Summer made its official entrance on June 21 this year. To many, that milestone means boating on the lake and baseball hot dogs. To me, it just brings back memories of my oft-painful early days as a vegetable farmer and peddler. Back in “the day,” my parents and I spent every summer day glued to this place, from late April’s first pea planting to October’s last Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin. And some of our crops, like strawberries, were both prolific and perishable.
During those years, we employed the world’s first (well, maybe second) enterprise — peddling.
I’ve always been a dismal peddler. My best effort — “Ya probably don’t want any berries t’day do ya?” — never got me anything but slammed doors and lots of leftover jam berries. Peddling is all about the peddler’s attitude and my dad had a great one. When he loaded up the car and headed out, we always knew he’d return with nary a berry left and a pocket full of money. One woman recently put it, “Heck, when Harry Morse showed at my door, I knew two things: that I didn’t want what he was sellin’ but that I’d end up buyin’ it anyway.”
I’ve recently learned about some more “positive peddlin’” in th’ ol’ genealogy: my maternal great-grandfather, Edward Webster Aiken, was a great old peddler and we’ve got pictures to prove it. We’ve got a whole wagon to prove it. Ed Aiken raised fruit and vegetables down in the southern Vermont town of Putney. Gramp Aiken never left his southern Vermont community except to serve a few terms in the Legislature. Word was that he could make anything green and luscious with the snap of his fingers; well, that plus maybe a little cow manure and a good rugged hoe. The best growin’ in the world isn’t any good without an equal mix of great marketing. Lots of growers build what we now call “brick-and-mortar” businesses and draw folks in with expensive advertising (believe me, I know all about that). Ed Aiken, however, took the opposite route; he put his money into a state-of-the-art peddler’s wagon pulled by a single horse.
My Aunt Tot, Aiken family matriarch, still lives on the Ed Aiken homestead in her grandfather’s house. She and her husband Malcolm Jones dedicated their lives to maintaining her admitted “favorite grandpa’s” farm. Their version of his trademark blueberry patch still bears abundantly every July, albeit “zapping” whole lifetimes of energy and time. But that’s been OK with Aunt Tot. She inherited Ed’s green thumb and his will to work. Malcolm recently passed away and Tot is approaching 90. She contacted me a while back to say that she still had Gramp Aiken’s peddler’s wagon stored in her barn and wondered if I’d like to have it. She knew I was interested in family history and also ran a tourist attraction, but what really brought me over was when she said, “There’s quite a story behind the old guy.”
Gramp Aiken’s son, U.S. Senator George David Aiken, inherited the love of growing things from his dad and followed his footsteps into the fruit and berry business. Even though my Grandpa George Aiken’s heart always stayed with farming, he followed a calling toward politics. George Aiken’s political path led him to the Vermont Legislature and beyond. He advanced quickly to speaker of the House, lieutenant governor, governor, and on to the U.S. Senate.
While his son was becoming famous, Ed Aiken was still peddling, right up into the 1940s, now sharing the road with cars and trucks. Being father of a famous man (George Aiken was being considered as a candidate for vice president of the United States at that time), Life magazine developed an interest in the old peddler and sent a photographer to Putney to take pictures for a story. The story never got printed, quite possibly pre-empted by the war, but the professional quality photographs were taken and have been in our family archives ever since.
A few weeks ago, my friend Steffen Parker and I traveled to Putney in my truck, armed with planks and other tools necessary to load that old wagon. When we arrived, my cousin, Pam, and her husband, Randy, greeted us and led us to a lower barn where it had sat in storage for more than 60 years.
“Mom’s so glad you’re getting it,” Pam said. Aunt Tot had done a remarkable thing to preserve that wagon and its accompanying pictures for all those years, but naturally would consider it a sad, “closed chapter” to see them leave the place. We loaded it with care, both for the wagon and for my aunt’s feelings.
Tot had made us sandwiches for the trip home and when we left with a couple of honks, I’m sure there was a tear or two on her face.
The wagon now sits in our barn, waiting the completion of a pictorial display telling Gramp Aiken’s story. Soon it’ll be on display in our Woodshed Theatre for everyone to see. With that effort almost complete, it brings to mind both an irony and the closing of another “circle”: Here I am, heir to Ed Aiken, running a large “brick-and-mortar” to sell my wares — a concept he rejected. I’m selling farm products though, just like he did, and proud of it. I’m also proud to have his humble wagon here and through it, the opportunity to tell his story. As my friend, Robert Bridges, recently wrote: “Sometimes we do things to honor the dead but I think we do it for the living ... they’re not really gone until we forget.”
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.MORE IN Commentary
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