A Life: Merle Howe, 1924 - 2014; ‘He Was the Rock of the Family’
On July 19, 2004, Merle Howe, of Tunbridge, sits near the barn his father built in 1914 to replace one lost in a fire. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Merle Howe as a boy, in two photographs courtesy his family.
Tunbridge — Merle Howe was born in his parents’ bedroom on the family farm in Tunbridge on January 10, 1924, and he died at age 90 in the same room on April 28 this year, a continuity from birth to death that few Americans experience anymore.
“You don’t get much more full circle than that,” said his daughter Channa Howe.
He was the sixth of nine children born to Silvester and Etta (Webster) Howe. Grace was the first, born in 1914, and after her came Ralph, Ernest, Eleanora, Harry, Merle, Clyde, Lillian, born during the 1927 flood, and Arlene, the baby, born in 1932. All were born in the big white farmhouse built in 1914 along Route 110, after a fire the year before burned down a barn and a red brick house.
Silvester Howe, a shrewd businessman who owned the first herd of registered Holsteins in town, rebuilt the barn and the house bigger and better, and he did something unusual when he built the house: he put in wiring in anticipation of the day that electricity would come into the valley.
He also installed a walk-in freezer off the kitchen, and built on the grounds a small ice house and smoke house, and a smaller barn for chickens. They had work horses and raised pigs for food. This is the house of a man who expected to, and did, achieve what he wanted in life.
The farm runs along the banks of the First Branch of the White River. A covered bridge ushers the way across from the highway. Silvester Howe’s brother Walter, also built a big barn and house, directly across the dirt road from his brother. Walter came in under the wire with eight children. And there was another brother, James, who lived down the road: Nine children again. The brothers had two sisters, who delivered a mere two children, and three children.
Merle Howe shared a room with his older brother Harry, who was born in 1921, and now lives in Quechee. For a time, said Harry Howe, they shared a double bed. All the children were expected to do their chores. Silvester Howe, by necessity, ran a tight ship. “This is what we’re going to get done today,” he would tell his family.
The children walked a mile down the road to the one-r oom schoolhouse in South Tunbridge. They went to the church in South Tunbridge on Sundays, although Howe later lost the habit. Meals were eaten as a family, said Harry Howe. They sat in the same place everytime and followed thei r parents’ instructions to wash their hands and face, and comb their hair, before eating .
From childhood on, Howe drove on Sundays with his siblings (and, later, his children and grandchildren) on the web of dirt roads around Tunbridge.
“Back roadin’,” they called it. In winter they took their travois sleds up the road that ran between the two farms, which wasn’t maintained by the town during the long winters. If the snow was hard and slick they could ride those sleds at least a mile down the twisting, turning road, picking up enough speed to shoot through the covered bridge onto Route 110.
The children had their special talents: Grace played the piano and cooked, and baked prize-winning desserts; Lillian was the writer, who researched the family genealogy and turned it into a book; Harry was the only one to leave the farm for good, to go to the University of Vermont medical school, and he went on to become a surgeon in upstate New York.
And Merle was the crooner, the man with the beautiful voice called “The Troubador of the Valley” by people in town. He sang every year in the town’s annual Civic Sh ow, once called the minstrel show, and he liked the standards, said his sister Arlene Stockwell: Moonlight in Vermont , Up a Lazy River . He preferred the Big Band music he grew up with, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, and listened to it all his life, finding a radio station out of New York, WNEW, 1130 on the AM dial, that played the old hits .
Like many dairy farmers, Merle Howe did a lot of things, and he did them well: he was a crack third baseman on the town’s baseball team, an ace pitcher of horse shoes in the Sharon Horse Shoe League, a deer hunter, a muskrat trapper (bringing home 56 pelts one year), a farmer, a card player, and a teller of jokes at the civic show, what they called an end man who sat to the side of the interlocutor. He was in the show every year for 60 years, said Stockwell, and even when his health had begun to fail in the last two years of his life, Howe still told jokes from the audience.
He served on the town’s Selectboard for 10 years, and volunteered for the town’s fire department. He stocked the streams in the spring with brook trout, and went out apple picking in the fall, collecting wild apples to make hard cider with his family and his friend Craig Chapman. “He was always there when you needed him,” Stockwell said.
Howe also had a capacity for deep and enduring friendships. “He was a dear friend of mine,” said Craig Chapman. “He’ll be missed.” But one thing Howe didn’t do a lot of was talking. “He was a man of few words,” Chapman said.
“He wasn’t overly chatty, he’d talk but he’s not going to sit around and talk your ear off,” said Channa Howe, his daughter.
“A lot of the Howe men weren’t terribly talkative,” Stockwell said.
When a doctor in town, Brewster Martin, made house calls to the farm, said Theo Howe, Harry Howe’s wife, he joked that he thought he was visiting a wax museum, so quiet were the family.
And Howe’s taste in food was as plain as his speech: ham placed between two slices of bread, with no condiments. Hamburgers without ketchup or mustard. A bowl of Wheaties for breakfast, and sometimes at other meals, or crackers crumbled into milk.
“If Merle saw a carrot in anything he wouldn’t touch it,” said Theo Howe. “And the only way (he) would eat corn was on the cob.” He did, however, have a formidable sweet tooth.
During World War II, Howe’s older brothers Harry, Ernest and Ralph left Tunbridge to serve. Merle wanted to go, too, but his father said no. “His father wanted him home on the farm,” said Jody Howe, one of Merle’s sons.
So Merle stayed behind, and did the farm work. “I think he was the rock of the family,” Jody Howe said. The only time he seriously considered leaving, said Jody Howe, was when he entertained a job offer to be a herdsman out in the Midwest, which would have required moving his young family. When Howe told his father about the job, Silvester Howe pretty quickly deeded the farm over to him in the early 1970s. And that was that.
“Merle was never the kind of guy to be unhappy,” said Jody Howe. “There was no real urgency in this man.”
He had an abiding patience, his son said, and he was dedicated to whatever job or person occupied him at any given moment. “If he said he would do it, he did it.”
Merle Howe married Doris Stockwell in 1963, a younger woman who already had a son, Jody, from her first marriage. He was nearly 40, and she was in her late 20s. For their honeymoon he drove her to Detroit to pick up a truck for a man named Ollie Magalsky, who lived in town but had a tractor dealership in Randolph.
Merle Howe adopted Jody and gave him the Howe name. Merle and Doris then had two more children, Channa and Micky, and the family moved to a house a mile away from the Howe farms. Grandchildren came along: Jody had two daughters, Michelle and Jessica; and Micky and his first wife Shannon Stoddard had one daughter, Rhiannon.
“He was always fabulous with children. He’d get a twinkle in his eye when they were old enough to talk and walk,” said Jody Howe. It wasn’t unusual, said Stoddard, for her daughter Rhiannon to come back from one of her frequent outings with her grandfather covered in chocolate, dirt, grease and whatever other substance she and Howe had gotten into while on an adventure.
Although Merle Howe lived for a long time at the house down the road, he was always pulled back to where he’d grown up, going there during the day to eat and do chores, and returning home only to sleep. Grace, Lillian, Clyde and Ralph, none of whom ever married, continued to live on the family farm until their deaths.
“I think Merle was very sentimental about that farm,” said Chapman.
To walk into the rambling, now unoccupied farm house is to see a place that hasn’t changed much since it was built, and where objects were kept until eternity, because you never knew when something would come in handy. “These people just never threw stuff away,” said Micky Howe.
T he medicine cabinets contain old bottles, dating anywhere from the late 1890s to the late 1910s, with congealing muddy liquid still in them: Dr. B.J. Kendall’s Quick Relief, guaranteed to cure anything that ails you with a 72 percent alcohol content; and a $1 bottle of Syrup of Figs and Elixir of Senna from Kimball Brothers of Enosburg, Vermont. There is still in the basement, said Micky Howe, rendered skunk fat to oil boots. An old Quasar television sits in another room. There are stacks of Reader ’ s Digests . Old Quaker Oats containers, used to store smaller items, are stacked around the house.
Howe finally retired, selling his herd in 1999. But he still mowed the fields that stretched up the hillsides behind the farms, and he drove right up until he went into Gifford Medical Center in April. When he began to fail in the hospital, he made it clear he wanted to return home to the family homestead. His siblings, Arlene and Harry, his friends and his family came to see him.
All his life he’d used certain expressions when he talked to his friends and family. He called Chapman “Captain,” and his wife Penny, “Lady.” And when he told people goodbye he’d say, “You take care.”
When Stockwell came to sit by her brother’s bedside before he died, he didn’t acknowledge her much of the time, although she thought he knew she was there. When she got up to leave, the last thing Howe said to her was, “You take care.”
N icola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.