Almost Lost

Almost Lost

Cruising down the north-south state highway, Route 12A, you’ll see the landscape typical of many country roads in Vermont: expanses of pasture hugged by the verticals of the Green Mountains and, this time of year, a forest canopy crisped and falling. There are cows grazing, and of course, where there are cows, there are barns, some upright and proud, others leaning into the land like old-timers, weeds clinging to them, trying to coax them to the ground.

There’s a hand-painted sign on that central Vermont road — somewhere in East Granville, between Roxbury and West Braintree — that reads Stickney Farm Lost Nation. Lost Nation — you might have seen the name before on a beer can, or know it as a road in the northern part of the state. But what it is, is not entirely clear. Jennifer Stickney, the farm’s co-owner, says it’s the name given to the land that butts up against their property, called Lost Nation “because there is nothing there.” And while it’s true that there is not much of anything in this low-lying valley the Stickney’s farm, with its five houses and three barns, has been standing for four generations and will remain so, thanks to the family committed to keeping their history intact. 

 Brett Stickney on the land called Lost Nation.

Brett Stickney on the land called Lost Nation.

Before Jennifer and her husband, Brett Stickney, moved to the farm four years ago, it had been occupied by a string of low-income renters and a delinquent caretaker. The last family member to inhabit the property before that had been Margaret Handley, Brett’s great aunt, who passed away in the early nineties. In the intervening two decades, every structure on the land had fallen into disrepair, though in truth, they all had been neglected for the better part of the last century. Brett’s father, Dr. Pete Stickney, had always wanted to move back and revive the family farm but with a thriving medical practice keeping him in Rutland, it was a dream that never came to pass. 

One afternoon about four years ago, Pete, Jennifer and Brett sat down together to make a choice. “It was either sell the property or do something,” recalls Jennifer. And after a half-hour conversation, she and her husband decided they would leave their one-acre plot of land in Pittsford for the 850 acres in East Granville. Pete would provide whatever financial help he could and the farm would finally get the time and care it needed.

It’s not that Jennifer and Brett had any experience restoring let alone running a farm. “We knew nothing,” Jennifer laughs. A born and raised Marylander, Jennifer had a career as an opera singer in Philadelphia. Brett left his Vermont home as a young man to play professional hockey for the Chicago Black Hawks until an injury forced him to quit. After transitioning to a career in financial services, he eventually began telecommuting back in his home state. The two met on a blind date set up by their mothers, who were neighbors in the town of Woodstock. “After one date, it was a done deal,” Jennifer remembers fondly. They married and merged their families — Jennifer and Brett have children from their previous marriages, and a daughter together, born nearly two years ago.

Despite their city sensibilities and limited funds, this enterprising couple set out to bring the Stickney farm back to life. They immediately got to work, tapping 3,000 maple trees, and while they plan to build an arch to boil their own syrup, they can’t afford to quite yet. For now, they’re selling up to 40,000 gallons of maple sap a season.  They’ve also acquired seven Lowline Angus cows, some horses, goats and a flock of chickens. The five houses and the barns are all listed on the Vermont Register of Historic Places and are in need of repair. One of the smaller houses has become home-base for the family, while three others have been fashioned into Airbnb rentals. Doing the best with what we have seems to be the Stickney motto.

Then there is the trio of barns. The first two had strict roles: one, a sawmill, and the other a dairy and sheep barn. The third, built in 1925, was easily the gem of the entire property, a structure so large it served as the dancehall of East Granville back when the talc mine and sawmill made it a boomtown. Thanks to all of this activity, Stickney Farm was a bustling hub back in the day. The old Amtrak line used to run through the field in front of the big barn and the remains of the station are still intact, along with some relics inside­ — an old coat check, a dusty piano, a ticket booth and sign that says “Gentlemen 10 cents, Ladies 5 cents.”

 The old dancehall ticket booth.

The old dancehall ticket booth.

“People would stop at East Granville and party,” explains Jennifer.

But it wasn’t just the barn that has claimed significance in the town’s history. Great-Aunt Margaret Handley was a bona fide local legend. Old newspaper articles deemed her the First Lady of East Granville. She was the town’s postmistress, game warden, constable and the landlord of the farm. Up until her death, Margaret was renting out three of the five houses for $75 a month. Jennifer remarks, “She apparently was a tough old broad but everyone loved her.”

Though Margaret had stalwart qualities, by today’s standards she might have also been characterized as a hoarder. The houses, and the dancehall especially, were bursting with stuff — tons of junk, but also a trove of history: trunks and chests full of old clothing, books and pictures. However, not all of it belonged to the family. The old dancehall had become a storage unit for the entire town. Unfortunately, during the decades of disregard, the barn’s leaky roof caused water damage to many of the old treasures. One upside to the absorbent stash of clothes, furniture and mattresses, was that it saved the floor from ruin.

 Photographs of the last dance in the East Granville dancehall and Margaret Handley.

Photographs of the last dance in the East Granville dancehall and Margaret Handley.

Luckily, amidst the sodden objects there were some salvageable items. In keeping with the barn’s past life, Jennifer wants to throw a big party for the community. She’ll invite all the locals, young and old, and set out the remaining photo albums and books. The hope is to spark some storytelling to fill in gaps of history not told in pictures.  But there’s a long list of to-dos to check off before then, like repairing the barn stairs.

“We were going to try for a barn grant this year but the only one I could find was up to $15,000.” Realistically, more than fifty thousand dollars will be needed to renovate the dancehall. Grants such as the one Jennifer looked into require that the work be contracted, completed and paid for before reimbursement. “Sadly, we simply do not have the resources to do that right now.”

However great the challenges, Jennifer and Brett are full of optimism and energy. They see agritourism as a path to revenue that will enable them to fully revitalize the farm and are working towards making it a wedding and event destination. The dancehall is a prime location for large gatherings and the houses for lodging. Brett’s vision is to become completely sustainable and while there’s a heap of work to be done until then, they’re not shying away from the task. “It’s a great way to live,” says Jennifer. And that’s perhaps the most motivating factor for them.

Thanks to the newest generation of Stickneys, their farm and the historic dancehall of East Granville have another chance to thrive. It may take time, but this piece of history will be spared from becoming lost, like the Nation looming mysteriously behind the farm.

 The East Granville dancehall.

The East Granville dancehall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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