Years ago, Conrad Richter (probably now best known for his wrenching short novel A Light in the Forest) wrote a trilogy about European settlers in the Ohio valley. The titles reveal the basic story: The Trees; The Fields; The Town. One character, a young girl in the first book, feels the oppressiveness of the dark, too-large-to deal-with trees in whose place the early settlers try to establish fields to grow food. By the end of the third book (which won the Pulitzer in 1951), she begins to plant trees.
Larry Potwin has also lived through “cycles of connection” with the land both for farming and for recreation in the Ottauquechee Valley, though in his case the cycles may resemble braided strands or a double helix, mixing farming and the insurance business. This past summer he built and ran a farm stand on his property on Quechee-West Hartford Road, not far from the intersection with Quechee Main Street.
In addition to the produce that he grows and buys from local farms, Potwin has filled the farm stand with interest ing details, such as an old-fashioned wood cook stove—connecting to his history and Vermont’s. The wide planks that top the counters in the farm stand are from a 50-year-old tree that he cut with his father. He has a pony and some goats, and hopes to expand the animal collection, because, as he says, “I love to have kids come here to have a chance to be with animals, to be outside.” The day after Thanksgiving he’ll be selling Christmas trees and wreaths.
Potwin’s farming roots
Some of Potwin’s earliest memories revolve around his parents rising early to prepare the morning meal and do chores—milking a small herd “of Jerseys” he says with pride. “My dad and mom used to get up at 5 am every day and milk the cows, have breakfast, and then my dad would go logging all day and get home about 6 pm, eat supper and go milk again.” Even as busy as his father was, Potwin remembers the little black pony he had when he was five. His father found time to build a little red sleigh for the pony to pull around the yard.
Potwin soon accepted that his place in the family carried with it an obligation to pitch in. “Kids on a farm learn about life very fast and at a young age,” he says—he was driving a tractor at age eight. “There is never enough help. Farm kids learn a lot about animal care as preschoolers, and everything from mechanical work to growing food, sewing. And most of all, how to put in a good day’s work, which taught me that you can accomplish anything you want.” Farm families were often very large, to provide more hands for the work. Potwin was the only boy among four siblings, while his father, Roger, was one of fifteen children. His mother, Beverly Blood, was one of ten living on the Highland Homestead Farm on Hillside Road, which is still in the family.
When Potwin’s father gave up the strenuous life of a logger in Randolph, Vermont, Roger became a realtor, and so did Beverly. The family moved to Taftsville, while not a great distance, it was a big change for Potwin and his three sisters. “Today my father couldn’t be a realtor because he had no high school degree,” he says. Roger had also been a realtor, at Woodstock’s Strout Realty, driving prospects to farms in his Model T Ford pickup in the ’40s and ’50s.
Potwin learned about selling from his father. “I was always going with my dad, so I learned, as Vermonters say, ‘the gift of gab.’ I knew every property. One day my parents both had appointments to show property and a couple came in that wanted to see a piece of land. Dad said ‘Larry, go with them and show them the [property] lines.’ Sure enough, they bought it! I was so proud. I was about 10 years old.” Most of the farms, he says, ranged from 50 to 200 acres, and they sold for $10,000 to $20,000.
The Potwin family moves to Quechee
“In 1965,” he recalls, “my dad saw a piece of land in Quechee with big red barns and 80 acres for $10,000. He knew it had great potential so he offered to buy it from the owner, Merle Henderson, if Merle would finance it with $1,500 down. My mom said he was crazy, since they owned almost a thousand acres at the time. Little did they know that John Davidson was thinking about starting a huge development right next door at the Quechee Fells Farm. We fixed up the barns and cut all the lumber in the summer of 1969 to build a five-bedroom farmhouse. My dad always said, ‘Don’t buy lumber if you have the trees.’ I was able to run all the logging equipment, and learned a lot from my uncle Harold, my dad’s brother, who was a top-notch carpenter.”
Potwin was delighted to move back to Quechee. What kid wouldn’t want to live in Quechee, he laughs, when all the kids in town could ski for free? He put some of the earliest tracks on the hill, he claims, before the chairlift was running, when he got a ride up the hill in the snowcat. He went to high school in Hartford and took electrical and building courses.
In the mid-1970s Potwin received his real estate license, but the market was bad at the time and he turned to selling cars, and also worked as a financial advisor for MetLife and a district sales coordinator for Aflac. There he became one of the top annuity salesmen. At 19, he married Lynn, and a year later moved with her into a new house he was building himself. “We moved into it unfinished, but we loved it since we had no mortgage, and were both working other jobs.”
Back to his farming roots
Quechee is a microcosm of what some parts of Vermont have become, observes Potwin. He hopes his farming and farm stand venture will become self-sustaining, a model for the future, but he knows his success depends on the support of the community. He’s delighted to share the beauty and benefits of life in Vermont with those escaping overcrowded places, though he recognizes—especially since his family has been so intimately involved with the changes—the potential for the hills to sprout nothing but houses. “Will it prove to be as in past years that Vermont farm land is more profitable for growing houses than for growing vegetables?” says Potwin. “I do think Quechee Lakes was great for Quechee,” he adds. “It put a lot of people to work and resurrected an old mill town. My dad always said these hills and woods weren’t much good for anything else but home sites.”