The Rivers' Lodge on the Hill
I was brought up to believe that if you worked diligently you could get ahead and rewarded with the finer things in life. I grew up on a small farm located in the hills of Vermont. It had been settled in the late seventeen hundreds by my great, great, great grandfather, Jonathan Rivers, and the family has lived on the land continuously ever since.
I was the fifth generation that has occupied it since it was settled. I was also named after my ancestor who first cleared the land. We were a particularly long-lived clan, but as far as children were concerned, we were not prolific. Usually there were only one and at the most two children in each generation, except for my grandfather's.
While I was growing up, my grandfather lived with us. He had a little room off the kitchen containing just a bed, a chair and dresser. My father and mother occupied a bedroom upstairs and I occupied a room in the attic. My sister occupied the other bedroom on the second story near my mother and father.
I remember her as being a happy person, whom everyone doted on. Unfortunately, she contracted polio and passed away when she was eleven. It is sad, because the next year the Salk vaccine became widely used and I am sure she would be with us today if only it was perfected a year or two sooner.
As I say, my grandfather lived with us. He was old, or seemed so when I was a child. When he could only get around with difficulty, he would ask me to come in to talk with him. He did most of the talking. He was always telling about my ancestors. He had three brothers, him being the youngest. In the late eighteen nineties, his three brothers got the "gold bug" and headed for Alaska. Word from them filtered back over the next several years, but within ten years, they had all died in one tragedy or another. Grandpa was sixteen at the time they left home.
This threw the working of the farm onto him at an early age. His father, my great grandfather, had married late in life so he was already old at that time. My great grandmother was young when her other sons left, but she was soon worn down trying to manage the place with her young son. She passed away in her mid forties, about the same time as her husband who was in his early eighties.
My grandfather married in nineteen-nineteen and my father was born not many years later. He married early the same as I did when I met Brenda. My father died in an accident just a few years after Brenda and I were married.
The condition of the farm had steadily deteriorated over the last hundred years. Some of the fields have grown up to brush. One pasture is ready to harvest saw logs. When I married Brenda, the only open land was a twenty-acre field and a fifteen-acre pasture. I worked off the farm part time while trying to raise a little beef.
I was lucky to attract a fine loving woman for a wife. We had great plans to restore the farm to the condition it was in the late eighteen hundreds. Brenda's parents settled a sum on us when we were married and I used this to invest in equipment that is more modern and a large shed to store it. We converted the largest dairy barn into open housing and started raising a few beef cattle. It wasn't feasible or necessary to tie the creatures up and all they needed was to have a place out of the cold New England weather.
After trying for several years, I realized that I was just turning one dollar over for another and at the end of the year I didn't have anything more than I started with. This was when I took a full time job in town and began to reduce my herd until I did not have any stock left. In a way, I hated to leave Brenda and Ben every day, but there was food on the table and the taxes were now being paid on time. My mother, Selma, now in her sixties lives in the room where I used to spend time listening to my grandfather tell stories.
When I sold the last livestock, my mother, Brenda, and I, sat down, and analyzed why I wasn't able to make a go of the farming business. Actually looking at why the farm hadn't been able to expand in the last hundred years or so. First, there wasn't enough land to make a go of making it a paying proposition. Second, we concluded that there weren't enough hands to do the work and complete all of the necessary tasks.
A certain malaise had settled over us as well. Mom was still a vibrant person. There was always work to do at home and she never had time to develop outside interests. Brenda stayed at home with our son Ben, and was in much the same situation as my mother. She did keep the big garden and did the minor repairs on the place. She worked along beside me when we got wood and did much of the sugaring in the spring.
It was always a matter of catching up, but not enough hands to expand the farm. Brenda and I had a son to educate. We had hopes that Ben would be with us on the home place to carry on the tradition of being close to the land. I felt we had been good land stewards, but it didn't look as it was to continue much longer.
Moreover, to us then came the biggest disappointment of all. Ben had no interest in the land. As soon as he was old enough, he spent his time elsewhere. His explanation was that he was a "people person" and didn't want to be stuck up there in the hills with no one with whom to converse. He soon married, worked his way though college, and started a family. Maybe our hopes would be in the next generation.
You know, for all his high priced salary, he was always in debt, because living with people he had to keep up with them. I think I sleep better at night with my bills all paid, than he does with all of his toys and modern gadgets. He will have a credit card that cost fifteen percent and higher on the balance, until the end of time. This story is not about him though. I was just laying some background of what was to come.
Our house was an old Vermont farmhouse. It had never been enlarged because the family size never required it. It had eight rooms with an attic. The attic was where I slept as a child until my sister had died. Even after she passed, I preferred the privacy that the attic offered. The house is in the shape of an "L." The main structure consisted of foursquare rooms down, i.e. a parlor, one large bedroom, a dining room and a living room. Over these were two huge bedrooms. Originally, the leg of the "ell" formed a huge kitchen on the ground floor with the attic up. A very small bedroom and bathroom had been carved out of the kitchen, where my grandfather slept when I was growing up.
After I was married and my father passed on, this is where my mother slept. In the summer, the whole kitchen was open, but in the winter two thirds of it was closed to conserve heat. A covered porch extended out from the main house and went the length of the kitchen "ell."
There is a huge set of barns. When the homestead was developed, it was planned to be a dairy farm. This called for a big barn because of the necessary storage of loose hay. There was a horse barn for both draft animals and a driving team. Set away from these two barns, there was a hen house and a hog house.
At that time, enough land was cleared to support sixteen to twenty milking cows, and six to eight head of young stock for their replacements. The farm had reached its peak during my great-grandfather's generation, before my great uncles had gone to Alaska. Since that time, more and more open land gave way to brush and finally grew into woodland. It was not that the land was unproductive, it was that there wasn't the manpower to handle all of the work. Now here I am, my wife and I forty years old and my mother in her sixties.
What to do? I loved this place. I had two hundred years of history behind me. Much of this history was at my fingertips in the form of every record and transaction ever made, recorded in journals down through the years. Also, being frugal Vermonters, most every piece of equipment and all the old tools were packed into the barns and sheds. Some of the buildings you could barely get into, they were so full.
Every evening after I returned from my job in town, the subject came up, of what to do? Repairs on the buildings were needed. Brush was encroaching on the one large field that was open. Even with the time-saving tools we could afford, we got behind. It made no sense to hire outside labor. I could do most of the work if I had the time, but I also needed the income from outside. Brenda did drive the tractor, but disliked working with it.
We had to try something and soon! Brenda often declared it was so pointless living the way we were. I even heard her tell a neighbor that she wished she could chuck it all and go somewhere--anywhere. Mother came up with an idea that seemed attractive last winter while we were mulling over what to do. We made the decision to turn the farm into a lodge. We knew that in the earliest part of the century, when it was difficult to travel, people came and stayed at a lodge for months at a time. It was at least worth investigating.
First, we had to find out if we could get the permits. We had to see what we needed to bring our proposed "lodge" up to code. Of course, if the expense were too great, then the whole project would never get off the ground. Brenda and mother were good cooks and the house was clean and neat. Much of the furniture was antique, sturdy, and serviceable. Even the couch in the living room would be fine for a few years.
Our food was not what you would call fancy, but it was certainly wholesome. That took care of the food preparation problem. Then we discussed if we would need entertainment. We decided we would not, because we were only providing lodging. With today's mobility, entertainment was everywhere within a short drive.
When we went to see about a permit to open a lodge, the biggest drawback was not enough bathrooms. The one small bathroom in the ell was located off the kitchen and that wouldn't be permitted close to where food was being prepared.
What we came up with was to dismantle that bathroom and move it up into the attic next to the upstairs bedrooms and make it much larger. The room in the attic would only be used for family, so we planned a ¾ bath beside the other one. Mother, who still had the small bedroom off the kitchen, would now have to use the new one off the parlor and living room in the front of the house. Another ¾ bath backed up to that main facility.
Brenda and I planned to move from the downstairs bedroom to quarters in the attic. We did make it almost as nice as the regular bedrooms. Thus, we ended up with three rooms to rent out to lodgers.
We decided that we would go to the expense and do the plumbing and I hired a contractor for this. Then we looked at the kitchen and thought we would have to update this also. The range was fine, but we certainly would need a larger refrigerator. In addition, we needed a new larger, more modern sink and the need to install more cupboards and storage space.
When it came to serving the meals, we decided it would be in the kitchen where most of the action is anyway. There was an oak worktable that had been used originally for a butcher's cutting bench in one of the sheds. It had been large enough to bring in a small beef or sizable hog to process. Twelve to fourteen people could be easily seated around it.
It was more than a century old and heavy. It was not too fancy, but I took care of that by smoothing the planks with a portable plane and then did a lot of scrollwork with a router on the legs. To finish it up, I put a nice ogee edge around the top. When I finished it looked custom made and pretty damned nice.
April came and we were well on our way to seeing our way to have lodgers installed by sometime this June. It was time to advertise. We decided to place an ad in some of the papers distributed in the New York City area. Not knowing what we really wanted for lodgers, we wrote a pretty broad classified ad, as follows:
Do you want to get out of the city for the summer?
Would you like to spend time in the country?
New Vermont facility needs lodgers.
Tranquility w/beautiful view.
$450 per week/single
$725 per week/couple
Room and all meals included.
Possible working arrangement to defray cost.
We waited for replies--and we received many replies. Dozens of them. I guess we could have put up a hundred guests if we had the room. I wished we could take more than the three to fill the bedrooms. My wife took care of the phone calls. I looked at the E-Mails. We took names and addresses from all of them and said we would contact them within three days.
We went through the list, not rejecting any out of hand. One call that Brenda had taken, had impressed her, even though the English was broken. She said that we had to have this person. He told her his name was Ho Lee and that he was originally from Vietnam. He had been a farmer. He wondered if he could maybe have a garden.
The church group that settled him in this country integrated him into a city community that had some of his countrymen living there. He was desperate to get back to working with his hands in soil. He had been saving his money working as a set-up person to a chef in a major restaurant. Would we please consider him, so he could at least get away from the grunge of the city for a while?
Two other E-mails interested me. One was an inquiry from a man and wife, Sarah and Bob. Both had a farming background and wanted to get out of the city. They grew up in the Midwest and estranged from their families. The other E-mail that was of interest was from a young unmarried couple, Joni and Rich. Joni was employed by a magazine that published stories about early Americana. She did research and thought that our lodge sounded like a good base from where to work.
Rich, though not an artist, was good at sketching, and did work on her articles to illustrate them. I did not find out what his business was. They wondered if it was a problem if they shared a room. I answered the inquiry with a no. However, I knew I might have an argument with my mother because she was somewhat straight-laced.
These were the people we settled on to be our lodgers. I notified the other applicants that we were full, but would keep their names on file. Ho Lee, when we confirmed his reservation, asked if he could come earlier than when we said we were going to open. He would like to come before the middle of May. I informed him that we were not ready for guests, but if he wanted to help us get things ready, we would give him a reduced rate, and find him a room in which to bunk.
On May 13, the day started out with bad weather. In addition, we were concerned about what we had started. We were having a late spring and nothing was done outside yet to spruce up the farm. The lawn needed raking, and the shrubs needed pruning. We did not want to have guests show up and then have them not stay. It would take too long to get a replacement.
Our doorbell rang about eleven in the morning. Standing there was a small oriental man, about forty we guessed, but hard to determine. He informed us that he was Ho Lee. We did not know it then, but our life changed dramatically at that moment.
Our kitchen had been the first room to be completed. Ho Lee took a tour around the room, inspecting the equipment and appliances. Nodding his approval and smiling all over, he said, "Very good!" His language was accented, but we could easily understand him. Mother, set in her ways, thought that Ho Lee was over-stepping his bounds a bit by giving his approval to our kitchen. I told her if that was bad, wait until one of our lodgers started complaining about something.
Brenda took him upstairs to the room that was to be his. This was one of the rooms with a shared bath. It didn't seem like Ho had much for belongings. He had a duffel bag and one small suitcase. I asked if he had anything else coming later he said, "No." Ho wanted to take a look around the farm. It was raining slightly. He dug a poncho out of his duffel bag and we went outside.
The first thing that impressed him was the garden spot. I usually plow the ground in the fall. Over the winter, the sod breaks down and it is easier to ready-up for seeds in the spring. The area I had plowed was nearly an acre because we raised quite a bit of corn. He could not believe the garden would be so big. He said the size of his whole farm in Vietnam was not that big.
We next walked into the barns and sheds, those that we could get into. Upstairs in the barn where the horses had been stabled was empty of feed. The hay had been fed out and never replaced. It was an awkward place to pitch hay into and certainly dusty as well.
Then I showed him the hen house and the shed where hogs had been penned. All of the old tools were in these buildings. As I said, nothing was ever thrown away. Even the sticking knives and scrapers had been oiled, packed in a box, and stored in the hog house.
Lunch was simple. We had sandwiches and tea. Afterward we sat around and related what our lives had been like. I must say Ho's life until now, had been filled with trials and tribulations. His first wife and son were killed when they were escaping near the northern border of his homeland.
After the United States had withdrawn and the North had taken over, he had retreated into the mountains. He was quite young and tried to make a living at a little farm. He was happy, and eventually found another woman for a wife and they had a child. However, he had a disagreement with a neighbor over a pig. The neighbor went to an army post and said that he knew where a man who was a spy lived.
Long story short, he and his family tried to escape over the border into Thailand. His wife was shot and his new baby soon died of sickness after he reached a refugee camp. A church group made it possible for him to immigrate to the United States shortly thereafter.
For the last two years, he had been saving his money, hoping to get out into the country. He said he had enough funds to carry him for the next six weeks here at the lodge. He hoped by growing a garden he could stay longer. If not, maybe we would help him find some work on a farm in this area.
At first, I was disappointed that we didn't have a lodger for the whole summer, but we might just gain a friend if we helped him. Brenda then gave him a tour of the whole house before she started to prepare dinner. Selma, my mother, thought Ho came from a violent country and we would be murdered in our beds.
Selma did relent from being so displeased when Ho pitched in to prepare dinner. He looked in our spice cabinet, and laid out some items that we seldom used. When she went to get the salad together, he asked if he could help. Mother had always been proud of her salads, but as long as he asked she said, "Why didn't he make it up tonight."
Where she had put the ingredients in a big bowl and dumped the dressing on top, he did it differently. He put together little individual plates and arranged the vegetables, so there was some pattern. Then he mixed up a dressing using the spices he had set out. The salads certainly looked attractive when we came to sit down, and the dressing was pure ambrosia.
When we sat down to eat, Ho asked if he could give the blessing. Blessing at dinner had been kind of a haphazard proposition at our house. Usually it was during the holidays and when we had some company we wanted to impress.
Occasionally when something good had happened, we said we were going to say Grace every day. It always was neglected as the pressures of the day eventually took over. I guess this reminded us that we should pay attention. It could not hurt us and might do us some good.
Brenda and I lay in bed that night, talking about our new guest. This was actually the first night we had slept in the attic as we had been sleeping above the parlor, so it was difficult to get to sleep. We laughed how Ho had impressed mother. The look on her face when she took her first taste of that salad was precious. We had doubted they would get along very well but if he could make food taste like he had tonight, she might soften.
I was very much impressed and said I would go to bat for him even if mother didn't like him. We agreed that if we came to like him and saw what kind of person he was, we would gladly recommend him to a near-by farm so he could stay in the area. A germ of an idea was already floating around in my mind. I decided I would keep it to myself for the present.
The next morning we didn't hear anything from the new lodger's room. We figured he must be tired. As we put breakfast on the table, he came in the door from outside. I was surprised because we did not think he was even out of bed, but instead had been out planning his garden.
After breakfast, he asked what I was going to do today. I said the main thing we had to get ready was a fire escape to the two upper floor bedrooms. I was going to build narrow stairs from the porch, through the porch roof and then cut an entrance into the upper hall. The stairs would be enclosed above the roof, and weather tight.
I was not much of a carpenter but knew I could do an adequate job. Ho wasn't much help with the sketch I drew, but when we got ready to cut the openings, he tackled that energetically. We then moved the materials for the stairs from the barn and started building.
By evening, we had the major portion roughed in. I had done the measuring and sawing and Ho did the nailing. The next morning I went to town and purchased clapboards for the outside and enough shingles to roof the enclosure. In two days we had it all completed. I couldn't believe it. I knew it would have taken me more than a week to do alone, and here I was all finished.
I had a discussion with Ho after we finished the stair project. First, I wanted to pay him wages for what he had done. He wouldn't hear of it. He said he was enjoying himself and after being cooped up in a restaurant, day in and day out, this was a vacation. Working with me was not all he was doing either.
He was up before breakfast working on the plants around the house. He was shaping the decorative plants that had been planted over the years. A lot of them were perennials that were gifts from friends and relatives. We, or my parents, had stuck them in where we thought they would look good. Ho asked if he could move them around. He said it would do them good and revitalize them. I said go for it.
Brenda and I talked every night, feeling we were in Ho's debt. Ho came up with the answer himself. He asked one day what I had planned for the empty loft in the old horse barn. I said I had no particular plans. He told me he was not used to the fine room where we had put him. He wanted to clean up the barn and live in the loft.
He said if he could, he would build us the finest garden this summer we had ever seen. That way we could find another paying guest for the room we had assigned him. In addition, we would have all of the vegetables that would be needed for our table as they ripened. I felt I was coming out with the best deal.
We finally came to the agreement that I would furnish the seed and supplies he needed. He was to grow what he thought we could use in the kitchen. He said there would be extra. This could be either peddled to the restaurants downtown or sold at the local farmers' market. He insisted that we would split even any cash he took in. This would more than pay me back for the cost of getting started.
We had a week of good weather and he was able to get his seed bed in order. Ho would hardly take enough time off to eat. From daylight to dark, he was out there working the soil. Brenda and mother helped clean the hayloft in the barn. Most of it was removing dust. There was tons of dust and chaff from the old hay that had been stored over many years. When they finished they agreed the dust would never stop coming out of the cracks in the floor and walls.
We had already had some trees cut to make lumber to use as we needed it to make repairs. I had an old Bellsaw planer, so I planed enough pine boards for the floor. Ho did not need the entire loft so I walled off the area he wanted. I went into town and got some paneling that made the room good and light. I used extra paneling on the ceiling and we painted this white. There was only one window, but he said it was enough.
The whole job was quick, easy, and cheap. He was ecstatic. He still used the bathroom facilities in the house. We also found out that he was deeply religious. He set up a stand with a Bible and pictures of his dead wife and son in one corner of his room. He didn't have any of his first family as he lost them all in his flight. When he gave Grace at mealtimes, he was so serious about it, you just knew he was talking to the Lord.