A Resilient Farm Joins Neighbors, College in Writing Next Chapter of Rural Neighborhood

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 4, 2016, by Larry Parnass

Not a lot of people find their way to Poplar Hill Road. Busier roads in Whately cross the plain to the east.

Up in West Whately, there’s less of that rushing about, that passing through. Here, roads loop and turn, up hills and around gullies. They go where farm families needed them to go — and that was often not far at all.

I visited Poplar Hill the first time to visit Olive K. Damon. She and her husband, Alan, had run a dairy farm on the east side of the road, about halfway up before the road turns to dirt and peters out into woods near the Conway line. This was in 1995 and they’d sold the farm years before. Damon, then 83, had turned to the business of recording the history of her life in this hamlet. She’d just written a memoir.

I found my way to her house. We talked about her life on Poplar Hill. “You understand I’m not a writer — and these are not well-written,” Damon told me at the time, speaking of her prose. “It’s all right, in a way, for what it is. And it is all true.”

A few years later, in January 1999, Damon wrote to tell me she was working on a story about a local man known for showing a pair of white oxen at parades and fairs.

“You may not remember having interviewed me several years ago,” she wrote on a small white card that I found in my desk the other day. Its cover bore a tiny pressed flower in a rictus of tiny flattened leaves. “I am Olive Damon, wife of Alan Damon.”

“Though this goes back many years, it may appeal to all ages,” she wrote of his story.

I think the same can be said of Poplar Hill Road itself. Its story goes back years, but as I found this fall, it offers new twists.

Today, scores of young people are making regular journeys to Poplar Hill in the name of science.

And on the old Damon farmstead itself, the root and branch of Olive’s world, two brothers are trying to rekindle a livelihood with cattle. Michael and Peter Mahar now work the land that meant so much to Alan and Olive Damon.

Old Observatory

My first destination on Poplar Hill one morning this fall was the old observatory Smith College operated, home to a radio telescope. One night years ago, for another column, I’d come to hunch beside a Smith professor as he analyzed signals from deep space.

That observatory is now a bit of a relic on the grounds of the Ada & Archibald MacLeish Field Station.

I hiked to the station’s main building, pausing to read a plaque explaining that a warming climate leaves hemlock trees more vulnerable to damage from the wooly adelgid.

The fields around the station had been freshly mown by the Mahar brothers who now run Poplar Hill Farm, the old Damon place. The college swapped land with another neighbor not long ago, and still another lends his tractor to the school.

In that way, longtime residents of Poplar Hill form a kind of ecosystem of their own, finding common cause for this place.

Everyone walks to the field station. It sits well away from a small parking lot, tucked up around a bend so that it can’t be seen from the homes below. But there’s still a wide view back down Poplar Hill from the knot of chairs grouped near a three-stemmed black cherry tree.

Olive knew these vistas well. She used to come up the road to paint landscapes and had been a co-founder of the Williamsburg Brush and Palette Club.

I heard a raven’s croak, then voices coming. A group of Smith students clutching notepads and coffee cups arrived for a session at the station.

Array of Experiments

Reid Bertone-Johnson manages the place for the college. I found him on my second trip in.

A few years after its dedication, the field station is home base for an array of experiments and studies. In one, students have been working on a proposal to Whately’s Conservation Commission on ways to use a new kind of vegetative buffer to keep cow manure, and E.coli bacteria, from tainting a stream.

Other work focuses on invasive species, Bertone-Johnson told me, and on the effects of climate change on Northeast forests. While most of the work involves science, the college uses the field station for the arts as well.

Research aside, the station is building out a trail network on its 260 acres, 210 of which are permanently conserved. The station has constructed four miles of trails, with more planned.

“Smith is taking ownership of its own land more than it had,” Bertone-Johnson said.

The land swap gave seven acres to the Cooney family in exchange for a larger parcel up the road that is wooded.

“We’ve been working pretty well,” Bertone-Johnson said of the relationship between neighbors older and newer. But he concedes that heavier traffic to the station has changed the pace on the road. The college gets calls about how fast its vans are traveling, and the dust they stir up on the dirt section of the road. “They don’t live at the end of a dead-end street any more,” Bertone-Johnson said. “We’re the dead end of the street.”

Down at the parking lot, another little experiment is testing the durability of paving stones that are permeable, allowing rainwater to pass through, reducing runoff. “We’re waiting to see,” Bertone-Johnson said. “Mostly it will be the snowplows that are a real test.”

Working Landscape

The next house down the hill belongs to Peter Crisci and Eleanor Murphy. A contractor was in the yard, putting the pool to bed for the season. The land sits so high here that spots along the road afford grand views of the Mount Holyoke Range.

Murphy said she and Crisci knew the Damons, and miss them. Olive died on Sept. 11, 2003; her husband Alan died in 1999. Gone, but not forgotten. A carpenter they know still has a collection of Olive’s pressed flowers.

“It’s still a strong neighborhood,” she said. “It looked really different when Olive painted up here. It was all agricultural. It was all open.”

The land falls away across the road here, open in pastures but pressed in by trees. The Mahar brothers keep the sense of a working farm landscape alive. Murphy said they’ve come up with a load of manure to help jump-start compost piles. Their cattle provide an ongoing connection to the land.

Murphy says people at her workplace in Springfield always had a hard time grasping what life is like on Poplar Hill, especially after she had to help move errant cows on the way in. “They used to make fun of me coming off the hill.”

Wilsie and Aunt Mert

Olive wouldn’t have been laughing. Her Poplar Hill wasn’t a speck in the distance; it was home and it was everything that mattered. People looked out for one another.

In one of her memoir passages, she described a man named Wilsie and his partner, Aunt Mert.

“Wilsie was a quiet, stocky man who held his pants up with a pair of wide suspenders. Aunt Mert was of medium height and very spry. She always wore a cotton print dress covered with a dark-colored bib apron. She had red hair which she arranged in a bun on top of her head.”

Wilsie and Aunt Mert ran Poplar Hill Farm before the Damons. The chain of stewardship goes back years and years on hill farms.

When Olive became pregnant with her son, Alan Jr., she looked to Aunt Mert for advice. Alan grew up with two homes, his mom’s and Aunt Mert’s. “She was totally deaf but by the time our baby could talk, he could make her understand him. If her back was turned, he attracted her attention by stamping his foot. She read his lips.”

When Alan wandered down the street, Aunt Mert would hang one of Wilsie’s red handkerchiefs on the back door as a signal to Olive. “Their doors were never locked,” Olive wrote of the couple. “He walked right in. He would go to the back pantry, off the living room, reach up on a shelf, drag down a bag of building blocks, carry them to the living room, dump them out on the linoleum floor and play with them while Wilsie and Aunt Mert watched him.”

Later, on his way home from school, Alan would stop at Aunt Mert’s for a snack. “She looked forward to this time of day and fretted if the bus was late. She always saw his report card before we did and any other papers he brought home. Also any news he picked up at school. He then continued his trek up the hill to Poplar Hill Farm. This continued until Pete was 11 years old, when she died. She and Wilsie were buried in the nearby West Whately cemetery. We planted a lilac bush at their grave.”

Alan Jr. grew up and moved away. He earned a master’s degree at Pratt Institute in New York City and taught studio art there for 20 years. In 1999, he lost both his father and his longtime companion; he moved back to Poplar Hill Road after retiring in 2002, a year before his mother died. Alan died in 2005.

Hardscrabble Farming

Gabriel Cooney was in his photography studio when I stopped by the other day. He and his wife live in the next house down from Crisci and Murphy.

He’s been watching as the Mahar brothers dig in. “We have every good wish for the farm to succeed,” he told me.

Cooney’s parents arrived on the road in 1943. They settled into a life of hardscrabble New England farming. Cooney’s mother, Blanche, wrote a well-known book about the couple’s life, “In My Own Sweet Time.” He loaned a copy to me.

The place his parents bought included buildings and 200 acres. “My mother describes it as arriving at a small village,” Cooney said. Pigs ran wild. “My father was a visionary and he would have easily seen past the stench.”

Given his father James’ radical politics and literary ways, Cooney says the family’s arrival may have raised eyebrows. “My father was probably a puzzlement to the other farmers.”

Cooney said he had grown concerned when the college seemed to lose interest in its property at the end of the road. “We worried about its fate as it fell into disuse … that the trustees would look at the ledger and ask, ‘We own how many acres of land in West Whately?’”

But the college, it turns out, didn’t give up. It dug in, reinvesting in the station. Cooney worked out his land swap, which gave his family the ability to care for two fields in front of the homestead.

Tending the Herd

Down the road at the farm, Michael Mahar came out of the old Damon place to explain what he and his brother Peter are doing with Poplar Hill Farm. It was lunchtime, when people in rural places drift back to the farmhouse.

I mentioned that I’d come to see Olive Damon years ago in her house across the street. Michael, who is 30, said he remembered reading pages of her memoir.

He might find her husband Alan’s old journals even more compelling. Olive had told me that she’d kept a diary since she was a teenager. Alan recorded details of farm life for half a century.

The rhythms of their world remain. A late-season cut of hay lay wrapped in white plastic bales.

The Damons were stewards of the farm for 42 years after buying it in 1937. Olive’s memoir describes how much work the house needed.

The Mahar family bought the Damon farm in 1979. Father Tom ran it until 1998, when he sold off his herd and paid the mortgage in full.

Today, his sons manage a herd of about 85 Black Angus and Hereford cows and hope to increase it to 150 through breeding. They sell to outlets around the region, including Sutter Meats in Northampton.

Across the main lot, a new 40-by-100-foot equipment shed was rising to protect the farm’s tractors and gear from the weather. That project is the essence of looking ahead. The brothers are financing the project through a new state fund that allows farms to sell development rights for 10 years as a way to raise needed cash.

“You couldn’t do it without it,” Michael Mahar said of the funding program. “It would take so long before you can make any money.” That observation pins Poplar Hill Farm to the past. Michael has a side business in composting and his brother works a full-time job in addition to the full week he puts in farming.

I was there to see what’s new. One change is the amount of traffic passing the farm to reach the field station. “When I was a kid there was no traffic on this street,” Mahar told me. Poplar Hill, he said, was just far enough from everywhere to be its own place, but close enough not to take a day to get groceries. “Most people don’t know about it, which is nice.”

Legacy, Inspiration

A few days later, I found Peter at the farm. He’d come to feed the stock one weekday afternoon after working his other job, with Triple B. Blasting in Whately.

The Damon era isn’t lost on him, not by a long shot. Peter says he takes inspiration from the mark the late Alan Damon left on this land, evidence of which remains. We walked across the lot to look at the site of the new equipment shed. He pointed up the hill to where Damon once built a sawmill on sloping land.

“He was a jack of all trades and a wicked smart guy,” Peter Mahar told me.

Now, it’s his turn, with Michael, to think their way to success. But as their side jobs attest, it isn’t easy to turn enough of a profit to support families – or even two brothers.

“It’s really hard to make a living for two people here,” he said.

The farm’s 140 acres aren’t quite enough to raise all the grass and corn the herd consumes. So the brothers pull hay from a 30-acre parcel in Conway and from other acreage in West Whately.

But they are invested by history as well as their new loan commitments. “It’s always been a big part of me and my brother’s life,” Peter said of Poplar Hill Farm.

After the equipment shed is done, the next project may be a new feeding facility able to accommodate the growing herd. “We’re kind of maxed out now.” The new farm program gives them working capital and options they wouldn’t have under the permanent sale of development rights.

“Instead of selling it all forever, in 10 years we can do it again if we choose to. Once the development rights are gone, that’s it,” Peter Mahar said. “Not that I would ever want to see houses in a million years.”

Thoughts like that can’t help but wind the clock back, to the Damon era, and he decided to share one with me.

It concerned the day the Damons had packed up and were ready to move out of the farmhouse to the smaller house that Alan had built across the street, where I’d visited with Olive.

“They put everything in a manure spreader and moved it up,” Peter said.

Practical, yes. Self-reliant, of course.

But probably not as rank as you might believe.

“They washed it out, I think,” Mahar said. “I think Olive would have made them wash it out.”

Larry Parnass can be reached at