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A Conversation With Laura Johnson, Formerly Of Star Pudding Farm

A painting of a farmhouse with a dog outside.
Susan Abbott, artist
/
Courtesy Laura Johnson
A panel from a triptych painting of Star Pudding Farm. The Johnson family created the special property in Marhsfield, and kept the spirit of the Robert Coffin poem "Star Pudding" alive.

In this bonus episode, Brave Little State speaks with the woman whose family named Star Pudding Farm Road, and made the property so special.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. As always, we recommend listening if you can!

Our interest in Star Pudding Farm Road began this summer, when we undertook our Second Annual History Of Vermont Road Names. The episode included this question from Katie Sullivan, of Albany, Vt.:

“How did Star Pudding Farm Road get its name? Is there a Star Pudding Farm?”

VPR interns Olivia White and Anna Van Dine produced a lovely answer to Katie’s question. (If you missed it, we recommend starting there. This follow-up will make much more sense.)

If you heard the story, you might remember that we weren’t able to reach anyone from the Johnson family, the former longtime residents of the property. That is, until after we aired the story, and word traveled all the way to Laura Johnson in Houston, Texas. 

Laura then got in touch with Brave Little State, and we arranged to speak by phone.

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Laura Johnson confirmed that it was her late husband, Martin, who named the road — and that Robert P.T. Coffin’s poem “Star Pudding” was the inspiration.

“They wanted to name it Martin Johnson Road, but he would have nothing of it,” she says. “And so they gave him the chance to name it. And so that's what he did.” 

The Johnsons kept a framed copy of Coffin’s poem in their home, Laura says, and distributed more copies to neighbors once the road was named, “so they would know where the name came from.”

This was in the 1990s and 2000s. But Martin Johnson had owned the property since 1954. And Laura says it was his step-father, Harold Townsend, who first nicknamed the property Star Pudding Farm. 

Harold was born in about 1900, Laura says — meaning that this story goes even further back than we thought. Around 1940, Harold built a little house on the property that Laura refers to as his “bachelor pad.” 

“It had no electricity or running water,” she says.

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Remember that Coffin published “Star Pudding” in 1937. The poem is about a hard-up farmer who has tough growing conditions — but he loves his land and his view so much that he is truly happy in his life. 

Given the timing, and the theme, it makes sense that Harold Townsend would have warmed to the name “Star Pudding Farm” for his land. And the feeling lingered through the generations.

“The farm was kind of a poor farm. And we kind of saw ourselves as being somewhat poor in that we grew all our own vegetables and we cut our own wood,” Laura says. “And so we kind of related to this man who didn't have much in the way of material things.” 

Laura Johnson came to the land in the 1970s. She married Martin in '72. They each had kids from previous marriages.

“And all of a sudden we now had a family of four children, two from Martin and two from myself. And we needed a house large enough to raise the children,” Laura recalls.

So in true Star Pudding fashion, they got to work building a bigger house. The whole family built it together, over six years. They only hired out for the foundation and the boiler, according to Laura. And they had fun.

A painting of a pond on the edge of a field.
Credit Susan Abbott, artist / Courtesy Laura Johnson
/
Courtesy Laura Johnson
Martin Johnson, an accomplished engineer, created a series of ponds on the property. The family wanted their community to enjoy the place, Laura Johnson says.

“You have to know that the house has a number of unique features,” Laura says. “There is a bookcase in the dining room on hinges that opened up, and there was a stairway down to the cellar and a stairway up to the roof. Martin like to do a lot of fanciful things.”

At one point the kids requested a cupola, so Martin made it happen.

“You're really probably about four stories up and you'd get a very good view of things,” Laura says. “And there are some cushions in there and it’s kind of nice.” 

There were also things like false steps and false bottoms in bookcase shelves, Laura says.

“These were all kinds of little secret compartments for the kids to find,” Laura says. “And they could hide things in them if they wanted to, and so on.”

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It helped that Martin Johnson was an engineer. According to his obituary, he had a distinguished career working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); he even advised NASA "on new projects such as the space shuttle." He also worked on environmental issues under three Vermont governors, and had his own firm, The Johnson Company. 

On the home front, he was just as accomplished. At one point he helped build a 20-foot stone tower just for the kids to play in.

“It has a nice spiral staircase, and crenellations at the top. We always told the kids that it was to pour boiling oil down on any enemies that were coming to attack the place," Laura jokes. "It also had a dungeon that was never used — that was really the foundation, but we put a wood floor over it and there's a hatch that you can pull up and go down in there. Hopefully nobody ever uses that.”

A painting of a tall stone tower in a grassy field.
Credit Susan Abbott, artist / Courtesy Laura Johnson
/
Courtesy Laura Johnson
A no-joke stone tower built for the enjoyment of the Johnson children. "It was really hard to give up the place," Laura says.

Envious yet? It’s hard to imagine a more fun place to live and grow up.

“Well, it was. And that was that was our goal,” Laura says. 

Over the years, the Johnsons bought more land as it came on the market, and as they could afford it. They grew Star Pudding Farm to 247 acres, and Laura says they put most of it in conservation.

“Our goal was to be a place for our family and friends and neighbors to come and enjoy,” she says, “by cross-country skiing, hiking on the paths and trails through the woods and fields, and swimming in the ponds. Just a place for happiness and peace and quiet.” 

When Martin Johnson passed away in 2012, Laura Johnson says it became clear to her that she needed to move. 

“It was really hard to give up the place,” she says. “[But] I couldn't afford it anymore with the taxes and the maintenance. There are so many buildings on it — two houses, a barn, a sugar house, a tower, a little special cottage out in the woods.”

Laura says she was planning to move to Wyoming to be near her daughter and son. But there was another poetic twist in store for her.

“My high school sweetheart called me about two and a half years after [Martin’s death], about 2015. And we got back together and married. And he lived in Houston. And I really like Houston.”

And Laura says she still has that framed copy of Robert Coffin's poem, "Star Pudding."

“I have it down here,” she says. “Absolutely.” 

Read "Star Pudding," or hear a recording of the poem, here.

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Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR members. If you like our show, consider becoming one. Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our digital producer is Elodie Reed. Engineering support comes from Chris Albertine. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music. Other music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions:

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Note: A version of this Brave Little State episode was broadcast on Vermont Edition on Wednesday, Oct. 30:

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