Outdoors writer Harold “Hal” Borland (1900-1978) and his wife, gardening writer Barbara Ross Dodge Borland (1904-1991), owned a century-old, mountain-edge farm a couple of miles south of Bartholomew’s Cobble, in a section of Salisbury known as Weatogue. They moved there, to Frank Snyder’s old place, in 1952.
A columnist for The New York Times and The Berkshire Eagle, Borland occasionally wrote about a hungry dog that showed up at their doorstep during a Christmas night snowstorm. They fed the black-and-white rabbit hound of no little character (not all of that character charming) and adopted it. Borland in 1961 expanded his stories about Pat into “The Dog Who Came to Stay.”
Borland peppered the memoir with anecdotes about his neighbors, who brought alive all the best of New England character. He gave only their first names. Who were these folks?
Borland, for example, describes a short trip to North Canaan and talking with Fred the hardware man. This could only be Fred Hall, whose dry humor gives him away. Borland one day remarked to Fred that the prospects of spring weather seemed remote. “‘Oh, it’ll be here,’ Fred said. ‘It’s a little late this year. Usually it falls on a Monday, but this year it won’t be till a Tuesday. Leap year.”
I met Fred Hall (1907-2009) once at a birthday party in Ashley Falls. He was the only person still around who had witnessed the Beckley iron blast furnace in East Canaan in operation. The community thought so highly of him, it celebrated Fred Hall Day on his 100th birthday. A Sheffield native, Hall worked for General Electric Power Transformer in Pittsfield until joining the Navy for World War II service. After the war, he joined Fuller Hardware and later purchased it from his brother-in-law, Allyn Foster. Hall’s wife, Priscilla Soule (1911-2004), was a teacher.
Further research floundered. One day, fresh from walking the Hal Borland Trail at The Cobble, conservation ranger Rene Wendell introduced me to Kevin Godburn of Canaan. Godburn, who maintains a Hal Borland tribute website, provided the full names for Albert and Ruth, who lived south of the Borlands, and Charley and Elitha, who farmed to the north.
I visited the vegetable and flower stand called Weatogue Farm run by Gordon Whitbeck and Elvia Gignoux. It’s Whitbeck’s grandfather Albert Nelson’s old place, Gignoux told me. She mentioned how special the valley was, how the few small farms and conservation easements had kept new luxury homes to a minimum.
Albert Nelson (1906-1981), a Canaan native, dairy farmed. His wife, Ruth Bell Nelson (1905-1989), came here from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1928. She worked at the Rexall Pharmacy in North Canaan and was an active granger.
Borland rejoiced in Nelson’s character. “Albert was in the mow, passing bales down to his helper on the truck,” we read in “The Dog Who Came to Stay.” “He saw me and shouted a greeting and went back into the mow for another bale.”
Little did the men know that Borland’s Pat would soon have a scuffle with Albert’s Teddy.
“Albert shouted, ‘Teddy, you old fool!’ and began to laugh. But he jumped down onto the truck and on down to the ground. He and I began slapping the dogs apart with our leather gloves. We finally put an end to it and Albert straightened up with a grin.’ Those two,’ he said, ‘could wallow all day and nobody’d really get hurt. But they make so much noise you’d think they were chewing each other’s ears off, now wouldn’t you?’”
Borland captured the simplest of rural activities. “Albert wasn’t making hay. He was cutting grass and chopping it and putting it into his silo,” we read in “This Hill, This Valley” (1957). “Charley was there helping, with his hired man, and they were running the mower with one tractor, the chopper with another, and hauling the grass away with two high-sided trucks. It was virtually a production line, and they had that pasture sheared and in the silo by noon.”
Charley was Charles M. Holmes (1894-1975), who with his wife, Eletha Schmidt (1903-1988), lived at Maple Shade Farm on the Salisbury-Sheffield border. Born in Dover Plains, N.Y., an Army veteran of World War I, Holmes farmed on Weatogue Road for 36 years. He was 1951 recipient of the Connecticut Extension Service Green Pastures Award for outstanding dairy farming. John Bottass took over the farm in 1966. By 2009 Bottass was ready to retire. The farm’s future was uncertain. The Trustees of Reservations helped secure the final $145,000 needed to secure a conservation easement on the property. Bottass for several year had managed hayfields of The Cobble and adjacent Col. John Ashley House. Borland would have been thrilled.
The Housatonic River valley was a far cry from the Colorado prairies of the writer’s youth and he loved it. Borland wasn’t a true farmer, but he had many farmers’ habits. As The Berkshire Eagle noted in 1960, “Mr. Borland is an early-to-bed-early-to-rise man. He gets up at 4 a.m., reads for a while, then writes till about 1:30 p.m. … Then he has the rest of the day to himself — for hunting, fishing, gardening, puttering in his woodworking shop.”
And chewing the fat with Albert or Charley or Fred.