Mike Healy recounts the lessons learned as a young man in Hancock and how farmer Leo Cormier taught him the virtues of hard work and friendship
Remembering Leo, forever a part of one town’s landscape
The moving truck was still in the driveway on a beautiful dog day afternoon as I headed up the stairs and dropped the last box brandishing my name on the floor of my new bedroom. It was early August 1972 and the road I was to travel in life had just taken a turn to rural. Rocky beaches and old sea worthy homes had been replaced by long winding roads, pine trees and massive farm houses with barns near or attached. The North Shore of Boston, where I was born, was now 80 miles southeast and as my Great Uncle Gus said to Dad about the move “God love you Dicky, so you’re now hanging your hat in New Hampshire.”
My father was born in Jamaica Plain, just outside of Boston, as was his father before him. It was a tough working class town back in the day and “city living” for sure, but he was lucky he’ll tell you as his neighborhood bordered on Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. The Arboretum remains today a 265-acre wooded park, the largest in what is known as The Emerald necklace of Boston’s historic park system. Dad roamed there as a kid, his “back yard” as he called it, running through the milk weeds chasing wild pheasants with his loyal dog Wimpy. He would own his own Arboretum someday he told himself, and now he did, a massive house with 88 acres of prime woodland on Middle Road in beautiful Hancock, New Hampshire.
My mother was from the North Shore of Boston. This move was a big change for her, but she was up for anything. I was 11 years old and if the least bit bummed about the move, I had my own bedroom as I surveyed now for the first time. With five kids in the family, four of them girls it seemed enough, yet little did I know this move was to expose me to a new way of life with Mary Peabody’s neighboring “Valley Farm” just a few peddles down the road.
The Valley Farm was worthy many a miles travel to see and people did, from all over, as it was picture perfect on both sides of the road. Mary Peabody owned the place, having been in her late husband’s family for generations. The west side of the road boasted a perfectly maintained, meticulously landscaped farm house. Behind it a massive red barn that housed over 60 head of Holstein milk cows, their calves, goats, oxen that were more for show, but still used to pull a plow, and a bull the size of a rail road car. The East side of the road , just opposite the house was the “horse barn,” as big as the “cow barn” with chickens, pigs, horses and one lonely looking donkey. Over the door of this barn proclaiming to all who visited was written “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee” Job 12:8, words that meant nothing to an 11-year-old but so much now as I reflect today with the recent passing of Leo Cormier.
Hancock was then and remains today a small town and we got to know our new neighbor quickly. The Peabody’s might have owned the farm but it was Leo Cormier, the “foreman” who was in charge of the day-to-day operations. He lived with his family bordering the south meadow of the horse barn and was about 50 years old when I first met him. He wasn’t a big man, stood only about 5 feet, 6 inches, yet was strong as an ox. Leo could fix anything that needed to be around the place and was truly gifted with knowledge of the land that is so crucial for any farm to produce the crops needed to sustain itself. He was a brilliant farmer.
Leo had a few “old timers” that worked for him, all of whom lived in a bunk house attached to the kitchen. There was Ralph who ran the milk room. He had suffered a stroke and walked with a cane but was up before dawn and was always smiling after dusk. Then there was “Old Joe.” Never sure what he did other than drink whiskey from a flask and shoot foxes from the kitchen window always sending Mrs. Peabody into a tirade. It didn’t take long with me hanging around the place for Leo to put me to work. I started cleaning out stalls and the “manure track” in the cow barn. In short time as he got know me, I worked side by side with him milking cows, birthing their babies, bailing hay, cutting corn; You name it, Leo had me doing it and I loved every minute of it.
The Farm also served as hub for the local “4H club” with Leo working with us kids training heifers for show. With gentle guidance and almost an innate understanding, he could get an animal, no matter what size, to do anything he wanted. Trained by the best, we competed as a team in local fairs in and around the area, taking home many first place ribbons as tribute to ours and his success.
Life moves as fast as corn grows. Leo left the farm when I was in high school and went to work for the Harris Foundation. I graduated and headed west to college and it was there I heard Mrs. Peabody died and within a few months the farm had sold. The place changed hands a few times as farming is tough business and fell into disrepair for many years. It seemed the end of an era. I’d see Leo when home visiting over the years, especially in the spring buying his “grade A” maple syrup made in the sugar shack behind his house. He always had a grin on his face talking about the wood he stacked and his garden and it was seldom I didn’t leave with either something out of the garden or vegetables he had canned.
I’ve spent more time in Peterborough lately and drove up Middle Road to see him just this fall with my Mom and Dad. We pulled in as he got off his new tractor. “My oldest neighbors” he said as he gave my mom a hug. “Mike” he said “go into the shed and find the sickle, you know where it is, and go cut some corn stalks to decorate your Mom’s place for Halloween. I obliged. The shed was as clean and organized as I had remembered. He had followed me in. “It’s sharp as hell Mike, be careful now,” he said. It was like going back 40 years. He grabbed a pitch fork. “Elaine what can I get you from the garden? How about some beets and carrots”? “Great” she replied, “anything Leo is fine.”
We finished up and sat out on his porch and looked over toward the horse barn. The farm is under new ownership and as beautiful as it ever was. From his porch you could see and hear a huge herd of buffalo running through the East Meadow, the largest herd west of the Mississippi I have heard. Leo said goodbye to us that day having been told the cancer was back and he did not have long to live. “I’ve been down to the funeral home and made all my arrangements” he said. “Don’t want a fuss, but I owe to all my neighbors to have a short service and let them say goodbye.” He planned the Memorial for a Sunday afternoon as he would not have us troubled, he would not have us inconvenienced. Nothing became Leo more in this life than the leaving it. “I might not be a wealthy man but I’m the richest in the valley when it comes to neighbors,” he said as we got in the car and left. And he was, as admired and loved by all on Middle Road.
“Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee” is back up on the horse barn once again and I’m sure the farm revived and springing with life gave Leo great comfort as he completed his at home. If the earth teaches us anything it’s that life renews itself. The coldest of winters is always followed by the rebirth of spring. It’s true we each owe this life a death but in so doing we continue the cycle of rebirth. After all there can’t be a beginning without an end. “You cannot cherish” as my dad says “that which you won’t someday lose.” What would this life be worth or the people around us mean if not cherished?
In a way it all seems so perfect, but sentiment prevails and good byes are heart breaking. “He was my buddy,” Jeff Brown, his best friend and long time neighbor said at the service. “I will miss the guy.”
We all will.
God’s speed Leo.
Mike Healy grew up in Hancock and currently splits his time between Lowell, Mass., and Peterborough.