ROGER DONEGAN | May 28, 2020
A curious offhand comment I heard upon first visiting Hinesburg in 1976 alluded to something called “barn talk,” a time that coincides with the first meeting of my future father-in-law, Howard H. Russell, the patriarchal namesake of the Russell Family Farm.
An initial impression of Hinesburg leaves newcomers at awe with a genuine sense of Vermont wholesomeness.
So, I was more than all ears regarding a place, in a barn particularly, where a brand of talk, allegedly a type of cussing, took place beyond earshot of house and home. What’s more, I gathered the expletive- laden speech was perfectly fine as long as it stayed in the barn.
Buttressing my personal memory is an article titled: “Students Are Learning About Hinesburg” (Burlington Free Press, May 13, 1976). The piece was an interview of Howard as an oral history project by eighth-graders of the Hinesburg Elementary School’s bicentennial project on farming, education and architecture. The young interviewers’ tools included pen and paper, a tape recorder and flashbulb popping cameras. The article was as much about the eighth-graders’ mission that day as an interview of Howard H. Russell. The article accompanied a large close-up photo taken on the spur of the moment of two students within a hand’s reach of an untethered, rambunctious, solid looking 3-day old 3/4 Morgan horse colt as the center of attention. Howard, dressed in jeans, a short sleeve athletic T-shirt, and a UVM Class of ’39 ball cap, stood nearby ready to intervene if needed.
Howard, of course, was born on the farm. He graduated from UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and taught that subject for a short time. He operated the family farm most of his life, one unfortunately cut short at age 65 by a tragic barn accident in November 1983. Meeting Howard left good impressions as well. He loved, and was beloved by, family, friends, neighbors, the neighbor’s children and new people alike. Gertrude, his mother, once shared with me privately as he was heading off down the driveway on a tractor that he was always helping somebody when he had plenty to do himself. He was an attractive man with a calm voice and an infectious laugh. He’d chuckle at the mention of a humorous, long running feature in the agricultural journals called “The Song of the Lazy Farmer,” author(s) actually left unidentified or “unknown” by the publications, as he knew there couldn’t be such a person.
Howard was muscular but very lean, and had outsized calloused hands that came with farm life. He had a nervous energy. While standing still in work clothes he’d sometimes exhibit an upper body twitch, which might be described as appearing to hike up his pants that slipped about his waist with his elbows. Compared to most he had lots of body hair except for on the top of his head, a contrast in appearance which came up in conversation from time to time. Howard would tell the story — and if he told a story once he’d tell it often — that took place in the church foyer.
It was of a time when people dressed formally for Sunday service.
As he described it, while standing in the foyer wearing a jacket, tie and a white shirt, the woman with whom he was conversing subconsciously reached out and plucked a hair off his shirt. He jumped a little, looked at her calmly, and said “that one was attached” before erupting into laughter which unintentionally mortified the woman on the spot.
I once asked Howard if he had ever been to a big city. His response was “no,” which he seemed proud to say. He’d cross into Canada to look at horses, but not to Montreal. He had never been to Boston to see a major sports team play in a stadium like the Boston Patriots. However, he was a participating member of the Masonic Patriot Lodge No. 33 here in Hinesburg.
However, no one should be surprised he’d venture as far as Newport, Rhode Island in 1979 to visit his one and only daughter and most recent grandson. We lived in Navy housing while I was assigned to a destroyer escort, a “tin can” as sailors are want to say. The Navy had re-designated the ship class as “fast frigates” with the stroke of a pen in 1975. Yet it was more akin to a floating V-8 engine block than an empty tin can which makes its buoyancy all the more puzzling. I wanted to show Howard our boiler room, aka, the fireroom on board. Size wise the fireroom was infinitely larger than any “room” in a house, having three floors or levels of its own within the lowest structural compartment of the hull. Despite being jam packed with pipes, valves and machinery, Howard still wanted to peer below the lowest level deck plates, something an inspecting officer or Navy brass liked to do. If the bilges, usually awash with some amount of water, were at least clean of oil and fuel, then the fireroom, manned by watch standers, was considered satisfactory and a credit to personnel.
I didn’t “swear like a sailor” as the saying goes, certainly not in company, but I heard plenty. I wondered how barn talk compared to sailors’ salty language. Although not all expressions passed down are foul mouthed, some actually amount to tradition. Consider the saying “a clean bill of health.” “This widely used term has its origins in the document once issued to a ship showing that the port it sails from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.” (“Salty Words,” Robert Hendrickson, 1984).
Howard had many expressions or running comments to hold up his end of the conversation. He’d say such things as “hard work will take the starch out of you” or he’d share “so and so was a wonderful person but it took all a man’s religion to live with her” then laugh. Or “if someone was going to be a gentleman farmer then he just might as well go off to the legislature.” I only made it into the barn a few times with Howard, as I was usually somewhere between being a novice and useless.
I never did hear him utter an ill word.
On one occasion I heard him say in the midst of a job that something “was heavier than a dead minister” which put me at odds as to what that meant. I later found the expression in a collection of American colloquialisms so it’s not likely an original piece of Hinesburg barn talk. As to meaning I only get so far as a vision of six skinny hard-working lifelong farmers carrying the casket of their deceased minister.