Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembering Romaine Tenney: "The Man Who Would Not Be Moved"

I heard this story from my mom last night, which I felt was so compelling that we did a little more research and found an article regarding the events in an old newsletter. Here's my version.

In Ascutney Vermont back in the 60's there lived an old man who had a small farm with a gorgeous 19th century gingerbread farm house and a barn across the road. Romaine Tenney, who had been born in the house was the only one of nine siblings still living there, working the farm, which had 40 cows. He was quoted as saying "I was born in this house and I'll die in this house."

Mr. Tenney milked his cows by hand even in 1964. After a little research I found an article in a newsletter from the Weathersfield Historical Society by Edith F. Hunter which states, "He did not approve of electricity, daylight savings time, or gasoline powered vehicles. He heated his house with wood stoves, lighted with kerosine lamps, and did his farming with horses." Mom says she remembers him because he used to rent pasture land from her parents' farm, and he would drive his cows up the road to Weathersfield and their farm, always walking along behind the cows.

"In the early 1960's I-91 was being constructed" the article says. "Many things stood in its way - rocky hills that had to be dynamited, wetlands that had to be filled in, houses and barns that had to be moved or destroyed. One of those houses... was the farm of Romaine Tenney in Ascutney." Tenney resisted all offers from I-91 reps. They offered him almost ten times what the property was worth according to town records, and he wouldn't budge. They offered to move the house, but that was eventually deemed unfeasible.

As I-91 made its progress closer to Tenney's property neighbors offered to help him move, the local school offered to donate large boxes so he could move his belongings, to which Tenney replied, "Perhaps I can use them, or at least they will burn well."

As my mom was telling me this story, I thought it was going to end, "and that's why there's a funny little bend in I-91", but no, that's not how the story ends.

Again from the article: "On Friday, Sept. 11, [1964] the county sheriff came with a court order to remove Romaine Tenny's possessions, and brought along four helpers and two trucks to get the job done." Apparently these movers just started working, moving stuff around all day.

Later that night, after another man named Fitch had dropped off his children's baby sitter he drove by the house and noticed the interior was "all aglow", and there was a strange light inside the barn. He raced to the fire department, but when they arrived they could not break down the door because it had been "spiked" shut. Even if they could have gone in it would have been unsafe as the building was structurally unsound at that point as the fire consumed the house.

Tenney's dogs and cows had been set loose outside the barn, which also burned to the ground.
The next morning, inside the house they found what they believed to be human remains in a bedroom with a .32 caliber rifle, revolver, and exploded shells, although it was unclear if the shells exploded from the fire and the barrels of both the revolver and rifle had been melted shut.

When Mom drives down 91 she knows exactly where the house was and remembers Mr. Tenney as she drives inches above where his house once stood.

Emminent domain is maybe one of the scariest laws I can think of - it symbolizes all that I don't love about forms of government with high level of intervention such as socialism and communism. This also means that despite the fact that I wish certain properties in Montpelier would be managed differently, I respect the fact that it's not my decision and the state, the "will of the people", should not force a change.

True as this story is, it serves as a fable or archetypal myth conveying sentiments which I believe many Vermonters identify with. The reclusive old ludite harrassed by the government in a fit of depression gives in and destroys something beautiful in a final catastrophic statement about progress. Where are we going? Is it somewhere good? Who decides what is good and what is meant by "progress"?

These are difficult questions that I believe many Vermonters are currently struggling with. I hear it in conversations at church, at school, and with students. When students gave me a positive reaction to the possibility of an electro-magnetic pulse bomb going off over America, that certainly gave me pause to question our current state of technology.

The story also raises questions about states rights vs. the rights of individuals. Who's will is more important: those of property owners, or the collective majority's will, the rich foreigner's will or the poor native's will. I believe it's part of the state's job to look out for the rights of its poor constituency.


Ruby Levine said...

I wrote a paper over break about Montpelier and in the section of the book I was using about the interstate, they mentioned this story in passing. From the perspective of the book, without the details, it seems crazy. Once you know the story, it's mostly just sad.

pansy said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


joejar said...

Mmmmm... wonder if you see comments regarding older blogs? I just stumbled across your article "Remembering Romaine Tenney 2008. I remember him well, I was 15 yrs old and lived about a mile down the road on RT 131. My email is

anneofvermont said...

Hi Joe, Thanks for commenting! I asked my mom and she says she remembers your family. I guess she was good friends with your sister? Anyway, I sent you an email and hope to hear from you soon!

Milena Lyons said...

Hi there any relation to John Francis Tenney?

Nancy Nutile-McMenemy said...

The Weathersfield Proctor Library will be hosting an event on Sept. 3
Romaine Tenney: A Celebration of a Farmer's Life.

I've been digging through various archives and was wondering if you or your mom had anything that might be relevant to Mr. Tenney, his farm and eminent domain.

I'd love to speak with you or your mom more about Mr. Tenney. And to invite you both to our event in September.

Romaine Tenney: A Celebration of a Farmer's Life.
Saturday, September 3, 2016 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Weathersfield Proctor Library
5181 Rte 5 Ascutney, VT

The Blue Sky Boys-(Banjo Dan) will perform their song about Romaine Tenney.
Memories will be shared and encouraged.
Refreshments will be served.
This event is FREE and open to the public

anneofvermont said...

Hi Nancy, Thanks for the note about this. Speaking for myself I'd love to chat with you about this fellow. I'll forward this info to my mother and see if she'd like to as well. What's the best way to get in touch with you? - Anne Watson

Nancy Nutile-McMenemy said...

email me at