A grandfather’s lesson: Maine has room for all kinds of neighbors.
By Ron JosephOn a sunny July day in 1965, two recent Harvard University grads in peculiar clothing marched across a Maine hayfield to meet my 71-year-old, illiterate grandfather, Florian Yeaton. My twin brother and I, age 13, held the reins of our grandfather’s two jittery Belgian workhorses, who were as perplexed as we were by the strangers.
“Sorry to interrupt you,” said the soft-spoken brunette. She wore a bright-yellow headband, leather sandals, and a full-length, beige hemp dress. “We purchased an 80-acre field in Starks for $4,000. Our new neighbor said that you’re a dowser. Would you please help us find an aquifer?”
Her longhaired male partner wore a billowy peasant shirt and was silent.
Florian was applying axle grease to a horse-drawn manure spreader. He considered her request. A man of few words, he pulled a rag from his bib overalls, splashed kerosene on both hands, and, as he wiped at the grease, muttered, “All right, then.” Before he walked off with the strangers, he told us, “You boys water the horses and do your chores. I’ll be back bumbye.”
The couple, who had interned with radical homesteading gurus Scott and Helen Nearing, were part of the initial wave of young, educated people migrating to Maine to pursue a simpler, more meaningful life. Their improbable appearance on my grandparents’ dairy farm was juicy conversation fodder for many of Mercer’s 600 residents: “Did you hear about the Harvard hippies seeking help from the old farmer who never attended a day of school?”
The Harvard hippies weren’t alone in seeking out my grandfather. From the ’40s to the mid-’60s, many dozens of rural landowners sought his help. Without an automobile — internal combustion engines were inherently untrustworthy — Florian would walk to a neighbor’s property or ride in their vehicles. That afternoon in 1965, he was whisked away in a VW microbus to Starks — a town that, decades later, would host the marijuana Hempstock Festival.
Finding underground water was my grandfather’s gift to neighbors in need. His divining rod was a pussy willow whittled in the shape of a large turkey wishbone. Once, when I was 5 or 6, he placed a willow in my hands on a drought-stricken farm. Not until he stood behind me, wrapping his large and calloused hands around mine, did the forked twig dip downwards, as if possessed by a supernatural force.
My mother claimed her father’s dowsing skills owed to his deep, multi-generational roots in central Maine soils.
“Dig your well here,” my grandfather advised the landowners. “You’ll find plenty of good water 10 feet down.” Two days later, when the neighbors’ new well produced clear water, the farmer’s grateful wife delivered a freshly baked apple pie to my grandparents (which my dour Yankee grandmother pronounced “too dry”).
My mother claimed her father’s dowsing skills owed to his deep, multi-generational roots in central Maine soils. His great-grandfather was awarded a sizeable land grant in Belgrade for service as a Revolutionary War soldier. Succeeding generations of Yeatons farmed the Kennebec Valley’s fertile bottomlands. Florian was born in 1894 to a farm family that prioritized a boy’s labor over his education. Unable to read or write, he excelled as a farmer, a horseman, and a dowser.
After Florian headed to Starks, my brother and I moved the watered horses to their barn stalls, then climbed into an oak wagon to pitchfork dry cow manure onto the hayfield. My grandmother made no secret of her irritation.
“Your grandfather is gallivanting around the countryside,” she said, “when there’s work to be done here.”
My grandmother was suspicious of the back-to-the-land movement. A difficult life had hardened Lucille Yeaton. More than once had a drought, hailstorm, hurricane, or blight wiped out her annual supply of fruits and vegetables, food that was to be canned and stored in the dirt basement of her drafty, 180-year-old farmhouse. Poverty constantly nipped at my grandparents’ heels, and it mystified Lue that young couples would voluntarily choose a burdensome farm life off the grid. She and her husband had lived without electricity until 1962. Indoor plumbing wasn’t installed until 1972.
That evening, during supper, she scoffed at my grandfather and ranted about the back-to-the-landers’ purported ideals of living self-sufficiently in de facto communes. “It sounds like socialism,” she said.
Florian winked at my brother and me. “For heaven’s sake, Lue,” he said, “those youngins are just trying to find their way in this world, no different than anyone else.”
When he passed away in May of 1972, my mother — to ease her pain — joked that indoor plumbing had killed him. I hitchhiked home from the University of New Hampshire to be a pallbearer. Since Mercer was too small to support an undertaker, Grandpa’s body laid in rest in a funeral parlor in the neighboring town of Norridgewock. During the service, my mother, who adored her father, wept in the pew behind me. She gathered herself, leaned forward, and whispered in my ear, “This is the first time in seven years that your grandfather has not been on his beloved farm.”
Among those paying their final respects in Norridgewock were the Ivy League homesteaders from Starks. With two wide-eyed children in tow, the couple hugged and thanked Grammy Lue for her husband’s generosity. They told her that beautiful water still flowed from a dug well where my grandfather had said it would be.
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