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Life Growing Up on a Farm: A Conversation with Judy Weber, Owner of Avery Farm By Liz Raisbeck

How did your family happen to purchase the Avery Farm?

My father, Latham Avery, purchased the farm when he was 19 years old. His mother co-signed it with him, since he was so young. The price was $4,000 for about 80 acres and this house and a barn. The barn had to be torn down eventually and he built a new barn later. He bought the farm in 1928 or ’29 and married my mother Edna a few years later. My sister Katharine and I were born in 1934 and ’35. My mother had no experience with farm life but learned to do everything. Shortly after they were married electricity came—there was one line to the house and one to the barn. So they bought milking machines, which helped make dairying doable for a small farm like ours. My mother and father had a milk route—it was the only way to make a living in dairying back then. They had customers in Groton and Mystic, but they dropped Mystic because the Groton route was growing by leaps and bounds. They didn’t have any help except one fellow who came and cleaned the barn. Their pickup truck was their only vehicle. My mother did most of the milking. They were very frugal and life was hard, but all the farmers around here were in the same boat and we didn’t think much of it.

Did your father come from a farming family?

Not really, but his grandfather was a dairy farmer. My father was named after him: Latham Avery. He spent a lot of time on his grandfather’s farm and knew that he wanted to be a farmer from a very young age. I think he wanted to just be himself; he wanted to do what interested him, and that was farming and everything to do with nature.

My father had a dream and a vision and passion to see it through, limited only by his means and practicality. He was self-taught and read extensively about everything that interested him. He researched thoroughly farming methods and dairying. He talked to people of all walks of life and valued their opinions. I don’t think being a farmer as such was his dream; it was a means to an end. The lifestyle gave him the freedom, the environment, and the wherewithal to make his dream happen, which was to live close to nature and the land. Having an innate love of all that was natural, he was very aware of any changes or the unusual in his surroundings.

One day when he was sharpening the blades of his mowing machine on a whetstone under the sycamore tree, he noticed something fluttering down from a tree limb with a hole in it! He had no clue as to what it might be, and then another small object about the size of a golf ball dropped out of the tree, and then another. He went closer to get a better look, and there was a female wood duck and a brood of eight babies walking across the lawn on a march north toward the swamp, which had been drained. He wished them luck and mulled this over for a day or two. Then he called his neighbor and owner of half the dry swamp, asking him if he would be willing to help dam the culvert under the road, backing up water into the swamp again. His neighbor Jim Lamb offered to help and within a week they created a dam and spillway with boards to regulate the water height. The town helped by raising the roadbed and strengthening the bank, and the ducks had a home.

My father also raised wild turkeys from hatchlings. When all 50 were feathered out and could fly, he released the flock into the wilds of southeastern Connecticut. He didn’t live long enough to see the fruits of his labor of love, but there are plenty of wild turkeys in Ledyard now.

How did he learn about farming?

Well, farming wasn’t as involved as it is now. They milked their cows by hand and put up the hay by hand. He probably couldn’t make a living in the beginning. He only had three or four cows. He read a lot and talked a lot to dairymen that were doing well. He always wanted to have Jerseys as they gave such rich milk and cream. They were beautiful and could produce well on small amounts of roughage. Over time he bought pure-bred Jerseys from Vermont and developed a herd of them. The herd grew to 30 or so milk cows, which my parents took care of by themselves.

How did the farm grow from 80 to 307 acres?

My father felt that if you didn’t own the land you had no control over it. He only owned to the west side of Haley Brook, and he didn’t want to see a lot of houses built across the brook. Over time a number of properties around us were foreclosed by the banks during the Depression and after, and my father was able to pick up several acres that way. He was always interested in conservation and was trying to protect the brook. He wanted to make ponds for migrating waterfowl so he built a dam in the early ’50s. He built it all by hand from stone and cement with instructions from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Then, right after he built it, a hurricane came through and completely blew it out. I felt so bad for him because he worked so hard. He also stocked the brook with brook trout, but they were so wily he never could find them and catch them.

Eventually, my father needed more pasture so he bought the Cyrus Brown Farm, which had been the Erastes Lamb place. All these farms were originally from the Lamb property, which had been a royal grant from the king in colonial times. Our house was built in 1775 by one of the descendants of the original Lambs. The Lamb homestead, which was built in 1714, is the farm to the north of us and is still owned by the Lambs today. Anyway, over time Avery farm grew to 300+ acres, most of which was forest and wetlands.

Tragically, when my father died in 1958 of pancreatic cancer —he was only 47— we had a dispersal of the herd and farm equipment; sold it all off. That was very hard. At the time, we had one of the highest producing Jersey herds in the country. There was a problem when we dispersed the farm animals and equipment because the town divided the fields into house lots for tax purposes, but we were fortunate to get into the 490 program for farms and woodlots and the taxes became manageable.

How did you happen to get into raising horses?

After the dispersal of the farm, my mother got a job testing cows for health and productivity with the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. It was a program run by the state that helps farmers adjust the feed according to the cow’s weight and productivity. She would weigh samples of milk once a month, testing it for butterfat content, and send it to Cornell Agricultural School, which would send back a report with recommendations for the farmer. It was a more scientific approach to farming, which was very helpful to the farmers and increased productivity a lot. My mother did that for four or five years. She was very good at it, and then she had a bad gallbladder attack, which forced her to retire. She got a job at the “New London Day” as a proofreader. She was also very good at English. In the meantime, she bought a horse. The brush was growing up on the farm and she realized you needed grazers to keep the brush down. So she bought a Morgan weanling at an auction—I think she bid $125 and was surprised she got it. It turned out to be not such a good horse for her, however. My sister Katharine and her husband restored the home on the Cy Brown place, which my father had bought. She was very interested in horses. We had a pinto that we had gotten for Christmas as kids. My father knew a farmer with a Morgan stallion—he was so beautiful! So we bred the pinto to the stallion Bennfield and we got a beautiful bay filly. We didn’t know much about horses, and we called her Colty, and people kept correcting us
that she was a filly, not a colt. Anyway, we lost her, but my sister had a dream to get a pure-bred Morgan mare, which she did and then started breeding her to Benfield, then 20 years old. Eventually, we had maybe 12 or 15 Morgans, and several were champions. In fact, in 1970 we showed the first ever full brother-sister champions, Bennfield’s Ace and Katy Bennfield, which won the top ribbons at the Eastern National Morgan Horse Show in Springfield, Mass. Bennfield’s Ace went on to become World Champion stallion that year at the Grand National in Detroit. Katharine was an especially good judge of horses, and she knew quality when she bought that purebred mare.

What was it like for you growing up on this farm?

What was it like for you growing up on this farm? You learn very early about being responsible on a farm. There’s an unwritten rule—take care of the animals before you take care of yourself. My sister and I, of course, had chores on the farm. I fed the chickens and took care of the calves. The chores never seemed like work; they gave us a sense of pride if well done. Every couple of days there was a miracle or a disaster, it seemed. Everything is so magnified when you’re young.

We were very active in the 4-H program. We took our heifers to the county fair for judging, and we won a lot of prizes. If we won locally then we were selected to go to the Eastern States Exposition fair in Springfield, Massachusetts. That was very exciting. We’d stay in dormitories there for a week during the fair and show our heifers in the Coliseum with other 4-Hers from all over New England. Our whole focus was on taking care of those Jersey cows.

I can’t remember ever being bored. My sister always had a birdcage on the kitchen table. When the canary flew away, Katharine replaced it with a snake or a field mouse or a baby
rabbit retrieved from the cat. We also had a pet crow. It had the run of the farm and could say “hello.” It was remarkably entertaining. We swam in the dammed-up brook…building the dam was half the fun. We built huts in the woods and camped out, skated on the ice ponds and went sledding on the hillsides. When the brook was frozen we skated to school which was exciting, exploring places we had never had access to before.

On the farm my mother did everything. Besides most of the milking and cooking, she made my sister’s and my clothes, did all the cleaning, wallpapering, painting inside and out; she even made braided rugs, many of which are still in use. She was also the bookkeeper for the farm business. We had a vegetable garden, and the hired man had a wonderful green thumb. He brought in vegetables every day, which he expected to have for lunch, sharing, of course, with us. My mother would come in from milking cows and the milk route and start cooking up the vegetables he brought us for a major meal. We went to a one-room schoolhouse right up the road. We all walked to school. It only had a wood stove; we didn’t have electricity or running water. There was a woodshed and two outhouses. It got really cold in the winter, as there was no insulation. School went from first to eighth grade, and then we went out of town to Fitch High School in Groton. There were about 15 to 18 children, all from the farms around here. The older children helped the younger ones learn the basics. We knew everybody, and I really loved school. Our teacher was wonderful. She was from the area also. Her name was Mrs. Whipple, and she specialized in geography and history. We didn’t have any fancy playground equipment like today. There was a big stone ledge next to the school and parts of old cars. Our favorite thing was to get a fender and slide down that ledge as fast as we could. It was a wonderful childhood, growing up on this farm.

How did you happen to transfer Avery Farm to GOSA?

In 2011, I think, my daughter Sue and a friend, Karen Lamb, were walking Missy, our dog, when they met Sue Sutherland taking photos at the cranberry bog on Lambtown Road. Curious, they asked what the photos were for. She in turn told them about GOSA and their interest in acquiring the Candlewood Ridge property next door.

My daughter Sue casually mentioned the conversation to me, and we discussed what a blessing it would be if GOSA were able to acquire and protect the land and wetlands which abut our property on the southern border. We were growing increasingly concerned about plans for major development of that property, which had already started but then halted when the recession occurred. I called Sue Sutherland that night and shared my interest in preservation and protection of undeveloped land in general, and my own land in particular. The rest is history.

Nothing means more to me than the land. It is the only thing that is forever. My premise has been, “If you can’t leave it better than you found it, leave it alone.” Nature is amazing! I feel very fortunate to have made the connection with GOSA and their willingness to take the helm of protecting this beautiful property. I have every confidence that they will respect and care for this land and its resilience and beauty. Through their dedicated board, members, supporters and volunteers, the dream held by my parents and my family will continue.

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