Learning of the estate sale planned for Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot took me back to my correspondence with Donald Hall leading up to my only face-to-face meeting with the former U.S. Poet Laureate.
His autobiographical “String Too Short To Be Saved” devoted a single paragraph to an event I learned was one of the pivotal experiences in his life. It imprinted itself in his memory, for it was the first time he realized that life was fleeting, and he had to come to grips with mortality.
In the chapter “The Long Day” he wrote, “The Crumbine place was a farm which some people from Cleveland used for the summer. It was on the downward slope of Ragged Mountain, off New Canada Road. I remembered when Luigi (a Canuck whose last name I never knew) and Ben Heaton held an auction to sell everything in the house, when they moved out after selling it to the Crumbines. The farm had belonged to the Heatons for generations, and the auctioneer was hawking broken cradles and old quilts and packets of letters: the valueless mementos of generations of farm women. I was six or seven then. The Crumbines tore the house down and built it up again, and planted around it and stuck wagon wheels in the drive until you could have sworn it was a 1935 copy of an old farm, and nothing more.”
In his correspondence with me, six decades after he wrote that account, Hall elaborated on the sale:
“When I was maybe ten years old my grandparents took me to the auction which emptied out the old house which is the center of [what today is] the NH Mountain Inn. I wrote about that auction in String Too Short To Be Saved. Two old guys lived there and could not pay the taxes. My grandfather who farmed down at this house, had 400 acres and no money. He gave the two old guys, I think Ben Heaton and a guy named Luigi, a mouth-shaped piece of land across New Canada, so they could build their shack there, which was still more or less standing the last time I looked. That auction was important to my growing up. I learned that somebody’s life — I think a package of letters was auctioned off — can turn out to be nothing. My grandfather and I hayed a great hayfield just down the hill from the Inn. I’m sure, before there were swimming pools and tennis courts and everything. I knew the Reverend Crumbine who summered there from Cleveland in the 1940s. And others. A dear younger friend had her wedding reception there.”
Eagle Pond Farm, where Hall and his wife, Jane Kenyon, took up residence in 1975, was a similar “old house” that had been in the family for generations. “Donny” Hall had spent his summers there with his grandparents, reveling in country life and the stories his grandfather told about the family and the neighbors. Those accounts became the basis for many of his poems and stories.
After Kenyon died of leukemia, her life and death would become his major focus for years to come, but as he approached the age of 90, his thoughts returned to those earlier years, as well, and his place in the generations that occupied Eagle Pond Farm. He took comfort in knowing that his granddaughter wanted to move to farm after he was gone.
Hall died on June 23, 2018, a few months shy of his 90th birthday, and a month before the publication of his final book, “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing 90.”
Today, William A. Smith, Inc., of Plainfield will be auctioning off items from Hall’s estate, including his roll-top desk, lithographs by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and others from his years as an editor of Paris Match, and other items he has collected over the years. Then, this weekend, there will be an estate sale at Eagle Pond Farm to clear out some of the other items, including mementos of farm life … perhaps the scythe that his grandfather had purchased at the auction years ago on New Canada Road.
Hall saw that auction as a symbol that a life “can turn out to be nothing.” He did not recognize that, for those purchasing articles at an auction, those items can become important mementos for their new owners and for generations to come. That may be the fate of some of the items from Donald Hall’s estate auction.