From horses to apples, Vt. author David Holmes digs into the history of his family's Charlotte farm
Author David Holmes had often heard stories about his family’s farm as a child visiting his grandparents in Vermont.
It wasn’t until he started digging into family and state records that he learned how his ancestors’ raised horses and managed one of the Northeast’s leading apple orchards during the 19th century.
Holmes turned that research into a book: On Being a Vermonter and the Rise and Fall of the Holmes Farm, 1822-1923. It was the subject of a recent talk with the Chittenden County Historical Society.
VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke to Holmes about the book, and how the story of his family’s Charlotte farm is intertwined with Vermont’s history. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Grace Benninghoff: Can you explain the stature of the Holmes Farm during its peak? And where were the products produced on the farm ultimately going?
David Holmes: It began in 1822 as a traditional Vermont farm with all the things that go with that — you know, hay and cows and raising crops and so on. Then in 1862, C.T. Holmes, my great-great-grandfather, planted 100 apple trees. And the apple business grew and flourished until the early 1900s. And it was reputed to be the largest apple orchard in New England.
And along the way, like many Vermonters, the Holmes family fell in love with a Morgan horse, and developed a horse business in which they bred and raced and sold Morgan horses.
So probably in the late 1800s to early 1900s, both the horse business and the apple business were flourishing, with apple products, as a matter of fact, being shipped from the dock — the farm being along Lake Champlain — either up Lake Champlain to the Hudson River into New York, or down Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence Seaway. The apples going to London, where the family had an agent.
What inspired you to write a book about your family's farm in the first place?
You alluded to this earlier that as a kid I would visit my grandparents in Middlebury. I lived elsewhere with my parents, and they would refer frequently to the so-called "old farm." And then, years later, when I did return to Vermont with a PhD and working at [the University of Vermont], I got interested again and began to wonder what really went on in the history of the farm. And I began to sense it was a prominent place.
And then it ended in 1923. The family moved to Middlebury. There was, frankly, a kind of a silence within the family about what I think one would say was a calamity — the loss of the farm in 1923. But that was really the genesis of the book. It was a labor of love. But it was really primarily, I guess I'd say, a labor of curiosity.
What do you think the story of the farm tells us about what it means to be a Vermonter?
First of all, I think that it shows the entrepreneurial spirit that Vermonters have always had, both in terms of survival, and then flourishing in whatever their business enterprise was. And you see that entrepreneurial spirit today in Vermont, and certainly in the history of the farm. And then like virtually every farm on the face of the earth, they run up against bad years and bad crops. And the story of this farm shows, I think, great resilience over it, really for generations and 101 years on 220 acres.
What did learning about your family history here in Vermont change about the way that you felt connected to the state, or your own relationship with Vermont?
It's interesting you mention that, because my wife and I are both Vermonters. I had worked all over the country. And we had been away 30 years when we moved back here five years ago. And I kind of asked myself the existential question, "Am I a Vermonter? Am I a true Vermonter? And if so, what does that mean?"
And if you'd like to hear it, Grace, I'll just tell you what I believe is the right definition of being a Vermonter. This comes from reading Vermont history, what many have said about Vermont and of course, my own experience. But Vermonters are hardworking, resilient people who care about others in their community. Have a sound moral foundation, work hard, know the law, prefer things on a small scale, find humor in life's absurdities — and almost beyond everything else treasure the land, this utterly beautiful land on which we live.
Is there anything you came across during the research for this project that surprised you? Or really particularly grabbed your attention?
Well, I think it was just how tough and how monolithic the life of a farmer is, and how much intellectual brainpower you need being a farmer with the the array of things that need to happen. And happen at a very first-class level. And when I said in the definition of Vermonters you need to know a lot — farmers know a lot. Farmers do, people who work on machines, work in companies, work in factories and what have you. There's a lot of knowledge that's required to pull off being a farmer.
The book is titled the rise and fall of the Holmes Farm. What ended up actually happening to the property in the 1920s?
The farm was foreclosed on in 1923 because they could not pay off a mortgage with a bank here in Vermont. And around that time, as you well know, the Spanish flu, World War I and then a number of very dry years. So tragically, the farm went under financially.
And then a Vermont family, the wonderful Thurber family, ended up buying the property in the 1930s. And they lived on the property for a large number of years. But over time, parts of the property were sold off. So now, what used to be a 220-acre family farm is really a gentrified set of lots really, and beautiful houses along Lake Champlain.
Which is the fate of a lot of the property in Vermont, in the beautiful mountains and along Lake Champlain. So it's really in private hands and obviously a very different place than it was 100 years or so ago.
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