I love my solitude. I also love my community. But my independent nature has never been unusual in this town.
The first time I heard the expression “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” I swore off organized school sports. I told my coach and teachers I was too busy practicing the saxophone (contentedly alone, in my room), to come to practice. I was too busy helping my 80-year-old neighbor, Sanford, shovel manure out of his barn on weekends. I was too busy with my studies.
All of us — even the reticent loners like myself, were able to pitch in.
It was true that I wanted to get better at the sax. And sure, I wanted good grades. And I far preferred the company of Sanford to a crowd of identically clad teenagers practicing groupthink out on a sports field. But more to the point, I couldn’t function in an environment where there was no “I.”
Intuitively, I knew this was not something to admit in public. There was something shameful in my resistance toward working in groups.
As I moved through school and on to college, I was distressed to learn that the teamwork mentality had infected higher learning as well. The syllabus for each class made it seem as though group projects would lighten our workloads and make learning fun. For me, it had the opposite effect. The strain of attending meetings with other students wore at my spirit.
As I neared the end of grad school, my classmates dreaded the isolation of writing their dissertations. I relished the idea.
My allergy to group activity became a source of mirth with Bob. “You’re studying community development, but you want to live like a hermit,” he teased.
He was right. I wanted a quiet life, high in these hills I’d known since childhood. I love my solitude. I also love my community. But I don’t think my independent nature has ever been unusual in this town.
Sap Bush Hollow Farm and the surrounding lands had the unique distinction 200 years ago as being the only patch of ground so completely worthless that the land could be freely purchased. New York state was originally settled through the Dutch patroon system, where wealthy landlords held vast tracts of property and the farmers who worked the individual plots had to pay rent for life.
For all my inclination to pull away from group work, I had a place among my neighbors that night.
Not so in our neck of the woods. The patroons quickly abandoned the steep and rocky hillsides, turning them over to anyone who could come up with a little cash. Some opportunists came in and stripped the mountains of their timber before abandoning the town. But others came to homestead and put down roots through the layers of stone and stumps. My neighbors’ ancestors were among the first truly independent farmers in this country.
And I feel a deep affinity with them. The land was the worst. The life was isolating. But they could be autonomous up here. That, I suspect, was a selling point for many who settled here.
Despite the rough and ragged ways, a community eventually grew up around the hamlet of West Fulton (once called Sap Bush Hollow). By the early 1900s, we had two churches, a hotel, a general store, a creamery, and something entirely unheard of—a two-story feed store that served agricultural needs downstairs, but upstairs housed a beautiful hall with decorative tin walls and ceilings, a small stage, and a collection of wooden folding chairs to provide seating.
For all our grit, isolation, and independence, the town had a love for the arts. The performances put on by the local families in the upstairs of our feed store became an attraction to outsiders. In fact, when I was a teenager shoveling manure with Sanford, he used to tell me about his theatrical performances there, serenading me with bits of songs that he used to sing onstage.
My personal memory of that feed store was always as a church hall. In 1930 the Methodist church bought it to use for social events and fundraising suppers. The local performances died out, but outsiders soon flooded in for another great event, the West Fulton Turkey Supper.
By the 1950s, the industrialization of agriculture and the growth of the processed food industry were changing the face of church suppers around the northeast. Pie filling, gravy, and cranberry sauce started to come in cans. Turkeys were bought in from someplace else. But the West Fulton Turkey Supper was special. A network of neighbors who each took pride in a culinary specialty served homemade cranberry sauce and pickled beets; they gathered the apples from the wild orchards and peeled them for the pies; planted hubbard squashes in their gardens to be roasted and served. We had lost our theater, but still held on to our annual feast. And people far and wide would come.
But with the industrialization of farming came the pressure to get big or get out. And with the limitations imposed by our mountains, most of the farms in our community had no choice but to get out. The hotel burned. The general store burned. People moved away. The church hall was closed.
The independent spirit lives on
A few years ago, my friend Cornelia, who grew up a few miles down the road from our farm, decided, with her husband, to buy the church hall. It had no septic. It had no water. It had no heat. It was falling down. To them, it was a perfect performing arts center and occasional cafe.
She had figured out how I worked and designed the whole process to suit my style.
And they began organizing work sessions, sending out emails to friends, family and neighbors, asking them to give time to the building. They replaced windows as cash would allow. Cornelia’s brother rewired it. Neighbors volunteered their time and crawled around on the ground, digging out the joists and replacing them, then jacked up the floor beams. At the end of the day, beer and wine would flow, instruments would come out, and the partying would begin.
Bob would join in and help with the work and the partying, but I would steer clear. It was too much activity for me. I’d stop by for a few moments, then, when the party revved up, I’d go home and go to bed. But not before whispering first to Cornelia, “You should have a turkey supper again.”
She and I were drinking martinis to celebrate my 40th birthday last February when Cornelia struck. “Let’s have the turkey supper,” she said. “Let’s do it in the fall!”
My judgment was softened by the vodka.
“Sure!” I answered, with entirely too much enthusiasm.
I hoped she would forget. She didn’t. She came by the farm a few times to discuss it. This was looking like group work. My spine bristled at the idea. I came up with every reason why it couldn’t be done: No working kitchen. No oven. No refrigeration. No bathrooms. No potable water.
My job was to stay away and keep the rest of the food hot.
“Anything can be done with a little bit of organization,” she told me. The firm decision that framed her dulcet placations were not lost on me. She wasn’t letting me off the hook.
She had figured out how I worked and designed the whole process to suit my style. We grew the turkeys on the farm. Mom made the pies. We got the vegetables and apples from another farm in town. I got to stay home.
I spent the week before the supper rendering lard, simmering kettles of broth, and then cooking squash, potatoes, and gravy for 80 people.
Meanwhile, Cornelia recruited and organized. Neighbors, family, and friends descended upon the building, sweeping, nailing, scraping, pounding, and rigging up temporary water systems. On the day of the feast, Cornelia presided outside over a string of kettle grills, smoking the birds and managing to-do lists on a chalkboard nailed to a downstairs wall. My job was to stay away and keep the rest of the food hot, then show up in time to carve the turkeys.
Dinner was at 6:00. I took a deep breath at 5:15, pulled on my chef togs, and went to join the group.
I walked up the stairs and into the hall and began to cry. My childhood memories came back to me. The room was humming with activity, and it was identical to the last supper in this place I remembered from 20 twenty years earlier. The same tables. The same wooden folding chairs that had been arranged in rows when Sanford performed on the stage in the early 1900s. The same smells of real, home-cooked food.
The dinner tables in the hall just before dinner was served. Photo by the author.
And just like before, the dinner brought people from near and far. West Fulton, for all her individualistic spirit, was shining bright once more. And peppered among the guests, rushing between the tables to lay out pie or tuck into the feast, were faces I’d known since childhood. Some, like me, had long-standing memories of these gatherings. They came back to restore a tradition nearly a century old. Others were new. They came because they wanted to be part of a place with a history.
In this town, I am in good company.
I pulled out my knives and sliced into the first bird. My eyes, nose, and ears took in the feast while my knives cut through the meat. All of us working to serve the supper charged ahead at full speed. We lacked the experience of the church ladies who used to run these events, but we muddled our way through with the help of Cornelia’s lists and orders.
A concert followed, building on West Fulton’s long tradition of stage performances. I, of course, went home before it started.
But for all my inclination to stay on the outside, to resist joining, to pull away from group work, I had a place among my neighbors that night. And as I watched from my safe position behind the turkey carcasses, I recognized the individuality that defines this place in the calloused hands that held out plates, in the weathered smiles as bowls of squash were passed down the table, the quips and jokes and stories that filled the air.
I was not the only one who quit sports when she heard “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’” In this town, I am in good company.
But I saw also another part of who we are. At the outset of this project, there was no heat, no bathroom, no stove, no water. Only a tumbling-down building that housed many of my neighbors’ finest memories.
And with Cornelia’s “little bit of organization,” the can-do nature of this place shone through. We grew the food. We fixed the building. We cooked the supper.
All of us — even the reticent loners like myself — were able to pitch in. Already we are making plans for next year. And, of course, I will happily participate. I have a place in this. Because although there is no “I” in “team,” there is one in “community.”