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A Life: Hilda Yates ‘was a force in the community’

  • Hilda Edson, second from left, with her family in Windsor, Vt., in 1950. Also shown are her sisters Brenda, left, Sandra and father Ralph Edson. (Family photograph)

  • Hilda and Bill Yates recreate the "American Gothic" painting in front of their barn on the farm in Windsor, Vt., and their Total Inspiration store in a circa 1980s photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Hilda Yates, second from left, with her family, from left, Anne, Bill, Jr., Jim, Susan and Bill, Sr., in a 1979 photograph on their farm in Windsor, Vt. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2020 8:17:28 PM
Modified: 10/18/2020 8:43:31 PM

WINDSOR —Twelve years ago, Hilda Yates began what many would consider a daunting weekly tradition.

Every Wednesday night she and her husband Bill would set up stools around their kitchen island in their brick farmhouse along Route 44 overlooking the mountains. Different dishes of food poured over each other on the island: brie and apricot jam, pasta and butter for the kids, loaves and loaves of bread, prime rib — a Hilda Yates specialty — and sticky buns, another specialty.

Starting at 5 p.m. — though people could come whenever they wanted — around 20 members of the Yates family along with many friends would pile into the house, crowding in the kitchen, warming themselves by the wood stove. Hilda and Bill Yates left a living room open for the young kids to run around, and set up a table for the teenagers to gather with their friends.

“Everyone’s talking — it gets loud in there,” her daughter, Anne Yates said with a laugh.

For many, a weekly dinner for over 20 people would be a big undertaking. But for Hilda Yates, who had spent her lifetime co-running a farm, owning clothing and antique stores and hosting children through the Future Farmers of America program, throwing a weekly dinner for her ever-growing family and their friends was a joy.

“She always liked to make a show,” Anne Yates said of her mother, who died at age 79 on Sept. 3, 2020, at the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative & Hospice Care in Lebanon following a battle with cancer.

She added that her mother would sit at the head of the table when they dined outside, focusing on the members of her family whom she didn’t get to see as often and saying the line that would become like a catchphrase for her: “Tell me everything.”

Following her death, her family and friends reflected on Yates, remembering her as a hard worker with a great sense of humor and penchant for really listening to people’s stories.

“Just being around family was the most important thing,” Bill Yates said Tuesday. He Anne Yates explained that in the past several years, Hilda Yates had struggled with her health and her cancer diagnosis and that she had recently lost her eyesight.

“She began burning things,” Anne Yates said, adding that one time her mother baked a spoon into a pan of brownies — a story the whole family, Hilda included, would often joke about.

Despite her failing health, Yates insisted on seeing her family regularly, bringing them together for those weekly dinners full of conversation, Bill Yates said.

“She loved stories. She would just sit there, sucking it all in, even if she couldn’t see,” Anne Yates said. Once her mother had gotten updates from everyone, she would ask her children to retell some of the best family stories as if they were folklore. “She would say ‘that’s one of my favorite stories. Tell that.’ ”

That love of storytelling extended to her hobbies as well. Family members described Yates as a voracious reader with a particular love for historical non-fiction. When her eyesight started to fail, Yates didn’t let it stop her, switching instead to books on tape, which she would listen to — sometimes multiple times — ahead of every book club meeting.

“She read like crazy,” Anne Yates said. “She couldn’t get enough (stories) from her friends — she had to go read.”

Hilda Yates’ inquisitive nature was something she’d had since childhood, when she grew up on a farm in West Windsor, helping her parents care for the animals, and riding horses.

“Everyone in town who was her age was always invited,” to come ride horses with her, Anne Yates said. “Everyone still talks about that. They would ride horses all over Brownsville.”

As a teenager she took up cheerleading and ballet while helping her parents on the farm. She graduated from Windsor High School before going on to Tufts University for dental hygiene. After college, she moved back to Vermont to work as a dental hygienist and met Bill through a mutual friend, marrying him just a year after meeting.

The two would go on to have four children and bounce around the country a little, living in Mississippi, Minnesota and Texas as Bill Yates served in the US Air Force. But Hilda Yates always wanted to move back to her home state, back to the countryside and the farming life she loved.

“She didn’t want to raise her kids as Army brats, she wanted to raise them as farm brats,” Bill Yates said with a laugh.

They bought a farm along Route 44 near the West Windsor town line, across from the Brownsville trail leading up Mount Ascutney. The Yates Farm became known for raising sheep and selling wool and hay.

“They were leaders in the sheep renaissance in Vermont,” family friend Tim Fariel said. He had known the family since he was a senior at Windsor High School and Bill Yates — his biology teacher at the time — invited him to come work on the farm in 1981.

There, Fariel became close with Bill and Hilda, describing the matriarch of the family as a Vermonter through-and-through, who loved “back to the land” farming. He said Hilda Yates ran much of the financial side of the farm: payroll, keeping track of workers and handling the back end of operations.

“I think Hilda took a ton of pride in carrying that agricultural legacy from her parents,” Fariel added.

Along with her career as a dental hygienist and her work running the farm with her husband, Yates had several other business ventures over the years, which her family and friends remember fondly.

In one case, Hilda and Bill Yates purchased an old home, which they turned into an antiques store, Anne Yates said. Hilda Yates led much of the design, decorating the place like a house, setting up furniture and antiques around the home, and hanging old dresses off the backs of doors.

“She had the construction crew setting up the rooms and making the beds,” Bill Yates said.

With a schedule that was already packed with work, Hilda Yates couldn’t run the antiques store full-time, so instead she turned it into an “event,” sending out postcards to people throughout the community, inviting them to visit and shop the home-turned-store once a month.

Another business that nearly all of Yates’ friends and family members recall was her shop, Total Inspiration, which Yates opened in the upper half of the family barn, featuring “hippie” clothes from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Fariel said.

“It was a sanctuary she created for people to hang out and have fun,” he remembered. “So many people came and visited her (there). She knew there was a need in the community.”

Hilda Yates had the same sort of presence — which Fariel described as “magical” — at home as well. For her children’s birthdays she would place lollipops in the ground which stuck up like candy flowers from the grass, Anne Yates said. She planned “treasure hunts” with clues she placed around the farm, leading the children to candies and fake gold coins at the end of the hunt.

The family opened their doors to the community as well, Anne Yates remembered. Hilda and Bill Yates often hosted teenagers through the Future Farmers of America program, teaching them how to run a farm, do construction and make maple syrup. Even people who weren’t part of the program but were just down on their luck had a place to stay at the Yates’ farm.

“Any teenager that needed a home or didn’t get along with her parents ... everyone was invited and we just grew up that way,” Anne Yates said.

When asked about what Hilda Yates meant to him, Fariel choked back tears.

“She was everything to me,” he said. “She was kind of like a mom.”

He echoed what Anne and Bill Yates said: that Hilda Yates had a penchant for listening and uniquely understanding people. Fariel said he even referred to Hilda as “my little Yoda” because of her perceptiveness.

“People were her food, more than coffee, more than candy corn.” he said, stopping to explain that was an inside joke; Hilda Yates loved candy corn. “She always knew what to say and how to say it.”

Family friend Steve Crimmin, a Thetford resident, echoed that sentiment. He met Yates when he was a teenager, attending Windsor High School in the 1970s, and she was his dental hygienist.

“She loved to talk and she loved young people,” Crimmin remembered, saying that the two had great conversations during his visits. “She would tell you what she thought. She was very honest.”

Crimmin, who said he lost touch with Hilda and Bill Yates when he went to college, eventually reconnected with them when he started sheep farming in Vermont. And when he did, he said, it was like no time had passed.

“When I came back to see them it was like old friends ... we didn’t have to restart,” Crimmin said.

That was what Hilda Yates meant to many people in the community where she grew up, raised a family and ran her businesses. She was a friend, a staple in Brownsville.

“She was a force in the community,” Crimmin said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

Valley News

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