David Holmes plucked a shiny red apple from the moist grass beneath a sprawling unpruned apple tree. He took a bite and expressed delight at his find.
We were walking down a lane in Charlotte near the shore of Lake Champlain, and he was pointing out the sites of vanished landmarks from what had been one of the most important apple orchards in all of New England and a thriving multigenerational farm operation.
Then, in 1923, bankruptcy ended it all. Hundreds of acres of apple trees were bulldozed into oblivion. The surviving tree, still producing apples a century later, stood at a bend in the road near the site of what had been the original farmhouse.
This had been the Holmes family farm, and it was David Holmes’s great-grandfather, C.T. Holmes, who suffered the bankruptcy that forced him off the land in 1923.
Now David Holmes has written a book tracing his family’s history — settling in Monkton in 1788, moving to Charlotte in 1822, then experiencing what he calls the Holmes family diaspora after the farm went under.
Holmes’s book has a long title that conveys its ambitions: “On Being a Vermonter and the Rise and Fall of the Holmes Farm 1822-1923.” The Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont is the publisher, and the book is being released this month.
The story he tells is a family history with a detailed account of life on a 19th-century farm, including revealing photos of rural life in Vermont. As Holmes notes, “There are no case studies of a Vermont farm that span the early 1800s to the early 1900s.” His book provides one.
He gleaned information from numerous sources: town records, family records, abundant correspondence among family members, horticultural society records. He chronicles not just the generations of the Holmeses but also of families that became connected by marriage: the Johns family and the Ross family. (Holmes’s uncle, Charles Ross, was a candidate in Vermont’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 1974.)
Over the decades, the family operated one of the region’s leading apple orchards, pioneering methods of farming that included the irrigation technology that eventually became a fateful financial burden.
The lives of the women are recounted, including family members who left the farm to pursue other careers — in music and education, for example. The farm relied on a large workforce, particularly at harvest time, when as many as 100 workers were needed to pick apples. The women had to feed them.
Much more than apples
The farm operation involved more than apples. The family raised Morgan horses and raced them. On his recent visit to the site, Holmes pointed out the broad meadow where a track allowed the family to train Morgans as trotters. (Horse racing was so popular in the 19th century that Charlotte alone had two racetracks.) The farm also raised crops and cattle, sheep and chickens, and operated its own brickyard.
The family manufactured barrels by the thousands for shipping apples by rail and water — apples were sent off from the dock built on a point on the lake. A newer dock exists now, as does an old covered bridge over the nearby creek that is said to be the shortest covered bridge in Vermont. An old family cemetery is hidden away in woods to the south of the property, though when the family gave up the farm in 1923, they dug up some of the remains to transfer them to a churchyard elsewhere in Charlotte.
Holmes’s documentation of this history is valuable in itself, shedding light not just on the life of his family, but on the life of 19th-century Vermont. But he has a larger purpose, asking if our collective memory of this demanding way of life has left a residual mark on the character of Vermonters. Thus, he raises an oft-discussed question: What does it mean to be a Vermonter? And do generalizations of that sort even have meaning?
Holmes’s career as an educator — including stints as headmaster at private schools in Connecticut and Idaho — has led him to new endeavors. He is executive director of the Character Collaborative, a consortium of school officials, academics and others interested in giving attributes of character a greater role in metrics used by school admissions offices around the country.
How can schools measure qualities such as perseverance, curiosity and honesty? With the declining importance of standardized test scores as a metric for college admissions, greater reliance on character is possible, and the NGO he helped to found is promoting ways to make it happen.
Defining the Vermont character
So what are the attributes of the Vermont character? Holmes said discussion of the question was often “anecdotal, humorous and cute” and he was trying to focus what he had learned as an educator on the problem of how to define character.
He acknowledges that any generalization inevitably “obscures a complex reality.” A generalization about the Vermont character cannot capture the peculiarities of individual people, though it may say something about the people’s “overall character” — and doing so fosters a sense of community. “A common understanding about who we are as Vermonters has communal value,” he writes.
Holmes cites some familiar Vermont writers who have addressed the same question, such as William Mares, who wrote: “It is surely correct to say Vermont and Vermonters are riven with contradictions. I see impulses to join in America and to run away; to build four-megabit microchips and heat with wood chips; to have an integrated fiber-optic network and still talk baseball and weather at the post office; to provide for all but preserve the neighborhood from the homeless, trailers, and condominiums.”
In the face of the contradictions, the legacy of Holmes’s family has left him with a sense of how Vermont’s history has marked the character of individual Vermonters today. Attributes of good character include qualities such as honesty, generosity and civic-mindedness, he says.
Over the decades through the 19th century and into the 20th, the Holmes family exhibited these and other important qualities: an affinity for action, an aspiration for education, resilience and grit, expertise and knowledge.
“Vermont is sufficiently diverse that no single list captures it all,” he writes. He points out that Vermonters generally share an appreciation for the beauties of nature and have an affinity for the simple things in life.
And he makes another important point. “Real Vermonters take delight in the mundane absurdities of life and have a sense of humor about it. This capacity is a sly, beneath-the-radar behavior that gets missed unless you have an ear for it and a sense of irony.”
In the end, he boils down his study of the Vermont character to a single sentence that he believes captures the essence of what it means to be a Vermonter. These are familiar qualities, but of exceptional importance for any community. Most Vermonters could probably guess from the foregoing what his single sentence might include. But it would constitute a kind of spoiler to quote that sentence here.
His history of an exceptional family, told with modesty, thoroughness and thoughtfulness by a Vermonter who has come home after many years away, is evidence in itself of what Vermont culture and character consist of.
David Holmes, born in Rutland in 1942, now lives on the shore of Lake Champlain in Panton, a few miles south of the farm his father left behind as a boy in 1923. On a recent visit to the old place in Charlotte, Holmes remarked on how the old black-and-white photos fail to capture the brilliant green of the meadows, the bright blue sky and the blue of the lake and the distant mountains.
“This is what they would have seen,” he said.
He also wondered at the workings of fate. If the farm hadn’t failed in 1923 — if the family had continued to work the land and tend the orchards — David himself, if he had even been born, may have felt compelled to stay on the farm and continue the tradition. He might not have become a teacher at all.
But it didn’t turn out that way. How it turned out is the subject of his book.