Wednesday, March 3, 2010


As I write this column, more than one million people in the northeast corner of the U.S. are without electric power, inundated by two or three feet of unexpected, late season snow, and sheltering from winds gusting up to hurricane speeds. Numerous are the personal “horror stories” being penned by observers describing the hardships growing out of the succession of such meteorological events which have made the winter of 2009-10 one of the most memorable in history. In some cases we hear of community evacuations being ordered by harried emergency responders, not because of any life-threatening scenario, but because householders had run out of food and the ability to stay warm.
Because I grew up in that country, I can easily picture how all of this impacts a modern, commuting society whose very technological genius leaves them relatively helpless when mother nature decides to “play hardball”. An earlier generation – one I often think of as “the hardiest generation” comes to mind as I read and ponder today’s media stories. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up on a Vermont hillside farm at a moment in time when I could easily look over one shoulder into the best of those rapidly-disappearing times, still peopled by staunch, proud “Yankees” whose roots were sunk deep in the rocky soil and harsh climate of the land they loved, and who had learned through long experience to take care of themselves and their neighbors in good times and in bad.
The very architecture of rural New England is a reflection of all that earlier generations had learned and passed on. A good example of that is the long, low interconnected farmstead still seen here and there, anchored by a center-chimney Cape style residence at one end, a commodious barn at the other, and with what I think of as an “hierarchy” of working structures in between. Built in the last decade of the 1800s, my own home place was just such a fortress.
The center chimney Cape is a veritable symbol of New England, with a roof (often slate-shingled), steep enough to shed rain and snow efficiently, but without long overhanging eaves to invite ice build-up and hinder run-off. The central location of the chimney not only insures uniform heat distribution, but permits two or more fireplace or stove flues to vent through it, including the upstairs. Often a smaller annex will be built on one end to house a kitchen or other room.
The kitchen of our family’s home place was by far the busiest room of the house, with six doorways leading to other parts of the house and ¬– most important of all – to the connected wood shed.
The wood shed connected to the shop, the shop to the equipment shelter, and from there it was only a few footsteps to the barn and milk house. No matter how blizzardy, wet or icy the outdoor environment, one could make the round trip journey between house and farm duties with ease. Freezing rain storms were an annual reminder of what far-sighted people engineered that thoroughfare, especially in the pitch black of a stormy night. With or without electricity, life continued without serious interruption.
Many of Vermont’s old barns have been abandoned, and the connecting buildings removed as unnecessary eye-catchers. Nowadays, as I roam the back roads of a land I love, I keep an eye peeled for survivors. And I still remember with fondness how good it made me feel to look out from an occasional window at the storm-tossed outdoors, while sheltered within an architectural wonder designed with “mother nature” in mind.

Shadowed by century-old sugar maples, a classic center chimney cape near Shrewsbury,Vermont is an Al Cooper Favorite. A red-painted wood shed hides behind the kitchen annex.
Al Cooper photo

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