More than 300 people gathered at West Brattleboro’s Robb Family Farm on Sept. 30 for a memorial for its patriarch, Charles, who mourned the death of his friend and Ames Hill Road neighbor Stuart Thurber a month earlier.
Kevin O’Connor/
More than 300 people gathered at West Brattleboro’s Robb Family Farm on Sept. 30 for a memorial for its patriarch, Charles, who mourned the death of his friend and Ames Hill Road neighbor Stuart Thurber a month earlier.

For two farm families, an era ends

The deaths of lifelong friends Charles Robb and Stuart Thurber, patriarchs of neighboring farms in West Brattleboro, mark the beginning of yet another season of challenge and change

WEST BRATTLEBORO — Growing up at Lilac Ridge Farm, which her family began in 1937, Helen Thurber vowed she'd never wed anyone who worked in that grueling before-sunrise-to-after-sunset business.

"I thought, 'I can't live that kind of life,'" she recently recalled.

Then Helen met her brother Stuart's friend, Charles Robb, at his family's farm a mile up the road.

Fast-forward a few years. "As we headed down the aisle, my dad whispered to me, 'I didn't think you were ever going to marry a farmer,'" Helen said.

Exchanging rings in 1964, Helen Robb and her new husband went on to run the property his great-grandparents purchased in 1907. There they welcomed four children, seven grandchildren. and one great-grandchild when not toiling, tilling, or tending from morning until night.

Back at Helen's childhood home, a similar scene unfolded when her brother married a year after she did, then ushered in four children, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild amid the ups and downs of the Thurber family's own fields.

Saunter up West Brattleboro's Ames Hill Road and, at first glance, the landscape of red maples, white barns and blue skies remains unchanged.

But more than 300 people who gathered there on Sept. 30 for a memorial knew everything was different with the loss of Stuart Thurber, who died Aug. 27 at age 84, and Charles Robb, who died Sept. 23 at age 86.

'A blow to agriculture'

"This is a blow to agriculture," said lifelong friend Paul Miller, the 86-year-old patriarch of his own family dairy in nearby Vernon.

Ames Hill Road, still paved with dirt, boasted three times as many farms when Robb and Thurber began their respective careers six decades ago.

Robb, who had seen his father deliver glass milk bottles in a Model T Ford, had high hopes when he moved to selling milk through a processor that favored plastic jugs.

But by 1983, drowning financially in a national dairy glut, he considered a buyout offer before acquiescing to his son's plea to pass on the farm.

Fifth-generation steward Charlie Jr. has survived a rough ride. He was chainsawing a tree just after Christmas 2004 when a flyaway branch shattered every bone in his face.

More painful still was selling the milk cows in 2011 in hopes of saving the 360-acre property by tapping its maple trees for syrup.

Change hasn't hit the Thurbers as hard, but they've nonetheless felt it.

After Stuart's son and daughter-in-law, Ross and Amanda, joined the 600-acre Lilac Ridge Farm a quarter-century ago, they switched its conventional dairy operation to organic while diversifying into such crops as vegetables and flowers.

The Robbs and Thurbers aren't the only ones branching out. Although the number of Vermont dairy outfits has plummeted almost 90% from 4,000 in the 1960s to about 500 today, the state reports nearly 7,000 farms are aiming to cultivate a 21st-century "working landscape," ranging from food and wood production to solar and wind energy.

Charles Robb was still alive when People magazine featured Brooke Shields - a celebrity he never met - recommending his family's maple syrup, spurring readers coast to coast to discover the farm's website.

Thurber, for his part, saw Lilac Ridge's summer introduction of the first certified organic soft-serve ice cream stand on the East Coast.

Sweeter still, he held his first great-grandchild shortly after.

Long fueled by what friends identify as grit and grace, both families are vowing to forge on.

Take Ross Thurber, who writes poetry when he isn't milking or haying. His recently published collection, Pioneer Species, includes a work titled "Making Spring."

§Little death, little death

§press my lips: this sprig,

§this bud from how began

§what we have left.

Ross read another poem, "Business Partners," at his father's service last month.

§after we have finished chores,

§Set up some fencing, mown a hayfield, changed

§A tire on the hay tedder, hauled a load of sugar wood

§And checked on the dry cows - "There is one due on the 15th" –

§The morning has spilled into Thursday and is threatening Friday

The Robbs appreciated the words so much that they asked Ross to repeat them at Charles's weekend memorial.

§I focus on the six cows that are waiting

§To be milked. He heads out to the other barn to feed

§The young stock. "We'll get there" he says "We'll get there."

§What I don't say but think is: Dad, we're already here.

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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