Wednesday, September 29, 2010

THE DOCTOR’S DAFFODILS Saving Furnace Brook Farm

Margaret Waddington stands in the midst of the three thousand daffodil blooms whose springtime blast of color gave her something to look forward to during a long Vermont winter of despair. (Courtesy of Katherine Sivret)

It is difficult enough to tell an important story in a thousand words or less, but it is even more of a challenge to combine two stories. This particular reflection is about a person and a place; the two so inseparably intertwined that they are really one. The person is my friend, Dr. Margaret M. Waddington, one of the “giants” in my life, and the place, is Furnace Brook Farm in Chittenden, Vermont.
Margaret Waddington was born in Austria in 1930, and was a young school girl when Hitler’s Nazi Germany “annexed” that sovereign country in 1938 – a “bloodless” coup which history calls “the Anschluss”- and which was the first chapter in the takeover which ushered in World War II in Europe. She drew the attention of school authorities when she refused to participate in the required Nazi salute at the beginning of classes. When disciplined, she instigated a one-person rally, publicly mimicking the “Heil Hitler” genuflect in front of the school principal’s residence. Barred from school, and plagued with a learning disability we know today as dyslexia to begin with, the girl’s future in Austria posed problems for herself and the family. Margaret and her mother were able to escape to the U.S. while her father was left behind for a time to insure some financial support.
It says a lot about the character of this new American whose education had already been interrupted by war and learning challenges that she set her sights on becoming a medical doctor and – eventually - a neurosurgeon of wide prominence in her adopted country, (and in a field not yet known for welcoming female practitioners). All of this my friend managed to accomplish, while publishing cutting edge illustrated text books on the human brain for the first time.
In 1990, with her professional days behind her, Doctor Waddington acquired a Vermont property made famous by generations of champion Morgan horses bred and trained there known as “Furnace Brook Farm”. After the death of the previous owner, the buildings were falling into decline while the pastures and woodlands were growing neglected and unkempt. With a determination akin to that of the fictional “Miss Rumphius” (HOME COUNTRY 9/29/2010), Margaret said to herself, “I may not be able to change the world, but here is something I can do to make the world more beautiful”. She set about to give the farm a new life, restoring the 18th century residence and unique “bank barn”, bringing the pastures into ordered beauty, and creating a woodland environment which would both welcome native wildlife and delight visitors. With the help of friends, she cleared an accumulation of deadwood and undergrowth, creating animal shelters from the debris while filling carefully-crafted field sheds for the split firewood which would fuel the home’s two fireplaces.
Over time, the Austrian-born matriarch of “Furnace Brook Farm” would inventory and record the wonders of her forested trail system with camera and catalogue, from the trilliums and lady slippers which brought the first color of Spring, to the birds and four-footed friends which shared her living natural history museum. She would then illustrate and publish a series of sixteen beautiful books depicting the beauties of the four seasons at Furnace Brook Farm to be shared with others in her world of friends. Her days and weeks were filled with the adventure of mastering the piano works of Beethoven and Bach, studying new subjects from the “Great Learning” courses from “The Teaching Company” and generally cultivating the skills of living thoughtfully. All of this by itself is a story; but there is more.
In 1996, at the age of 66, Margaret Waddington was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia; a deadly form of cancer. The most optimistic prognosis forecast five to seven years of painful decline with aggressive chemo and radiation therapy. Dr. Waddington chose instead to take an alternative approach to treatment, following a regimen which has been shared with some of the world’s most respected medical researchers, including the famous Huntsman Cancer Clinic. Now at the age of 80, Margaret Waddington continues to manage her health challenge as she has for sixteen years, drawing daily inspiration from Furnace Brook Farm and the world of nature it embraces. Her book “The Byway – A Lonely Path” details that journey.
When I think of my friend Margaret Waddington, I picture her smiling happily in the midst of thousands of daffodil blooms, planted by her and her friends to greet the first springtime of hope after the first long winter of her trials.

The red-painted “bank” barn is an eye-catcher at the center of “Furnace Brook Farm”, its every detail a matter of restoration care. The golden bull atop the weather vane is the work of a world-famous sculptor. (Al Cooper)

Seated on her John Deere mower, Dr. Margaret Waddington prepares for a day of field work at Furnace Brook Farm. Her devoted octogenarian friend and co-worker, Katherine Sivret (Al Cooper’s sister-in-law) is at her side. (Al Cooper)

With original wide-board floors and twin fireplaces, the historic farmhouse beside the waters of Furnace Brook continues to be a place of grace and beauty crowded with two hundred years of history. (Al Cooper)


  1. Do you know if she is the daughter of Gladys Olcott?

    1. She is the only daughter of Gladys Olcott

  2. Hi, I just stumbled upon Dr Waddington's "Four Seasons at Furnace Brook Farm" today and love her writing. The book was published in 1996, I am trying to figure out where Furnace farm is and am so glad to have found your blog. Do you know if Furnace Brook Farm is still in existence today?

    Hope Dr Waddington and the farm is doing good!

  3. What a wonderful ode to a wonderful and courageous person.
    Dr. Waddington and I were very close when she engaged me to edit and typeset her Furnace Brook Farm books.
    I have seen her enduring struggles through her illness but it never stopped her from her love for farming, gardening, photography and writing. She was a brilliant person and so loyal and compassionate. Her passing this week leaves a sadness in my heart, but somewhat bittersweet because she is now in those peaceful fields of daffodils smiling down on us, I am certain. Rest in peace, Margaret! We will all miss you!!