Robert Frost's home is tiny town's pride and writers' retreat

SUN JOURNAL

Poetry: Each year, Franconia, N.H., invites authors to stay in the farmhouse and draw inspiration from the view once enjoyed by the famous poet.

October 29, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

FRANCONIA, N.H. -- Whose woods are these? I think I know. They belong to Robert Frost.

Tacked to oaks and maples behind the white clapboard farmhouse Frost once called home are 16 wooden plaques that bear the words of his most famous poems and act as markers along a half-mile nature trail.

They were put there by the people of this tiny White Mountains town three hours north of Boston, who, in a flash of patriotism and hometown pride, decided to preserve Frost's memory and celebrate his art form.

Each year, Franconia hires a live-in poet for the summer, when Frost's front porch offers a spectacular view of vast meadows and granite peaks.

You cannot apply for the job, which pays $2,000. The people who run the nonprofit The Frost Place find you. They want someone at the same age and point in their career as Frost was when he moved into the house with his wife and four children in April 1915.

"It's remarkable. I think we're the only town of 900 in the country with its own poet," says Donald Sheehan, a Dartmouth College professor who runs The Frost Place programs. "Culturally, it's a jewel."

At first glance, Franconia hardly seems to be a magnet for poets.

Lesley Frost Ballentine, the poet's daughter, recalled in her memoirs that her father chose the town while returning from England, where he spent three years and had just been published for the first time. He was familiar with the area because he had lived in Derry and Plymouth, N.H., while he taught school.

The 40-year-old poet took long hikes in the hills above Franconia Notch, looking for the perfect setting. He found it as he and his daughter walked south of the village center and saw farmer Willis Herbert tilling soil near his farmhouse on Ore Hill. Frost offered Herbert $1,000 for the place and after some haggling, the deal was done.

Of his new home, Frost wrote: "Our 45 acres of land runs up to the mountain behind the house about a half mile. In front of us the ground falls away two or three hundred feet to the very flat flood plain of the river. Beyond that, right over against us not three miles away, are Lafayette and the Franconia Range of mountains rising to 5,000 feet. Not Switzerland, but rugged enough."

And inspirational enough, too. During the next five years, the poet whose only wish was to "write a few lines that would stick" won the Pulitzer Prize and cemented his reputation as one of America's best.

Then, Amherst College created a poet-in-residence position for Frost and lured the family to Massachusetts. But each summer for 18 years, he returned to his farmhouse.

After Frost departed for good, the house changed hands and gradually fell into disrepair.

When a committee of townspeople began looking for a bicentennial project to help Franconia celebrate the nation's birthday, the Frost farm rose to the top of the list.

The owner set the price for 8 acres, the barn and house at $55,000, and practiced eyes estimated it would take a like sum to make the place habitable.

The amount made residents suck in their breath and scratch their heads. Sure, they could get some grants from the state and federal government, maybe get mentioned in someone's will.

But what then? The local economy was hardly robust. One of the town's chief employers, Franconia College, was a year from going belly up, and tourism dollars were scarce.

On a bone-cold evening in March 1976, voters gathered at a town meeting. They debated buying police cruisers and giving town employees raises. Finally, they got to The Frost Place.

After some discussion, the owner of the hardware store, Ham Ford, got up and said: "I think if we don't do this, in time to come our children will reproach us."

The committee got $5,000 in seed money, a nonprofit board to raise the rest and a volunteer labor force. Citizens took out ads looking for furnishings that matched pictures taken when Frost lived there and scoured auctions and yard sales.

"There's nothing flashy in the poetry and it's what we've tried to maintain in the house," says Sheehan.

In 1977, the directors hired their first poet, Katha Pollitt, who wrote of her stay: "It's hard for writers to feel that anybody cares about what they're doing, but there is this little town in New Hampshire, and it does care."

Writing poetry in the master's house might seem intimidating, like an author typing on Hemingway's Royal portable or a painter working at Picasso's easel. But many poets have found the Frost house inspiring.

Gray Jacobik, a professor of literature at Eastern Connecticut State University who was poet No. 26 this summer, says she wrote a dozen poems and revised three dozen others during her stay.

"It was a sense of affirmation of what I've chosen to do," she says. "It's a `Wow, maybe I'm really getting somewhere.'"

B.H. "Pete" Fairchild, a California poet who occupied the house in the summer of last year, finished a book that will be published in the next few weeks. He was moved to write the town a thank-you letter, which ran in the local newspaper.

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