Kenneth and Florence Ward, a Valentine Story
|Kenneth and Florence’s wedding picture, February 15, 1941
By Sharon Lakey
“Never a child born that bawled as much as Andy. I tried to tell Florence that the boy was hungry, but she was following the latest doctors’ books and using their recommendations. I raised calves all my life, and when they bawled, I fed them! That’s what he needed as far as I was concerned.”
What a way for Ken Ward, one of Danville’s premiere farmers, Town Lister for 35 years, Vice President of Vermont’s Soil Conservation Service, father of three and husband of one to start our interview. We sat in the living room of what used to be the Pumpkin Hill School, nestled at the foot of the farm that has been in his family for five generations. Ken will be 92 on his next birthday in March. With that many years behind him, there were many stories told in the ensuing hours, one for every photo that filled the small box in front of us. But this is a Valentine story, and that will be our rudder.
We’ll start with the boy Kenneth, who went to Pumpkin Hill School. He and his buddy walked the tracks of the St. J and LC trestle above the school where each placed a nickel on the tracks, then waited for the train to smash them. Late for school, they became swingers of birches, grabbing a sapling and riding it down to the next sapling, Tarzan-like, until they reached the bottom and raced to school. Late, they had to “run the gauntlet,” said Ken. Directed by the teacher, the children held switches and made two lines. “Like the Indians used to do. Sometimes I went home with tender shins.”
In the town of Kirby lived a girl, one of ten children in the Stuart family. Her name was Florence. “She was bullied,” said Ken, sitting forward, animated, still incensed at the injustice. “She had a way of walking that most girls don’t come by naturally. The other girls thought she was showing off, and they made fun of her walk and her clothes. She became shy of people and wouldn’t go to school. She gave it right back to them, though.” But the effect of the bullying was to shadow her for life.
Kenneth graduated from Danville High School in 1937. In 1938, he and five other boys from his class attended Vermont Ag (now Vermont Tech) in Randolph Center. “I went to learn better ways of farming,” said Ken. “They ran a farm there, and we were put to work as well as learning.”
Right away, the boss, who was the principal of the school, took a group of students to the barn. “Who among you can drive horses?” he asked.
“I’d been driving horses since the age of 12,” said Kenneth, “so I raised my hand.”
“Harness those horses,” said the principal, pointing to the team and then the harnesses hanging on the wall.
“I went to work. You see, the reins are done up differently for each horse,” said Ken. “The nigh horse harness is different than the off horse. I asked which horse was which and harnessed them accordingly. I guess he thought I did a good job. From that point on, I got to drive the team.” Kenneth smiled. “That was a benefit,” he explained. While the other boys had their hands on shovels, he had hold of the reins.
America was just coming out of the Great Depression when he graduated in 1938. According to Kenneth, President Roosevelt was trying to improve the lives of farmers, helping them make a living on the land. “Farmers were good spenders, and he wanted to encourage new ways of doing things. The thinking then was to remove the stone walls and hedges and increase the size of the fields so you could use a tractor to do the cultivating.” He listened carefully to the college president’s final address. “He told us that we should go out into the world, run our farms and take jobs in the associations. It was our duty!” Ken looks over. “I took that to heart.”
That summer, back at the farm, Kenneth met Florence for the first time. A man up the road (the Chapman farm as we might know it) got married at home and intended it to be a quiet affair. “The neighbors decided otherwise and got together a cheverie. We brought the party to them,” said Ken. “Florence was doing housework for a family on Route 2 and she showed up at the party. I was fresh out of college and didn’t know who she was.
“So I sidled up to her and introduced myself. Later, I asked how she was getting home and offered to take her in my Model-A Ford. She agreed and when we got to the house, I asked her if I could give her a kiss goodnight. She thought that would be okay as that was the custom then,” said Ken. One can tell this is a story he has remembered often. “They say you’ve got a mate that’s made for you, and when you think you’ve found them, you can’t be shy.”
After going together for about a year, he was invited to her house in Kirby for dinner. Her uncle ran the farm, and he was behind on his haying. “It was August, and they needed to get it done,” said Ken. “I grabbed a fork and offered to help.” Since Kenneth was in his good clothes, he reports he removed his shirt. “I think she liked what she saw,” he added.
Later, a job well done, her Uncle Irish told her in front of all present, “If that young man ever asks you to marry him, you’d have to have your head examined if you refused. Anyone who can come back from college and still use an old pitchfork like that shows he’s a good man.”
Kenneth asked her that very night. Florence said she’d think it over. “I guess she wanted to find out if I really meant it.” That winter, she took a good job in Newport, VT, doing housekeeping. One time when Kenneth was visiting, she asked, “Does your offer still stand?”
They were married in the Danville Congregational parsonage on February 15, 1941. “It was a simple affair,” said Kenneth. Florence had sewn her own dress, made of a deep, blue velvet material with soft gathers in the front, two shining rhinestones on the bodice. “She would never let anyone else touch that dress,” said Kenneth.
The couple joined his father, Wesley (known as Gene), and mother, Ruth, in the brick farm house. In 1942, little Barbara came along, named after Kenneth’s first girlfriend. “My grandfather took me aside and asked if something was wrong with her,” said Kenneth. “She never cried; she was always happy.” In 1944, Andy was brought into the world, named after Kenneth’s Uncle Andy, who was blind but a great man with children. In 1948, one year after the Wards got their first tractor, Ida was added to the family, named after Kenneth’s grandmother.
Andy remembers that first tractor well. He had the measles when they brought it into the yard to try it out. Florence came into his darkened room and said he could get one peek of it before going back to bed. He stood at the front window with his mother behind him watching the marvelous machine pushing snow out of the driveway before she shepherded him back to bed. It still upsets him when he thinks about it. Tractors were rationed after WWII and the Wards applied for all kinds. The first one available was a ’47 Ford N.
Kenneth and Florence bought the farm, half at a time. “I did my share of the work for my half interest,” he said. “Then when we paid that off, we bought the other half.” Florence, like many farm wives, could milk if she had to, but she tried to stay out of the barn. “Her part of the business was the calf barn,” said Kenneth. “For those who know Jerseys, it is no small task to keep them healthy. She used to be good at running the dump-rake, too. I can still see her out there with Dick, her Morgan, hitched up, cleaning up the droppings.”
Eventually, after the Pumpkin Hill School closed, the Wards bought it. The schoolhouse was sitting on land that was originally part of the farm. “There was an option to buy the school back should the school ever be closed,” said Kenneth. Gene and Ruth remodeled it, adding on where needed, and moved there, giving the family full ownership of the space at the farmhouse.
Kenneth, true to the duty spoken of by his college president on graduation day, accepted leadership roles in the Soil Conservation Service. The organization was created in 1935, after the tragedy of the dust bowl, when the U.S. government realized the value of good farming methods and the dissemination of those methods through education to farmers all over the country. He dutifully attended meetings and conventions, learning from others and sharing his knowledge. “I learned the most from Soil Conservation meetings. I would always find a stranger to sit next to, ask them what their problems were and how they solved them. Florence went along to these meetings, even though I don’t think she liked them much,” said Kenneth.
This necessitated managing work on the farm while he was away at these meetings in and out of state. “I had two full-time hired men working with me.” At the peak of the farm, the Wards milked 80, with a herd of 150. By that time, they had decided to go with a registered herd, choosing Jerseys because of their milk, which is high in butterfat. “Hood was paying a better price for Jersey milk, shipping it all over the Northeast.” That’s when they had to upgrade the facilities to include the bulk tank and a cement-floored barn. At that time, he and Florence were asked to come up with a legal name for their registered farm. “We tried to get Deer Acres,” said Kenneth, “but that was taken. So, we changed it to Dear Acres.”
The farm changed hands again in 1983 when their daughter Barbara and her husband David Machell bought it, and he Florence moved into the old schoolhouse. Farming went into decline shortly thereafter with rising costs and falling milk prices. Kenneth shakes his head in sadness, “We had no intention of that happening to them.” Barbara and David eventually sold off the herd, but they still keep beef cattle. They do a business in the raising and selling of beefalo. The bulk tank was removed and a large freezer installed where they sell the beef they have raised and butchered. The Machell’s renamed the farm “Pumpkin Hill Farm.”
In 2008, Florence passed. She and Kenneth had been married for 67 years. He still enjoys life in the snug, little house at the foot of farm, but every day he misses his dear mate, who so long ago accepted his offer to share a life together.
This article was first published in the February, 2011, issue of The North Star Monthly.
For the photo album that relates to this article click here.