Letter from Essex, Vermont

Regional ReviewQuarter 2, 2000
by Abigail Kenney

Some people call it the “Kenney Compound,” and others just call it “Kenney Hill.” No matter what they call it, almost everyone finds it unusual that my family lives together on the same road, on a large plot of land, out in the country. As children, all the cousins used to play together. We built an elaborate secret fort called “Kennebithia” in the woods nearby, modeled after a book we had all read, Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. On one of our many expeditions into the woods, we found a perfect spot, well concealed under a row of 50-foot pine trees felled in a huge storm. First, we constructed walls out of tree branches, intricately woven, and then we built a fire pit out of stones. Over the fire pit, we hung a clothesline and cleared the branches overhead to allow the smoke and heat to escape. There was a nearby stream where we kept our drinks cool, and we built up food stores by carefully removing items from our family kitchens. My brother cooked the potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, and they always came out burnt on the outside and raw on the inside, but we didn’t care. Eventually, my Uncle Jim discovered our spot and we received a reprimand about building fires in the woods. But he understood the allure of the forest and the many secret hideaways that exist there; he and his brothers had played in the same woods during their childhood.

My dad, Richard, was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and his family lived in North Attleboro until the summer of 1947. My grandfather was a carpenter, working for the Westcott Construction Company in nearby Mansfield. When Westcott contracted to build the Moran Electric Plant in Burlington, he came to Vermont and witnessed the beauty of the land. My grandmother says that my grandfather always wanted to be a farmer, so maybe it didn’t surprise her when he suggested that they relocate. They moved to Essex when Uncle Wayne was nine years old, my dad eight, and Uncle Jim, seven. Aunt Lois was still to come.

When my grandfather bought this land the deed said “190 acres more or less.” Years later, my grandmother had it surveyed and it turned out to be 181, although through the eyes of a child the land seemed to have no end; it represented total wilderness. At first, the family lived in a small farmhouse already standing on the property. While working full-time as a carpenter, my grandfather slowly built the house, doing all the plumbing, wiring, and carpentry himself, and using his children and wife as laborers, also. He built the frames for the walls just outside of the ones already standing, and the family gradually tore down the original farmhouse. My father says that the house took a long time to build, and he remembers standing in the kitchen in the late 1950s without a roof over his head. The four kids slept up in the loft where the chickens used to roost. The family also depended on subsistence farming, with a garden, two milk cows, a half-dozen steers, chickens, pigs, turkeys, ducks, and an occasional sheep. The old barn foundation next to the house is the only remaining evidence that people ever farmed there.

All these years, our neighbors have only been Kenneys. In the late 1960s, when my father and his brothers were looking to settle down, they couldn’t afford to buy land and build houses, so my grandparents gave them each 10 acres. My dad married my mother Andrea in 1970, and they soon began construction of a house a few hundred yards down the only road on the property. My Uncle Jim built his house directly across the road from my parents. Uncle Wayne and Aunt Jeanne ended up settling in Florida after finishing a tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force. He later sold his 10 acres back to the family when he needed the money, and he has since settled in southern Vermont. All the Kenneys who remained became teachers in the local school systems except for my father, who was a fighter pilot and brigadier general in the Air National Guard.

Over the years, people have slowly developed the land around it, but not much has changed on Kenney Hill. Uncle Jim and Aunt Charlotte still live across the street, and my grandmother and Aunt Lois live in the same house that my grandfather built. The kids who lived in the old farmhouse are nearing retirement, and the next generation of Kenneys is making its way out into the world.

My cousins, my siblings, and I have moved on to college and beyond, and it is anyone’s guess where we all will land. My brother Jeff is an emergency room physician in Philadelphia and his work will probably require him to live in an urban setting. My sister Alison and I would both like to settle in the country, and we have spoken about living near each other, possibly on the land where we grew up. The financial responsibility of keeping Kenney Hill alive for the next generation, however, is daunting. At times, the possibility of us even inheriting the land from our parents seems slim because of their own financial burdens. However, regardless of where we settle, our childhood on Kenney Hill will always remain with us.


Abigail Kenney returned to Vermont after earning a B.A. from Colgate University in 1998. She is currently a social worker for Howard Community Services and lives with her parents on Kenney Hill.

 

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