What do you get when you cross a dairy farmer with an English teacher? You get Jan and Bill from Gilbertsville, New York. This past weekend they took a break from their busy lives to spend a couple nights at Fern Forest Treehouse.
Never heard of Gilbertsville? I hadn’t either. A little over three hours northwest of New York City near Cooperstown, Gilbertsville has a population of fewer than four hundred citizens. Just one square mile in size, during the late 19th and early 20th century the town was a summer retreat for wealthy city slickers. The Major’s Inn, built on the site of Gilbertsville’s founder, is a 55-room historic mansion in English Tudor style. Nearby, a stone bridge arcs gracefully over Butternut Creek.
Bill’s organic dairy farm is just outside town. At 75, he is the 4th generation to run the farm. A confirmed bachelor all his life, he’s about to pass the business on to his nephew, who pretty much runs the show now.
Since the houses on the farm are occupied by family members, Bill has moved into town with Jan, his fiancée, whom he first met eons ago. Bill had graduated from the University of Vermont and like a lot of college grads, he had no clue what to do with his life. So he went back home to Gilbertsville. The tiny K-12 school needed a math and science teacher, and Bill volunteered. Jan was a seventh grader and developed a mad crush on her handsome teacher, but of course he was out of her reach.
Years went by. Jan got married, moved to Massachusetts, and had three children. When her marriage broke up, she moved back to Gilbertsville and took a job teaching English to tenth and twelfth graders. Bill had taught only a couple years before he went back to farming. One day when they ran into each other downtown, sparks flew.
Bill is a good-looking guy with a wry sense of humor. He walks with a limp from a sledding accident when he was seventeen. The sled went out of control and rammed into barbed wire and a guardrail, mangling his leg. After many surgeries, he gets around pretty well, going up to the farm twice a day to help milk sixty cows and muck out the bedding.
When I asked Bill about best and worst experiences he’s had farming, he said, “There are agonies and ecstasies.” He gave me the worst of farming first—seeing the legs of one of his cow’s give way beneath her and not be able to gain her feet again, and calling the vet come to put her down.
“What about the ecstasies?” I asked.
“Watching a calf being born,” he said. Later, after he and Jan had come back from dinner, he sat and sipped a bourbon with Harry and me.
“I thought of some other ecstasies,” he said.
I asked what they are.
“A cleanly hayed field,” he said. “And smooth-running farm machinery.”
One of Bill's tasks on the farm is maintaining the machinery. He has seven tractors, all running quite well. After breakfast the next morning, Harry took him down to the tractor shed to look at his 1950 Ford 9N.
“Left tire’s on backwards,” Bill told him. The treads on the tires were pointing opposite directions. “Can’t get good traction that way.”
When Harry started up the tractor, Bill asked for a screwdriver and tinkered with the carburetor to give the old girl a sweeter growl.
It occurs to me that a farmer has to have lots of skills. He has to know animal husbandry, veterinary techniques, nutrition, mechanics, and the business of marketing milk products. But Bill’s also a philosopher. He deals daily with life and death and with the joys and sorrows of life. I’m not sure what keeps him going, but I suspect Jan has something to do with it. They’ve been hanging out together for twenty years, and last year Bill gave her a ring. No wedding date yet, but it seems as though they have plenty of time.