VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Be part of the community of supporters that makes VPR freely available to all. Make a gift now >>

VPR News

As Tree Falls, State Ponders How To Memorialize Romaine Tenney's Death, Legacy Of Resistance

TenneyTreeHighway-vpr-weiss-tisman-20210317.jpg
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
A logger stands over the felled Tenney Tree in Weathersfield as a truck drives by on Interstate 91.

Romaine Tenney killed himself in 1964, when the federal government was seizing his farm to build Interstate 91. A single maple tree was left on the land to remember Tenney, but the tree was removed last week because it was dying. Now, the town of Weathersfield has to figure out how to remember Tenney and his final act of protest respectfully and appropriately, while acknowledging his suicide.

The crew showed up just before 8 a.m. on Wed., March 17 at the Exit 8 park-and-ride in Weathersfield, to take down the Tenney tree.

If you or anyone you know has thoughts about suicide or is experiencing a mental health crisis, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. You are not alone.

It’s been big news here, with people debating over what to do about the tree. It was a chilly morning, and a small crowd gathered to watch it come down.

Rodney Spaulding stood off to the side, wearing an Ascutney Fire Department baseball cap.

Spaulding grew up in the area. He knew Romaine Tenney and he was one of the three firefighters who showed up the night Tenney took his own life and set his house on fire.

TenneyTreeSpaulding-vpr-weiss-tisman-20210317.jpg
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Rodney Spaulding was one of the first firefighters on the scene the night Romaine Tenney died. He says Tenney was well liked around town and that a lot of people were sympathetic to his fight.

“So Chief Butterfield and I got on the scene, and started looking for him. And his dog was running around outside here, looking for him I guess," Spaulding remembered.

"The house was filling up with smoke and we didn’t have air packs or anything at that time. And we tried to go down the cellar, but the cellar door apparently had been nailed or locked shut. I spent the next day in the cellar with the fire investigator, and we found a bed with some bones on it, and the gun was there that had been fired."

Spaulding said most people in town knew about Tenney’s fight at the time.

The government was buying out farms up and down the Connecticut River Valley to make way for the new interstate.

But Tenney refused to sell his land, and the government seized his farm through eminent domain.

More from Vermont Edition: The 'Paradox Of Development': Vermont's Tensions Between People, Land And Progress

Spaulding said Tenney, who was 64, had nowhere else to go.

“Everybody liked Romaine," Spaulding said. "You know, he didn’t bother anybody, and minded his own business. But, you know, it took everything he had. Where was he going to put his barn and his farm and live and his tools? And, you know, it wiped his whole life out, technically. I mean, really."

"It took everything he had. Where was he going to put his barn and his farm and live and his tools? And, you know, it wiped his whole life out, technically. I mean, really." - Rodney Spaulding, former firefighter

The company that showed up to cut down the tree is owned by Ted Knox.

Knox grew up in the next town over and says Tenney’s death had a big impact on people living in the Upper Valley.

“I was in, like, the fourth grade and I can remember that was like a big thing in State Street School, that they were building the interstate, and they cut this guy’s farm in half," Knox said.

"You know, he let all his animals go, set his house on fire and then shot himself in the head from what I understand. But you know, it was a terrible thing. My parents were upset about it. My teachers were upset about it."

TenneyTreeTree-vpr-weiss-tisman-20210317.jpg
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
One of the last photos of the Tenney tree in Weathersfield on the morning it was cut down.

Knox has been taking care of trees around New Hampshire and Vermont for more than 50 years.

And he said it was time for this one to come down. Sometimes he can save them; others not.

"There's nothing you can do. The tree is just shutting down," Knox said. "So, you know, just like you go to the hospital, and you’re 92-years-old, and I’m sick, well there’s nothing I can do for ya. You know, you’re at the end, just like a fish or a bear or a deer, or anything that lives."

More from Vermont Edition: Interstates, Burning Farms & Eminent Domain: Remembering Romaine Tenney

Though there was no plaque there describing who he was or how he died, the tree was a living memorial to Tenney.

And now that the Tenney tree is gone, Kyle Obenauer, who’s with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, says the state wants to build a permanent memorial.

"If we're memorializing this person, how do we find that balance and how do we do it in a safe, responsible way that addresses this incredibly sad story but also treats suicide appropriately?" - Kyle Obenauer, Vt. Agency of Transportation

They plan to use some of the tree wood to build a pavilion that tells Tenney's story, the story of the Vermont farmer who took his own life rather than hand his land over to the government.

“Suicide is certainly part of that," Obenauer said. "And that has been something, I think, since Romaine Tenney died, that has been hard to talk about. And if we’re memorializing this person, how do we find that balance and how do we do it in a safe, responsible way that addresses this incredibly sad story but also treats suicide appropriately?"

It’s generally not a good idea to build a permanent memorial to people who die by suicide, according to Charlotte McCorkel, Senior Director of Client Services at The Howard Center.

“The concern with memorials is that it can be an upsetting reminder of a suicide death," said McCorkel, who's done work in suicide prevention. "And it can also romanticize the idea of suicide, especially for people who may be thinking about suicide or be at high risk."

McCorkel says if the town moves ahead with the permanent memorial, it will be important to choose the words carefully and try not to focus too much on how Tenney died.

Windsor County had the fourth-highest number of suicide deaths in Vermont last year, McCorkel said.

“So I would see it as about land rights, and about his commitment to his land, or to Vermont, or to the property, rather than glorifying the suicide death," McCorkel said. "And I would make sure to say that he saw this as his only option and how tragic that is. And that there are many options for people who are having a hard time. And then: Give a hotline number."

But Paul Searls, who's an historian from Northern Vermont University, says it's a slippery slope to change the wording or not directly address an historical event when you're putting up a memorial.

“The Romaine Tenney story loses its significance if you don't tell the whole story," he said. "I mean the story is that on the day that his house was to be leveled, he chose to level it himself and to go with it. And to exclude that fact doesn't make any sense to me at all."

The Agency of Transportation owns the park-and-ride where the tree used to stand, and the state will have final say over the memorial and how Tenney’s suicide is recognized on the plaque.

But VTrans is giving Weathersfield $30,000 to come up with a design, and members of Tenney’s family will work with the town to develop it.

TenneyTreeBoys-vpr-weiss-tisman-20210317.jpg
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Brandon Tenney, left, and his cousin Dylan Tenney watch as the Tenney tree comes down. Both say there is skepticism among some in the family that Romaine Tenney died by suicide, and some think he was killed.

Brandon Tenney , a great-nephew, says a lot of people in the family still have questions about how his great-uncle died, and they think maybe he was killed.

He says what's most important is remembering what happened on the farm and acknowledging the resistance Romaine Tenney put up to what most people thought was progress.

If you or anyone you know has thoughts about suicide or is experiencing a mental health crisis, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. You are not alone.

“The tree’s coming down but at least the state’s gonna pay the town to put up a memorial, you know?" he said. "It feels good and sad at the same time. It’s a moment of history."

The Tenney family still owns about 20 acres on the other side of the highway. Two big old maple trees grow there, and whenever the family gets together, someone eventually tells the story about how Tenney lived and died.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

Related Content