Hilltown Postcards

Hilltown Postcard: A Potato Farm Goes Barren

For decades, the town of Worthington could set its calendar by what was happening at Albert Farms. In the spring, when the ground was warm and dry enough, seed potatoes were planted in its fields. The plants sprouted, grew, and blossomed. In summer the farmworkers cultivated the fields and later in the season, sprayed a chemical to kill the vines that left a stink in the air.

Then, in September, harvesters, large and ship-like, crisscrossed the fields for weeks. Women keeping mother’s hours, teenagers after school, and those working full-time hours did the dirty job separating rocks and potatoes aboard the shaking machines. I learned that firsthand because when I was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, I went on one for a feature story.

Migrant workers brought up from the South used to do the work. Until the harvest got mechanized, they dug potatoes by hand. The workers lived in a camp with Quonset huts on Prentice Road, near the farm’s highest field called the Old Smith Farm.

According to news sources, one man died of pneumonia and dysentery from the unsanitary conditions, and the state closed the camp after a fire destroyed the quarters where the women and children lived, so the workers were located elsewhere. Health officials said the farm would have to put in flush toilets and make other improvements. Instead, the farm began hiring local people.

When we moved to town, Ben Albert, the second generation, ran the farm although several family members worked with him. His father Alberie Albert founded it in the twenties.

After the state, Ben was the town’s biggest landowner. He also owned acreage elsewhere in the hilltowns. That status carries a certain weight in a small town. I once heard an old-timer say at a hearing she trusted Ben to do what’s best for his land. We newcomers who had seen the places we once lived damaged by that sort of thinking were skeptical. Anyway that kind of influence was waning in the eighties. So was Ben Albert’s business.

A couple of years after we moved to town, Ben’s massive warehouse burned in an early morning blaze, so out of control by time the volunteer firefighters arrived, the flames could be seen in the next town. Faulty wiring was likely to blame, the state fire marshal said.

The damages amounted to about a half-million, including the loss of seed potatoes for that spring’s planting and farm equipment. Worse, the water used by firefighters to douse the flaming mess unknowingly released nearly a ton of pesticide, Temik, from its barrels. The chemical flowed downhill, contaminating the wells of several homes, but the state bailed out Ben and the town by paying to extend a town water line.

Ben tried making money off his land in another way. He wanted to put in a subdivision of luxury homes clustered in one of the farm’s prettiest fields, across the road from the warehouse, which he never rebuilt. People in town joked Ben should call it Temik Acres. But the town told him no.

He also tried, twice, to build homes near the old airstrip, the one he used to launch planes for crop-dusting. Each house would have a hangar and the road would double as a runway. The people living nearby weren’t crazy about small planes flying in and out of their neighborhood. The town said no, twice, to that idea, too.

One morning in 1990, around 6 a.m., I got a call from Ben. He didn’t identify himself, but I recognized his voice. He wanted me to know about his case in federal court against Frito-Lay. I was a reporter then, covering a bunch of small towns for the Gazette, working out of my home, which I called the Hilltown bureau.

Ben was always the source I couldn’t get on the phone. “Sorry, don’t know when he’ll be back,” the woman who answered the office phone would say although I suspected he was sitting in the same room. Once, to get his comment for a story, about Temik Acres, incidentally, I drove around town in the rain until I spotted him in a field, and he was surprised when I walked, notebook in hand, toward him.

But Ben wanted to talk now. He had done business for 20 years with Frito-Lay, but he said the chip giant reneged on a shipment of seed potatoes, 17,700-hundredweight bags, for the 1985 growing season and a contract to buy part of his harvest. By that time, it was too late for him to find other seed to plant. It was a blow to the farm, and Ben had to sell pieces of his land to pay his creditors.

I went to the federal courthouse in Springfield a couple of times for his case. Frito-Lay’s take was that it didn’t have to give Ben the seed or buy his potatoes. Its lawyers said the farm had already been losing money. Ben sued for $1.1 million, and after a month of tedious testimony about potato farming, he was awarded $248,000.

Also that year, the state bought the development rights to the Jones Lot, the largest of the farm’s fields, 286 acres in the Four Corners section. It meant the parcel would be preserved as farmland. He got a half-million from the state, but that wasn’t enough money to fix his problems.

Six years later, Ben filed for bankruptcy after racking up over four million in debt, about half of that owed to the federal government. Albert Farms owed the town more back taxes than anyone.

Ben Albert told me he would never plant potatoes again. “Let it all go to weeds,” he said, but he did try growing soybeans and sunflowers.

The following year, he lost the field on Prentice Road, the Old Smith Farm, to a fertilizer company he owed a half-million. That company sold it to a cattle farmer.

The roof on the potato storage barn caved in and the Environmental Protection Agency oversaw a cleanup of pesticides and asbestos found at the farm. A third generation would not be taking over. Ben died in 2011. His wife, Frances, passed before him.

The last year we lived in Worthington, that is 2006, someone grew squash at the Jones Lot and in September a team of migrant workers picked most of the crop by hand. Now, I hear other farmers are trying to make a living off the land once owned by Albert Farms.

Hilltown Postcards

The Plow Comes Full Circle

I wrote this post when our son, Nate, plowed roads for a contractor during the winter. He’s since moved on from that kind of work.

Nate calls while I’m making supper. “Hey, Mom, guess where I’m plowing tonight?”

From the eagerness in his voice, I’m supposed to know. “Route 112?”

He chuckles softly. I do, too.

“Yeah, how’d you guess?” he asks.

Route 112 is a two-lane paved road that’s technically a state highway in Worthington and Huntington, the town next to it, but it’s no larger than most good country roads in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

The route goes past the house we rented for nine years on the other side of Worthington and where Nate spent most of his earliest years. This is the Ringville section of Worthington, a cluster of modest homes hugging the road’s sharp curve. Except for the large field across the road, drivers passing through would not be impressed.

Our house, the smallest, could never hold a coat of white paint on its clapboards. We only heated with wood, and the walls were insulated with newspaper, so the windows in the kids’ bedrooms upstairs were covered inside by ice most of winter.

Nate, the fourth of our six kids and the middle son, is the one who favors me most with his dark hair and complexion. But unlike me he didn’t like school. He did whatever he could to get out of it, pretending he was sick, but I wouldn’t let him. Kids have to go to school.

Nate wasn’t interested no matter how much his teachers or I tried. Some teachers didn’t want to bother, like the band instructor who tried to kick him out his class. Nate wanted to play the drums, and I had to meet with the teacher to explain my son learns in a different way from others. And, he was going to stay in his class no matter what. Nate did, and music was the one thing he enjoyed in school. He doesn’t play the drums as much now, but he does the guitar and keyboard. He started a band that played gigs in local bars, doing the moody, thoughtful songs he writes. He records them in a sound studio he built in his home. He’s helping me create audiobooks.

As a boy, Nate was all-truck. You know the type. He was the kid in the backseat of the car, moving his hand like he’s yanking on an air horn when a tractor-trailer drives close on the highway.

In winter, he’d shout and run to the window whenever he heard a plow blade scrape over the surface of Route 112. Or, if he was playing outside he’d stand watching in our front yard as the truck’s yellow lights strobed their warning and the snow curled in one magnificent white wave from the edge of its plow.

Year-round Nate played in the yard with his fleet of Tonkas – dump trucks, graders, and backhoes, even a steamroller. He got them for Christmas and his birthdays. Sometimes his younger brother, Zack, joined him, but as Nate says, he was strictly a part-timer.

When it snowed, Nate got on his winter clothes and boots, and working by the house’s front light, he used a truck rigged with a wooden plow made by his father to clear the dirt walkway extending from the door to the driveway.

I have photos of him playing in the dark. He’s bundled up. His face is bright and interested. I know what’s on my boy’s mind. He’s inside that cab, plowing a much bigger road than the path in our front yard.

When Nate got older, we’d let him go along with the town’s highway crew when it stormed. He waited at the top of our driveway until Ernie, his friend and the crew’s road boss, stopped his plow truck. Nate rode with him for hours. Happy for the company, Ernie joked and sang off-key on purpose until he dropped him back home.

Like many country kids, Nate learned to drive long before he was of age. He helped his highway pal, Ernie, a part-time farmer, with the haying. Nate drove the pickup while men tossed bales onto a trailer. He was only a kid when he first did it, and he had to scoot forward on the edge of the pickup’s seat, so he could reach the pedals.

The day Nate turned 17, he passed the driver’s test without a learner’s permit or taking a lesson. Then, he got his CDL, that’s a commercial drivers license. He went to school for that, and his oldest sister helped him study for the test.

Nate can operate just about any piece of heavy equipment, or as some old gent remarked the time he watched him handle a dozer, “Boy, you’ve got the touch.”

Most of the year Nate works in construction for a loud and excitable man who calls everyone “Big Boy” including his own wife. He also has new Mac trucks, a real plus in his mind. Nate drives a fourteen-wheeler – just say tri-axle he tells me – with a wing plow and bulldog decals on each side of its massive hood. The truck is thirteen tons stripped down, he says. Add about five tons more for the plow and sander.

Nate has been plowing for eight years. During his first, he took care of a long stretch of Route 2 to the north in Western Massachusetts. Then he did other highways. He feels good about the job he’s doing. Often, he’s the only one on the route during a snowstorm.

“I feel like I’m the savior of the town,” he tells me.

The man from the state highway yard calls as soon as the storm starts. If it’s night, Nate can’t sleep waiting for the phone to ring although later when he’s on the road, he regrets he didn’t. He’s worked in some nasty storms, the longest 32 hours straight, pulling into a place safe off the road to nap in the cab of his truck. He missed most of Christmas one year when he got called out, and he was late to eat on Thanksgiving. We saved him a plate of food. He smelled like diesel when he hugged me hello.

Sometimes Nate calls when his cell phone has a signal, or if the timing’s right, he’ll stop at the house for something to eat, parking his truck at the top of the driveway with its lights flashing so it’s visible to anyone driving that way. Nate’s taken his father and brothers on his route. I went for a short trip to test drive a new truck. The sound of machinery was deafening inside the cab. I watched as Nate’s hands flew about the controls. It’s all second nature to him now. He says he wants me to go for the full 17-mile run during a storm.

Tonight we’re supposed to get several inches of fresh snow, nothing surprising this time of year. The hilltowns east of the Berkshires get a real winter that starts in November and lasts sometimes through April. He’s calling me on his cell phone, and soon he will lose service as his route climbs toward Worthington and then past the house where we used to live. My son is in that cab, making that big wave of snow and ready to toot the horn if he sees some small face watching through a window.

“Nate, remember how excited you got when the plow truck passed the house?”

Nate made a good man’s laugh.

“Yeah, Mom, that’s why I called.”

Hilltown Postcards

The Bum Steers Play Liston’s

I return to Liston’s with this Hilltown Postcard about the Bum Steers, a popular band that played frequently when Steve and Diane Magargal owned the business in Worthington, Mass., and we were regulars there on a Friday night.

It’s another Friday night at Liston’s and the Bum Steers are into that likable playlist that gets people off their seats and dancing.

Bum Steer Bill, wearing a red Western shirt and silver studs in his ears, says the band loves Johnny Cash, and their audiences do, too. The Bum Steers play five of his songs tonight. They also play a Willie Nelson, more of the Stones and something by Hank Williams. A Warren Zevon clears the dancers, but he’s a band favorite. It rebounds with another golden Western, and the floor refills.

The Bum Steers may not be the best band that plays at Liston’s, but they are big crowd-pleasers. Bill says, “We’re not good enough musicians to win them over that way. We just make friends. We play music people like.” 

The band debuted when the core four, who grew up together, did an eight-number set as the warm-up act for their fortieth birthday party at a Legion hall years ago. Eight months later, they had their first gig playing for the door at a bar in the Berkshires. Now the Bum Steers make music twice a month at bars and clubs all over Western Massachusetts.

Bill says if he ran a bar, it’d be like Liston’s. People pay attention, and if fifty people are in the place, forty will dance. He remembers the time a couple of women danced on the bartop. He says, “It makes you feel a little like a rock star.”

But not every place is like that. The night can be a hit or miss for the band. Sometimes no one dances until the last set or six people are left in the joint and the last forty-five minutes turns into a paid rehearsal.

That happens at Liston’s. The place can be so packed, you can hardly move. People slop drinks on the floor or each other. You take an unintentional chop from an elbow. Amateur dance night, I call it. At least we no longer have to dodge lit cigarettes. But other times it’s so dead, Hank and I are the only ones dancing or half the audience came with the band. Or no women show up, so the men just stand around drinking.

You want it to be somewhere in the middle, like tonight, so Steve and Diane Magargal, the owners, feel they can keep this going. Steve says getting bands to play at Liston’s was hard at first. Nobody wanted to make the trip, but they won them over so there’s live music usually every Friday. At the pig roast in August, at least four bands play.

There’s never a cover charge, so if the night’s receipts are close to paying the band, Steve’s happy. Their accountant says they shouldn’t do it, but he likes the music, and he likes having it for the locals. “The town’s been great for a million different reasons,” he says.

As for the music, Skynard is big here. So are the Allman Brothers and Van Morrison. Brown-eyed Girl is a guaranteed hit. So are Sweet Home Alabama, Give Me Three StepsRoadhouse Blues by the Doors — you know the words: “I woke up this morning and I had myself a beer” — and that barroom anthem Mustang Sally although the Bum Steers won’t be performing it tonight. Neither does the band play Free Bird although more than one loud drinker always makes the request.

Years ago, the Bum Steers recorded a CD, The Bum Steers Live at Liston’s. On the cover is the photo one of the bar’s super-regulars, a logger whose father was the mayor of a very large city, who clutches a longneck and raises a hand in a how-do-you-do barroom salute.

The album is sort of a best-hits list for the band, including a couple of originals. The tune, Thousand Dollar Car, is one of the Bum Steers’ best slow numbers. The chorus goes like this: “Oh, why did I go and buy a thousand dollar car?” Really.

Hank and I weren’t there for the recording, but later we bought the CD, autographed by the band, for five bucks. Bum Steers Bill signed his: “Glad you keep comin’ out.”

Hilltown Postcards

Following a Mislead about Mastodon Bones

After being the Worthington correspondent for years, I took on two more hilltowns: Chesterfield and Cummington. These days predated the social media we have now, so that required bona fide legwork. Fridays was my day to call sources in each town, which included officials, school secretaries, and people generally plugged in to their community. I also drove around, making a couple of stops at town halls and such. I called it “checking the traps.” When I became an editor that’s what I advised the reporters to do. It’s also the title for one of my Isabel Long Mysteries.

One of favorite sources was Ron Berenson, who used to co-own the Old Creamery Grocery in Cummington, population less than 800. Ron, who was a transplant from New Jersey, was a lawyer and had worked in PR, so he had a keen interest in news. He knew how to chat up the customers. He tipped me to so many stories and only misled me once, but it would have been a great one if it’d been true.

Ron called to say two archeologists from MIT had stopped at the store to say mastodon bones had been found in the Swift River section of Cummington, a discovery of immense proportions. “I wanted you to get the story before the New York Times and the Globe,” my loyal source told me.

So I drove to Swift River, following Ron’s directions. I parked the car at the end of a dirt road just as a state wildlife truck was pulling out, which I took as a good clue.

But as I hiked in the snowy woods to a clearing, I didn’t find a crew of scientists or equipment or even footprints. All I saw was the paw prints of bear, massive ones, but I kept searching for an hour or so, trying different roads until I returned to the store.

Ron was incredulous that I didn’t find anything, the men had been so serious, but then a customer overhearing our conversation started laughing. The night before on the TV show, “Northern Exposure,” two characters played the same trick on the locals. Now the laugh was on us.

I used to tease Ron about the story, but I didn’t hold it against him. He and I had been duped together.

But too bad, it would have been a great story it were true.

Hilltown Postcards

Ernie Nugent — One of the Good Guys

I wrote this piece about Ernie Nugent after he left us eight years ago. Here it is slightly revised for this Hilltown Postcard.

We knew Ernie and his large, extended family when we lived in Worthington, a hilltown in Western Massachusetts. He worked on the town’s three-man highway crew for over three decades, including as its road boss before he retired.

Ernie and his wife, Deen, who have two daughters, lived a short distance from us and across the road from a brother named Bert. Brothers with those two names has always been a source of amusement.

Our son, Nate, knew him best. Ernie hayed the farm across the road in the Ringville section, where we lived first in that town. He also raised pigs there. They were good buddies.

Through Ernie, Nate got to know the part of country living that was close to the earth — and all about machinery. When he was a teenager, Nate was Ernie’s extra hand, driving a tractor or farm truck. I recall looking out the kitchen window when I was washing dishes to see Ernie take down a hog with one shot, and then Nate helping him get it ready for butchering.

Nate and Ernie had a special bond. He often joined Ernie when he plowed the roads, riding for hours in the cab of the truck. Ernie would stop the truck at the end of our driveway for Nate to join him.

One year, Ernie rigged up a plow to an old rider mower so Nate could clear our driveway. (I guess it stuck. Nate works as a union heavy equipment operator.)

I knew Ernie from when I was a reporter, covering the hilltowns. I’d call the highway departments for an update whenever we had a bad winter storm, or in the midst of mud season or a road project.

Ernie wasn’t a talkative guy. I recall covering one Worthington Town Meeting, where residents were voting on the budget and other items. On the agenda was the purchase of a new dump truck for the highway department.

A smart-alecky newcomer got up and wanted a justification for the purchase. So the moderator asked Ernie, who was road boss, whether the town needed to buy a new highway truck. Ernie stood, said “yup” and sat down. And, after a good laugh, the voters passed it.

Here’s to Ernie Nugent who lived and worked well. He was the salt of the earth.