to use artificial breeding to improve the dairy cattle. Also, the demand for milk was very small in the 1800’s. I read somewhere that people really didn’t drink milk back then like we do, and anyway, the early settlers preferred more “Spirited Drink!” In general, the “family farms” were only able to grow from 20-40 cows, to 80-100 cows in the 1950’s and 60’s when refrigeration, transportation and some automation became possible.

It’s important to realize that our forefathers in agriculture had to be largely and almost entirely self-sufficient. Electricity was only brought to Fairfield in the 1920’s. They had to produce their own heat, food, clothes, and daily fetch water for themselves and their animals. For every animal they kept, they had to grow, harvest and store a winter’s worth of food. I discovered an old saying that I’m sure rang true “Half your wood and half your hay, you should still have on 'Candlemas Day.'”  (A Catholic holiday on Feb. 2nd)  In the horse and buggy days, most farmers only had spring freshening dairies because storage and transportation of large quantities of milk was impossible.  In fact, the dairy industry was probably limited by the shear enormity of the tasks involved in milk production.  This made for light milking chores in the winter, and that time was used for getting up the woodpile for heating the home and fueling the making of maple products.

SKILL: Uniquely expert knowledge, ethics, and mastery of an essential talent.

The early maple product industry was mostly centered around local consumption. Maple syrup was boiled all the way down to hard sugar and stored in wooden tubs, and this was often the settlers’ main source of sweets. Sugaring, (like dairy) - as an industry - could only develop gradually as transportation and storage methods evolved. Its had its ups and downs.  At some points, production and demand fell so out of balance that the best price the farmers could get was 8 cents per gallon.  The industry suffered during and after WWII because of the shear lack of man power.  Eventually, with the advent of the ingenious large evaporator technology – largely pioneered by George Soule – the industry flourished and began to move where it is today – a shining corner stone of our community. The sugar industry became the prime factor in Franklin County’s good forestry practices LONG before the Forest Service even existed, because farmers knew the forestry practices that served both their short term needs for lumber and firewood and the long term health of their Maple Orchards.  We continue now that long tradition of good stewardship and resourcefulness.

There is SO MUCH more I wish I could tell you, but rest assured: there are still some ol’timers around who would be glad to bend your ear to share the history.  I hope I run into every one of them over the course of the next few years.