96-year-old Toppy Sherry, Danville’s oldest woman, believes in working hard and having fun
By Sharon Lakey
At the end of Brainerd Street, just before the road forks, it divides a lovely big yellow house, big red barn, and expansive fields, pasture, and woodland. This is Sherryland, the home of Toppy Sherry since 1946.
As the saying goes, “all work and no play makes a person dull, and they miss so much.” This is Caroline Watson “Toppy” Sherry’s philosophy. She worked hard, had fun, and even mixed in a few adventures. When opportunity knocked, she rose to the occasion.
Sherryland’s keeper is still going strong as she approaches her 97th year.
Toppy was born in South Danville on the old “Berard” farm at the top of the hill beyond the covered bridge on August 18, 1918. She was the eldest of three children born to Harley and Lula Watson. She had a sister, Lucille, and a brother, Roy. When she was five years old, they moved to their farm in Walden, carrying everything they owned in a horse-drawn wagon. In addition to dairy farming and logging, in winter, her Dad used to roll the snow on the roads with his horses for the town of Walden. She attended the Four Corners Elementary School walking a mile one-way each day. They would carry their lunch and often bake a potato on the school stove. She acquired her nickname, Toppy from neighbor Lee Hatch, who thought it was funny.
“I was so disgusted that it stuck,” Toppy said.
Music was a strong interest of her mother and her sister. With her mother on the banjo, Lucille on violin and Toppy on the accordion, they played at kitchen junkets. These were social evenings in people’s homes where neighbors would gather to dance and have fun. Occasionally, they played in a hall and earned a little money for their efforts.
Toppy attended Phillips Academy, now Danville High School, and had to rent a room to stay in town. She stayed with her uncle and aunt, Glen and Addie Watson, for the first year then worked for her room and board, earning 75 cents a week at the Osgoods boarding house on Hill Street. She graduated in 1937. She admits to not liking schoolwork and said she, “mostly loved school for the fun.” She fondly remembers playing her accordion for school parties at the Town Hall.
Her working years began early. Rather than returning to the farm during summers, she stayed in Danville, adding to her small savings by working at Diamond Hill Cabins. “Mrs. Moore ran it then and I made beds, cleaned the cabins, and waited on table,” she remembers.Shortly after graduation, she was hired at Burklyn Hall, the mansion in Burke then owned by the Brown family from Minneapolis, Minn. “That was my college”, Toppy says. She learned a lot there about managing a large home and setting/serving a formal table, both of which helped her prepare for her future guest business at Sherryland.
While working at the mansion, she met a handsome young man on a home decorating crew. Everybody kept saying, “You have to meet Henry.” In fact, they insisted she meet him and when she did, he invited her out. Their romance blossomed. “We were married at the mansion, the Browns insisted,” she says with a smile. That was in 1939. After living a short time in St. Johnsbury, in 1946, they purchased the farm that would become their home.“The Sicards owned it before us and held an auction prior to our purchase. Whatever didn’t sell at the auction is what we began our dairy herd with,” she laughs.
In 1949, they opened their home to guests. Thus, Sherryland was born. Families, singles, and couples would come to stay for full room and board, commonly for a week. This brought extra income to the farm and gave them a chance to meet people from the “outside world.”
“By taking in guests, I have met people from all over the world and made a great many good friends that still come back since the late 1950s”, she beams.
Work on the farm was long and hard. Toppy was up at 5 a.m. to help with chores – feeding calves and in the later years of dairy farming, carrying the large pails of milk for Henry to their bulk tank. Days could last until 11 p.m. when she could be still ironing sheets on her mangle, a large electrical roller for ironing sheets and shirts. In summers, she helped with raking hay and driving the hay truck and tended the big garden (including freezing many fruits and vegetables for winter) in addition to preparing an endless number of meals, and cleaning rooms for the guests who could number up to 10 at a time. Many people fondly remember driving by Sherryland and seeing Toppy’s sheets swaying gently in the wind from the lines on the large, wrap-around front porch. Life got a little easier for them when they stopped milking Holsteins and switched to Devon beef cattle.
Sugaring was an important activity in early spring. About 1,200 buckets were put out, yielding about 300 gallons of syrup. Oxen, horses, and eventually tractors were used to gather the sap. Phil Badger and Charlie Pike helped gather the sap for years. Sugaring meant sugar-on-snow with the donuts, pickles and coffee to go with it.
Toppy became well known for her cooking. One day, Mr. Wesson, president of Caledonia National Bank, came calling with a question: would she consider serving the mid-day dinner to the 8-12 bank directors for their monthly board meeting. He convinced her to try it just once to see how it would go. For the next 40 years their dinners were held in the Sherryland dining room.
In the mid-1970s about 8-9 farmer’s wives and friends started meeting on Wednesday afternoons for lap quilting. Gatherings rotated to each other’s homes and each of these ladies not only made many beautiful quilts for their families, but most importantly, they developed very close friendships. For these hardworking women, Wednesday afternoons became a respite of fun and relaxation for many years. The Quilters still try to meet for an annual lunch and keep in touch.
Not to be missed is Toppy’s love for animals. She had a beautiful miniature horse, Gypsy, whom she drove in the Danville Fair Parade with the guidance of Bruce Brink. Two cats have added great joy to her life. Rusty,
a handsome 22-pound yellow tiger, could convince her to sit and hold him for the afternoon when no one else could even get her to take a break. Midnight, a beautiful 15-pound black on black tiger, appeared at Sherryland last October and has made himself at home with her. He gets her to sit in her living room and provides lots of company, especially at night.
After Henry died in 1992, Toppy did some traveling. Her first and most adventurous trip was to Nairobi, Kenya. Their daughter, Bettylou, lived there for two years. Toppy and Beaulah Lawrence, her former sister-in-law, went for a visit. While camping in the Serengeti, they got to see the annual migration of about a quarter of a million wildebeest, zebra, etc., crossing the plains – a beautiful sight to behold. While they were there, they got to meet many Kenyans, saw elephants in Tsavo and Amboseli, and saw more wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. They also visited London and Rome, including the Vatican. On the way home they had breakfast in Rome, lunch in London, and dinner in Burlington.
Bettylou lived in Seattle, Wash., for 20 years so Toppy, and occasionally Henry, would fly out for a visit and got to see the rugged Pacific Northwest coast. Later when Bettylou moved to Atlanta, Ga. to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Toppy flew out and drove across the country with Bettylou. Toppy was the navigator and it was a spectacular drive through the mountains and across the plains in late spring.
For several years after that, Toppy would visit Beaulah Palmer at her winter apartment on the beach in Redington Shores, Fla., and stop in Atlanta for a few days to visit Bettylou. One special trip during her Florida visit was to the Everglades where they took a kayak tour with a biologist guide through the cypress and mangrove swamps. It was magical and they saw many rare birds and alligators close up.
In 2012, Bettylou moved back to the farm and has renovated the “little” house in order to be close by to help Toppy.
In Toppy’s words, “I am about to turn 97. I am in good health and can still do quite a lot around the house, get my own meals, etc. I feel I have had an interesting full life and hope to keep going a while longer, thanks to Bettylou and my dear friends.”
Bettylou Sherry contributed to this article.