Jim Kenyon: Ascutney farmer’s story is a hard one to tell

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/10/2021 9:19:53 PM
Modified: 4/10/2021 9:19:52 PM

The cost of building Interstate 91 in Vermont during the 1960s went beyond the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on bulldozing fields, clearing trees and dynamiting ledges.

The story of Ascutney farmer Romaine Tenney, who died in 1964 as I-91 construction was going full bore, reminds us that progress took its toll.

On Sept. 11, 1964, Tenney was served a court order that allowed the 75-acre farm where he had lived his entire life — except for a stint in the military during World War II — to be taken by eminent domain.

That night, as the story goes, Tenney, a bachelor, let his animals loose, set fire to his barns and house, and died by suicide. He was 64.

Last week, finishing touches were being placed on the Romaine Tenney Memorial Park at the I-91 Exit 8 park-and-ride in Ascutney. When I stopped by, Steve Smith and daughter Olivia Savage were raking fresh top soil around the small park. Smith was just a kid when the fire occurred, but he was familiar with Tenney’s story.

“This was his farm; this was his land,” Smith said.

Landowners all along the Connecticut River were forced to sell to pave the way for I-91. But Tenney refused the government’s offer of $10,600, and the feeling at the time was that no matter the amount, he wouldn’t have capitulated.

The park, built with a $30,000 state grant, features a picnic pavilion and the stump of a century-old maple tree that was central to Tenney’s homestead. In March, the dying tree was taken down. Small granite blocks now encircle the stump, which measures more than 4 feet wide.

With some more landscaping and a couple of picnic tables, work on the park should be about complete.

Except for one thing: the writing of four storyboards that will be on permanent display to let visitors know why the memorial was built.

What should the storyboards say — and not say?

There’s no easy answer. But Tenney’s story needs to be told in a fashion that treads carefully around the topic of suicide while remaining true to history.

The circumstances surrounding Tenney’s death are an “important part of the story,” said Patti Arrison, archivist for the Weathersfield Historical Society. “The events were most egregious, and the results were most tragic.”

At the same time, in whatever is written, “we don’t want to glorify suicide,” Weathersfield Town Manager Brandon Gulnick said. (Ascutney is a village of Weathersfield.)

Arrison and Gulnick were among a group of townspeople and several of Tenney’s relatives who met Thursday to talk about the work still ahead.

At the meeting, Lori Tenney White, a great-niece who lives in Hartland, shared information from a 2013 article in Yankee magazine by Howard Mansfield that painted a vivid picture of the farmer’s life.

Tenney was one of nine children. The others all left the farm except him. Rosa Tenney lived with her son on the farm until her later years, when she moved in with a daughter nearby.

Tenney didn’t own a car or a tractor. “He cut his firewood with an ax and a saw, cut his hay with workhorses,” Mansfield wrote.

His farmhouse had no electricity. His neighbors helped get electricity to the barn for a milking machine, and although he had arthritis in his hands, he still preferred milking by hand.

In its prime, Tenney’s farm had 50 or so cows. At the end, he was down to 17.

After Thursday’s meeting wrapped up, the group headed to the park-and-ride to check on the memorial’s progress. That’s where I met Rodney Spaulding, who was a 20-something volunteer firefighter the night that Tenney’s homestead burned.

Spaulding, now 81, and the town’s fire chief, Melvin “Red” Butterfield, were the first on the scene. When they got inside the smoke-filled farmhouse, they tried to open the cellar door, but “apparently, it was nailed shut,” Spaulding said.

Tenney’s body was later found amongst the cellar’s ashes.

At Thursday’s meeting, Brandon Tenney, a great-nephew who lives in Bellows Falls, Vt., said some relatives, including himself, “don’t want to go into details” in the memorial park’s storybooks.

Some people question whether it should even be mentioned that Tenney died in a fire. Tenney White, his great-niece, thinks it’s unavoidable. “We don’t want to make it a secret,” she said. “The fire needs to be mentioned because it was his ultimate demise.”

Growing up, Dylan Romaine Tenney assumed that his middle name had “something to do with lettuce,” he joked. Now at age 27, he’s involved in making sure his great-uncle receives a proper tribute. “It all boils down to that he died for something he believed in,” he said. “He stood by his ground.”

State officials put Gulnick and others in the Ascutney group in touch with the Howard Center, a Burlington nonprofit social service organization, to help with the display’s wording.

I also wondered what the memorial should say. I reached out to Diane Roston, the medical director at West Central Behavioral Health, the Lebanon-based nonprofit community mental health provider. Roston is a psychiatrist who has practiced in the Upper Valley for 25 years.

She was good enough to familiarize herself with Tenney’s story before we talked. “If suicide is to be mentioned, it must be something that is not glorified or honored,” she said.

“Mr. Tenney worked hard. He lived simply and by his values. His courage was in how he lived, not in how he died.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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