Frozen in Time

Photography by Richard Brown

Richard Brown captured this 1971 image of an Irasburg, VT, farm with his handheld Nikon, intending to return with a large-format view camera. “By the time I went back later that winter,” he says, “the barn had collapsed under the weight of a blizzard.”

Photographer Richard Brown moved to Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom in 1971, then spent the next 46 years (and counting) documenting the region’s agricultural community. Brown’s forthcoming book, The Last of the Hill Farms, chronicles a way of life long since vanished.

I have always been drawn to the closeness of Vermont’s past.

When I was a kid, my family took trips to the state’s Northeast Kingdom to camp on Burke Mountain. Winding up Route 5, I became aware of the uncommon views passing by our car windows. Derelict tractors rusted away at the edges of fields. Tethered goats grazed on lawns. I thought they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I wished that someday I could live in one of those farmhouses and that this paradise would never change.

The first wish came true. In 1971, I moved to a small village here and started photographing the land and people. Back then, the 20th century still stretched thinly over its predecessor, and I was able to catch glimpses of a bygone era lurking just beneath the surface. At dawn’s light, I would set out, my VW loaded with a couple of Nikons, an 8-by-10 view camera, a tripod, and a dozen sheet-film holders. No map. No plan. I might head for North Danville and eventually come out in Greensboro Bend, never encountering a paved road. The idea was to get lost and maybe end up somewhere before 1900—or somewhere that at least looked that way.

The small homesteads scattered along these back roads represented the last of Vermont’s hill farms. Anyone tired of cultivating rock-strewn ground had left. Those who stayed and worked Vermont’s stubborn hills did so with a quiet yet fierce attachment. They inhabited old houses that creaked and moaned when the mercury hit 30-below, amid familial relics: cane-seated chairs missing legs, cracked ironstone china, sap yokes, and grain cradles. Dirt-floored basements held canned applesauce, mustard pickles, and stewed tomatoes glinting in rows on sagging wooden shelves. Winters were spent cutting firewood. A long mud season meant enough income from maple syrup to cover taxes. And on autumn mornings, the sharp fragrance of woodsmoke and rotted manure laced the air, and the maples began to blaze.

I felt like I’d died and gone to photographer’s heaven. It was too good to last. But during that brief interval, while the ghosts of the Northeast Kingdom remained palpable, my camera bore witness to the worn-out and obsolete; the Jersey cows and Belgian draft horses; the ancestral portraits hung from crumbling plaster; and the region’s latest strata of human geology, farmers who faced my lens with forbearance and rough-hewn dignity. Photographs capture moments. Moments that reach backward, not forward. In a 60th of a second, the blink of an eye, the click of a shutter, past and present collide. The image that glows on the ground glass is captured forever in silver.

When Milo Persons of Danville posed for this 1974 portrait, he told Brown that he’d once emerged from a stroke-induced coma only after a doctor whispered into his ear, “Your cows are out.”

 

A Peacham man leads his cows to pasture following a morning milking in 1973. “Fugitive cows were common enough then,” notes Brown, “that some people turned to the Gypsy Cow Lady, a rumored clairvoyant who would pass her hands over a Geological Survey map and tell folks where to look.”

 

Theron Boyd cooks supper over the sheet-metal stove in his dilapidated 1790 Quechee mansion, which lacked electricity and running water. “He did everything by hand, as if he believed these age-old labors might hold modernity at bay,” recalls Brown of this 1977 shot.

 

These strawberry roan Belgian draft horses belonged to Everden Randall, whose dairy farm overlooked the town of North Danville. “He would coax and cajole them with quiet but firm commands like ‘Easy now’ or ‘Walk on,’” Brown remembers. Randall’s collie kept a steady gaze on the horses in 1975.

 

Adapted from The Last of the Hill Farms: Echoes of Vermont’s Past. Photographs and text by Richard W. Brown. Forthcoming in 2018 from David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. Copyright © 2018 by Richard W. Brown.

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Frozen in Time