Fifty-five years ago, farmer Romaine Tenney set fire to his barns and farmhouse, with himself inside, after his land was seized by the state to make way for Interstate 91. Now Vermont is planning a permanent memorial to the Ascutney farmer. Vermont Edition spoke with authors and historians about how we remember Tenney and other farmers forced to sell their farms for the sake of development.
Joining the conversation about Tenney and understanding this history were author and NVU-Lyndon professor Paul Searls, and writer Howard Mansfield, who chronicled Tenney's resistance to the interstate and his final moments in his 2013 article I Will Not Leave: Romaine Tenney Loved His Vermont Farm To Death. The story is also collected in his latest book, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down: Our Belief in Property and the Cost of That Belief, which looks at issues surrounding eminent domain and property in America.
Born in 1900, Romaine Tenney grew up as one of nine children on the 75 acres his family bought in Ascutney in 1892. His father died when Tenney was 14, and after that, Tenney helped his mother operate their small dairy. He milked between 15 and 25 cows and cared for cats, dogs and horses, too. Other than when he served in World War II, Tenney never really left the land he was born on.
According to writer Howard Mansfield, Tenney was “someone who just loved to farm the way he farmed.” He never got electricity or a car, preferred to cut hay with his horses instead of tractors and continued milking his cows by hand.
But while Tenney stuck to the old ways, Vermont was changing all around him between the 1950s and 1960s.
“It’s kind of like a twilight period between what Vermont had been and the uncertainty of what it would become,” said author and NVU-Lyndon professor Paul Searls. “The loss of farms of course was extraordinary: in 1945 there were over 26,000 farms. By 1964, there were about 9,200.”
The interstate highways came, too, and Interstate 91 was plotted to go right through Tenney’s land. For months, he resisted buy-out offers from the state for his land. In the end, his home and possessions were ultimately seized through eminent domain.
On the night of Sept. 11, 1964, just hours after sheriff’s deputies acted on a court order to empty his barns of tools and other items, the Ascutney farmer released his animals, barricaded himself inside his farmhouse, and burned everything: the house, the sheds and the barns. It was later determined he ultimately died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound before the flames claimed him.
Rod Spaulding, a lifelong Weathersfield farmer and resident, was among the volunteer firefighters to respond to the scene.
“We walked in, and there was a door ahead of us, and we tried to get it open, but it apparently was nailed shut from the inside, ‘cause we could not open it,” he said. “We didn’t have any air packs at the time like everybody does now, and we had to get out to save ourselves.”
Spaulding added that Tenney’s dog was “going crazy” and seemed to know where Tenney was.
“It was a sad, sad thing,” he said.
Today, a maple tree that has long stood on what was once Tenney’s farm, along the southbound lanes of I-91 at Exit 8, is dying. The Vermont Agency of Transportation hired a certified arborist to study the tree, and the final determination was that it was mostly hollow and structurally unsound.
Kyle Obenauer, a historic preservation specialist with VTrans, said safety is something state transportation officials take seriously. He added that due to its proximity to the highway park and ride, as well as the frequency of big limbs falling down, the tree must be removed.
At the same time, Obenauer said the state recognizes the importance of the tree as a kind of living memorial to Romaine Tenney. A permanent historical marker is planned for the site, as well as a yet-to-be-defined way to keep and repurpose the wood from the tree.
VTrans held a meeting in Ascutney Tuesday evening to gather input on how to memorialize both Tenney and the impact constructing Interstate 91 had on Vermonters. Brandon Tenney, Romaine’s nephew, expressed frustration that community members weren’t consulted sooner.
He suggested the state should trim the dangerous limbs off the tree and then leave it up for a little longer while negotiating the memorial.
“It’s the history behind it: how Uncle Romaine stood his ground against the state,” Tenney said. “It’s almost like history repeating itself — they’re gonna do what they wanna do. Day late and a dollar short.”
Both authors Mansfield and Searls point to Romaine Tenney’s story as a symbol of the ambivalence that accompanies progress, including regret over the arrival of the industrial world in rural landscapes.
“Vermonters wanted on the whole to have the highway built of course — they knew it was a necessity,” Searls said. “But there’s always that feeling in Vermont about feeling very melancholy about what you’re losing.”
Mansfield said Tenney was that farmer by the road tourists used to stop and talk to as they sought out a specific kind of Vermont experience.
“Romaine himself, personally, he never went to town meeting, he didn’t write letters to the editor, he didn’t stand up and protest,” he said. “He was just living his life — and history, or the world, came to his doorstep, which is the way it happens all the time.”
As the world continues to modernize, Searls said the spirit of Tenney’s protest resonates today.
“In considering the concerns a lot of people have about climate change, that I think puts the concept of progress in a completely different context from the 1960s, when he took a stand,” Searls said. “Doing things simpler and on a smaller scale, a lot of people think is a necessity. So those kinds of voices are more important than they’ve ever been.”
Betty Smith contributed reporting to this story. Broadcast live on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.