A Life: Galen Earl Mudgett Sr., 1922-2013; ‘Dad Firmly Believed He Could Farm the Entire State of Vermont’
Sharon — Galen Earl Mudgett, Sr. and his wife Martha were combing through the Elmore, Vt., blueberry fields on June 25. As each fat plucked berry was tossed into a bucket, it landed in their pails with a noticeable plunk.
Mudgett had been picking blueberries his whole life, and he was coaching Martha in the technique.
“To me a berry is a berry is a berry,” Martha Mudgett said. “But he came over and had to show me how to pick a blueberry. I couldn’t keep up with him.”
Mudgett, who was known for his honesty, humility, intelligence and unrivaled hard work, died of cardiac complications later that day. He was 90.
Born in Randolph on Oct. 24, 1922, Mudgett was raised on a Pomfret dairy farm. After he finished eighth grade, his family moved to South Royalton so Mudgett could attend high school. He graduated from South Royalton High School in 1940 and completed a program in agriculture at the Vermont School of Agriculture the following year. He went on to purchase a 180-acre dairy farm in Sharon for $4,000. On Sept. 18, 1942 he married Hazel Bicknell, of Tunbridge, and the two settled on the farm.
Mudgett named the farm Melody Lane, and the sound of a horn could often be heard floating across the fields. He was an accomplished trumpet player who performed with the Randolph and South Royalton town bands.
Times weren’t always easy for the pair — they spent the majority of their first winter together living in the barn to keep the animals’ water from freezing, and Mudgett joked that Hazel would often chase him around the barn with a pitchfork. But through good times and bad the couple stuck it out. They didn’t leave the farm together for more than a day until 1961 — 19 years after their marriage.
The couple raised five children together.
“High expectations were an assumption growing up,” said his daughter Lola Noyes, 55. “They raised us to take care of ourselves and our families.”
Blueberry picking was one of Mudgett’s favorite things to do and he started an annual family trip into New Hampshire to pick.
“It always had to be a competition of who could pick the most blueberries,” said his daughter Sandra Whitney, 66. “And Dad usually had to win.”
On Galen Jr.’s first day back from Vietnam, Aug. 7, 1971, he awoke to his father shaking him gently.
“He woke me up at 8 o’clock in the morning and wanted to know if I wanted to go blueberrying,” Galen Jr. said. “And I knew I was home.”
Mudgett was a skilled farmer who valued hard work and orderliness. He and Hazel were in the barn by 5 a.m., and spent their days working together.
“They were inseparable,” said Mudgett’s daughter Ruth Roy, 57. “They got up at the same time, they milked together, they did chores together. They were just together. For 52 years.”
Mudgett’s children use the words “honorable,” “humble” and “hard worker,” to describe their father. Then, after a pause, “frugal,” with laughter of assent.
“He saved everything, and didn’t waste anything,” said Roy.
Coffee pots were turned into replacement gears, holes were drilled into metal Crisco cans and recycled as blueberry picking buckets. Mudgett visited the dump and did recycling only once a year, loading up the bed of the family’s 1951 Ford truck, named Old Harriet, with the year’s flattened cans and tied newspapers. His workshop had five gallon cans full of re-straightened nails, and ceiling-high stacks of firewood salvaged from construction sites.
Mudgett wouldn’t refill prescriptions until after he used the last pill. “What if I die tomorrow?” he would say. “That would be a waste.”
He was even parsimonious with his age.
“He wouldn’t let us celebrate his birthdays until after they passed,” said Whitney. “Just in case he didn’t make it.”
But for all of his frugality with the materialistic world, Mudgett donated his time in abundance to civil service throughout his life. He served Sharon as a selectman for almost a decade, moderator for Town Meetings for 11 years, fence viewer, school director and Justice of the Peace. In 1965, Mudgett became the last state representative for the Town of Sharon, before reapportionment changed House districts to be based on population.
“Dad was one of the most forward-thinking men in the area,” said Galen Mudgett Jr.
But Mudgett became disillusioned with state politics, and after a one year stint as state representative, he chose to withdraw from state-level politics. Still, he kept up a discreet political commentary: he showed his distaste for election results by posting them next to the road in his manure spreader.
At heart Mudgett was a farmer, not a politician.
“Dad firmly believed he could farm the entire state of Vermont,” said his daughter Lois Hayworth, 55. “He knew he had the energy it would take.”
When Interstate 89 was built in the 1960s, it cut the Melody Lane farm in half — and with it, Mudgett’s heart. The land was part of his identity, and the interstate splitting it up was one of the hardest things he dealt with, his children said. But Mudgett adapted, eventually selling part of his land to the Central Vermont Railroad Company, and working for the company as a rail yard manager.
Across professions, Mudgett was a hard worker.
“If you can’t work, there isn’t any point in living,” he would say.
Mudgett started each day thoroughly reading the newspaper while nursing a cup of black coffee and — perhaps to compensate for the lack of sugar in his coffee — nibbling on a doughnut.
“I don’t think he ever met a doughnut he didn’t like,” said Roy.
He would spend the day in the barn and the fields, then retire to his workshop, where he would build and repair furniture late into the evening.
“People were bringing him furniture from across the state when he was 90 years old,” said Dan Noyes, Mudgett’s son-in-law. “He could do anything with his hands.”
“He probably made 10 cents an hour on the furniture, if that,” Roy recalled. “But he loved doing it, and he was the best.”
On the week of his 90th birthday, Mudgett, who had moved to Waterbury Center, Vt., in his retirement, stood in front of his Green Mountain Community Alliance Church congregation. “I’m 90,” he announced incredulously. “I don’t think I look 90; I don’t feel 90. But the calendar says I’m 90.”
“But he was a young 90,” Lola Noyes, remembered. Mudgett was driving, gardening and weed-whacking.
“Whenever it snowed I had to run over there or he would have been shoveling his own driveway,” said Noyes. “He didn’t want to be a burden on anybody.”
After Hazel died in 1994, Mudgett met Martha Pearl on what would have been his 53rd wedding anniversary with Hazel.
“We think Mom had a hand in it,” Roy said.
“I was 70 years old and he was 73,” said Martha Mudgett. “But we had the nerve to walk down the aisle, and it seemed like life just started up again then.”
“At their age, they thought that if they had five years together, that would be a happy five years,” Roy said.
They were married for 17.
“I couldn’t find anything wrong with him,” Martha Mudgett said.
In his last years, Galen and Martha traveled across America in an RV, and Mudgett scaled back from his farm to meticulously maintained gardens, and, of course, his annual day of blueberry picking. The day he died he picked two cans and a hat full of blueberries.
“Nobody every told him he was too old to go blueberry picking,” said Whitney. “He was doing what he loved to do right up until the last.”