Katie Sullivan, who lives in Albany, Vt., is curious about a road name in a town just south of her, in Marshfield. “How did Star Pudding Farm Road get its name?" she asks. "Is there a Star Pudding farm?”
Editor’s note: Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered podcast, is made for the ear. As always, we recommend listening if you can! You can hear the “Star Pudding Farm Road” segment beginning at 21:50.
Katie’s question is one of a bunch that Brave Little State received after an episode last summer, when we tried to decipher the origins of perplexing road names. In an attempt to establish a new tradition, we’re taking another road trip of inquiry to bring you more answers.
You can explore along with us on our various journeys – from Mad Tom Road in Dorset, to Hi-Lo Biddy Road in Putney, to Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford Center – or you can learn from Paul Gillies, our favorite road history expert and the author of Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History.
VPR's intrepid summer interns Anna Van Dine and Olivia White hopped onto Katie’s question about Star Pudding Farm Road. Their research revealed that the name Star Pudding Farm came from an old poem — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Olivia and Anna will take it from here.
On a Thursday in late July, we drive up Route 2 into Marshfield.
Marshfield is a small town, about 20 minutes outside of Montpelier on Route 2. There’s one main street with a bakery, a general store and a post office. We are headed to the town offices to talk to the town clerk, Bobbi Brimblecombe, to see what she knows about the history of Star Pudding Farm Road.
And Bobbi does know part of the answer to Katie’s question. When the statewide 911 system was being implemented, the town named all the backroads. Most of the road names in Marshfield had to do with who lived there, like Taylor Farm Road, Thompson Hill Road and McCrills Road.
But, Bobbi tells us, Star Pudding Road was different. It was named by Martin Johnson, who did not, like his neighbors, christen the road after himself. Bobbi adds that Johnson passed away in 2012.
“He owned the property at the end of the road,” she says. “I think some of his family still lives around, but his widow moved — sold the property and moved.”
(We tried to get in touch with a member of the Johnson family, but we had no luck).
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Bobbi suggests we talk to Louanna Dutil, who still lives on Star Pudding Farm Road. Bobbi tells us that Louanna had been friends with Martin and Laura Johnson, and might know something. And Bobbi figures Louanna will be home because she runs a daycare.
So we make our way out of town. Near Twinfield High School, we turn onto Star Pudding Farm Road. It's a dirt road, and at the bottom of a hill we find Miles of Smiles Daycare — Louanna’s house.
Louanna and her husband have lived on Star Pudding Farm Road for 20 years. We ask her what people say when Louanna tells them where she lives.
“People usually say, ‘Pudding as in, chocolate?’” Louanna says. “That’s the common thing.”
But here’s the thing: The road isn’t named after a pudding recipe. It actually comes from a poem.
“The name Star Pudding Farm Road comes from a poem that Laura and Martin [Johnson] discovered,” Louanna tells us. “It’s a poem called ‘Star Pudding Farm.’ And it’s really nice.”
We'd heard about this poem — a 2002 Rutland Herald article written by a woman named Sally West Johnson mentions it, and tells the story of the Johnsons and Star Pudding Farm Road.
The article says “Star Pudding” is the name of a poem about hardscrabble farming. Johnson had a framed copy of it in his living room.
We really wanted to get in touch with someone from the Johnson family to ask about it. We asked Bobbi and Louanna, we scoured the internet, and we called a few wrong numbers. But we weren’t able to get in touch with anyone.
Update: We got in touch! Hear our follow-up conversation with Laura Johnson: Another Taste Of Star Pudding
After lots of digging through old poetry anthologies, we did find the poem itself. It was written by a New England poet named Robert P.T. Coffin (who, by the way, had a glorious mustache). He spent most of his life in Maine, and he published this poem in Commonweal Magazine in 1937.
The poem is about a farmer named Daniel Wholebrook, who has trouble growing anything on his farm at the top of the hill. His soil is too rocky, weeds grow uncontrollably and his cow always breaks through the fence. The townsfolk in the poem say that Daniel eats “wind-pudding,” since he has no plants and no money.
So "wind-pudding" is an expression, not a food.
The poem gets its title from the second stanza, which talks about stars. Daniel couldn’t grow anything on his farm, but he was happy because he could see the night sky better than anyone else up there on his hill. And even though he worked in his fields throughout the night and early morning, he didn’t mind, because he was surrounded by the beauty of the stars.
And so “star-pudding” is about finding the simple, secret pleasures in life that not everyone else understands. Which is lovely, no?
So now we think we can safely say that the road name is definitely from this poem. But why did the Johnsons love it so much?
While we can’t ask the Johnsons themselves, the spirit of the poem seems to fit with what Louanna has to say about her old neighbors.
“They were incredible people,” she tells us. “Incredible people. When we first moved here and I opened day care, they actually had a pond at their home, and they had sand trucked in, so that the children could have sand to play in. So we would walk up the hill and play in the sand and swim in the pond and catch frogs.”
Town Clerk Bobbi Brimblecombe says Martin Johnson was particularly interesting.
“He was wonderful, he was an engineer,” Bobbi says. “He founded the Johnson Company, it was an environmental engineering company. They did work all over the world.”
After learning all this, we figure we’ve got one thing left to do. We drive up to the Johnson’s old property at the top of Star Pudding Farm Road. We stop at the end of the road, and can just see the house. A private driveway leads up to it. We look at the place from a distance.
It’s definitely not a hardscrabble farm like in the poem: There’s a nice house with landscaped grounds. The land slopes and sheets of granite stick out of the grass. We see the pond where Louanna’s kids used to catch frogs.
And even though we don’t know for certain why the Johnsons chose the name Star Pudding Farm Road, it’s really nice up here.
The farmer in Robert P.T Coffin’s poem was really connected to the land below him and the cosmos above.
"[H]e always was all tangled up / in stars,” the poem says, “he had to hoe so long / And get up out of bed so bright and early. / ‘Twas nothing for him to find a morning star / Beside his shoulder, or an evening one. / It might do for a breakfast or a supper, / And Daniel showed it in his burning eyes.” That’s how the poem ends.
Whether or not the Johnsons felt the same way about their own home, the name they chose for the property and the road leading up to it is a reminder of how special it is to have that kind of connection, and sense of place.
Hear reporters Anna Van Dine and Olivia White read the entire poem, "Star-Pudding," by Robert P. Tristram Coffin, above, and read along below:
By Robert P. Tristram Coffin
People wondered what Dan Wholebrook found
To live on, up there on his hungry farm.
His cow was always breaking through her fences
And eating up the neighbors' corn by rows,
The soil was spread too thin between the ledges,
And mostly powdered rock, like tiny stars;
The hardhack crowded the potatoes out;
Dan raised a first-rate crop of goldenrod.
The crows used Daniel's farm to crack their clams on,
There was so much of it bare granite rock.
Wind-pudding was what Daniel had, folks said,
And lucky for the man he had no wife
And children's mouths to find potatoes for.
The neighbors did not know about the stars.
A man can get a lot of life from them
If he knows how to go about. They came
Closer to Daniel's place than down below,
And being on a hill, he had lots more;
They were thick as daisies in poor hay.
Seemed so, he always was all tangled up
In stars, he had to hoe so long
And get up out of bed so bright and early.
'Twas nothing for him to find a morning star
Beside his shoulder, or an evening one.
It might do for a breakfast or a supper,
And Daniel showed it in his burning eyes.
Copyright 1937 Commonweal Foundation, reprinted with permission. For more information, visit www.commonwealmagazine.org.
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