Franconia, N.H. — "Here's this silly town in New England that decided it will have a poet in residence and give away $1,000. Can you think of anything that is more ridiculous? Whatever is going on in today's world this is anti-it."
Though the words are scornful, David Schaffer's tone is proud. As Franconia's town moderator, he has a right to his pride -- and not just because his town pays out $1,000 every year to a poet. The people of this mountain town , all 760 of them, made another daring commitment: They bought the Robert Frost Place as their part in America's bicentennial.
It all began in 1975 with a small bicentennial committee trying to decide how to celebrate the nation's birthday. Some thought the town should restore the cabin-home of the man who discovered the "Old Man of the Mountains" (the magnificent mountain outcropping nearby that resembles a sculptured profile). Or perhaps it would be more fitting to restore the stone furnace where the town smelted iron for Civil War cannon.
Another member of the committee, Evangeline (Van) Machlin (who can raise goose bumps on the hottest day with her readings from Robert Frost), had a far more ambitious idea: Buy the Robert Frost Place, which the owner was willing to sell for $55,000.
David Schaffer, who is happiest when his tongue is in his cheek, puts it this way: One November evening on his way to a meeting of the committee, he told himself: "If I have to go to another useless meeting I don't know what I'll do. I am going to suggest a simply impossible thing: We'll buy this Frost house but we won't just have another museum -- we'll give a thousand bucks a year to a poet who can live in the house and be like Robert Frost and just write poetry and do nothing else."
That, he felt, would bring things to a head. He figured the committee members would either say, "This is a great idea' -- which I doubted -- or they would at least come to a conclu So I laid it out and they said great."
When he tells it he still sounds astonished.
It cost $115,000 to get the whole thing going, he estimates. "That's a lot of money for a small town. We did get some seed money, then went out to raise money. Five years later we own the house free and clear. We repaired it and renovated it and equipped it and made a trail through the woods. And we have a modest budget."
David Schaffer and Evangeline Machlin (professor emeritus of speech and theater at Boston University) became co-chairmen of a committee of volunteers from Franconia and neighboring towns. The fund-raising began. Some money came from Washington, some from the state, and $12,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Van Machlin remembers, "The first real help we got was from a charitable fund , $5,000. Then another critical night for us was the town meeting when we asked the town to match this money. This was incredible. Ourm tax money. People argued it back and forth.
"Finally, Ham Ford, a much respected senior citizen of this town -- he runs the hardware store -- he got up and he said, "I think if we don't do this, in time to come our children will reproach us.' And David was smart enough to put it instantly to the vote. Then we had our $5,000."
"Citizens of the town," Dave Schaffer says, "gave the equivalent of $25 for every man, woman, and child. It was a very nice feeling."
Talking to Hamilton Ford, who came here from Minnesota in 1945, gives some idea of the kind of people who think it natural to spend money on poets and a poet's house.
"The town leans this way. We're not an artistically minded people particularly . . . though many artists come to live here. But I will say we are a civic-minded people . . . reaching out for enrichment.
"This is not just a place to live.Get away from it and you miss it."
Franconia is snuggled into a notch in the White Mountains, amid more mountain peaks and ski trails than you can shake a pole at.
"Winters?" says Ham Ford. "I came here to get away from the Minnesota winters.
"I wrote home, 'It's just as beautiful as Minnesota, but it's turned up at the edges so you can see it.' This is what you get used to seeing -- beautiful mountains that change constantly. You can sit up on Sugar Hill and watch the sunset night after night. You appreciate that. A very large percentage of people are here because they want to be here. This is one of the things that improves the qualilty of the whole town."
So now we know what the writer of a 1915 article in the Boston Post was talking about when he said that Frost "found quite by accident that real artistic speech was only to be copied from life. On his New Hampshire farm he discovered this in the character of a man with whom he used to drive along the country roads. Having discovered this speech he set about copying it in poetry, getting the principles down by rigorous observation. . . ."
It's hard to find a citizen of Franconia who is against the Frost Place project. As one of them said: "Against? No, you won't find anyone against.m Indifferent, perhaps -- but not against. Some of us have to spend so much time scratching a living we don't have time to be for.m But no one's against."
In fact, when it came to restoring the old farmhouse, Dave explains, "Everybody worked as cheap as they possibly could -- painting and papering." The right kind of hard-to-get 1920s-type wallpaper turned up at "one of those cheap
The paperhanger disapproved. "Well, Dave," he said, "if you can't afford it I'll go out and buy expensive papers."
"Everybody did their bit. These things tend to get intense, but we were obviously doing it for the fun of it."
Hanging in the farmhouse is a newspaper photoraph of Frost standing by an enormous wood-burning stove that had vanished from the farm long ago. "We ran an ad: 'Have you anything that looks like it?'" Someone had, and now it is part of the farmhouse furnishings.
The nice thing about the farm, Dave says, is that places don't usually match your mental image of them. But if you try to picture the farm where Robert Frost wrote his poetry, this is how you would picture it.
To keep it matching, only the bare minimum of work has been done on the house. Outside, visitors can wander half a mile through the woods, read the poems that have been posted alongside the trail, and see just what Frost had been writing about.
The idea has been carried one step further in the barn (home of the little horse puzzled by Frost's stopping by the woods on a snowy evening), where poetry lovers can watch a slide show and hear a commentary includes a tape of the poet reading his poems.
About 1,000 visitors come to the Frost Place every year.They must want to come. It's not exactly on the main highway. But come they do -- including "this Korean fellow who stepped off the bus," Van told me, "knowing absolutely no English and carrying a battered copy of Robert Frost in Korean. He was just saying 'Robert Frost, Robert Frost.'" It was a holiday, the farmhouse was closed , and there was no accomodation available anywhere. "The police called me. We opened up the house and found him accomodation and he gave us his copy in Korean."
A Japanese poet and his wife turned up the next year in much the same circumstances: The house was closed, accommodation at a premium, Van said. "They had come all they way from San Diego for no other reason than to see it."
About 75 percent of the $15,000 needed to run the Robert Frost Place comes from visitors' fees, subscriptions from the Friends of the Frost Place; the other 25 percent comes from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Hampshire Commission on the Arts. A Festival of Poetry helps, too -- young poets can come to the Frost Place and work with established poets like Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Eberhart, a member of last year's faculty. The town takes particular pride in the festival, but there are some poets who feel it would interrupt their work.
Frost came here with his wife and four children in 1915. He had just returned from three years in London, where, thanks to Ezra Pound, he had been published for the first time. He was 40 and still unknown in the United States. On the boat coming back, the family decided they would live in the Franconia area. So he and his eldest child, Lesley, walked the countryside.
On Ridge Road (it must have looked just as it does now -- unpaved, lonely, lovely, he saw farmer Willis Herbert digging in the spring earth.
Frost "walked across the lawn . . . and went straight to the point," Lesley Frost writes. "'You wouldn't want to sell me this place would you?'"
So for $1,000 Frost got the farm, the barn, 50 acres, and a magnificent mountain view.
During the negotiations over the sale, his book "North of Boston" made the national newspapers, and on the strength of it Willis tried to up the price of $ 200. According to Frost's biography he succeeded. But, according to Dave; "The family says Uncle Willis didn't get it. They swear up and down it was $1,000."
So Frost settled down and the town grew worried.
"There he would sit, a grown man sitting on the porch with papers on his lap looking at the mountains for hours," Dave Schaffer says. "The woman down the street remembers her father coming home and shaking his head and saying. 'That new man down the road, he's going to be on the town rolls by fall.'
"People would talk about how they could see his bare feet on the trellises between lilac bushes.But they quickly understood what was what with Frost. In the winter they elected him president of the PTA -- the most prestigious town position he could get."
By 1920, he was famous. He had written "Mountain Interval" and the Pulitzer Prize-winner "New Hampshire" and was invited to teach at Emerson College in Boston.
So he left Franconia and sold the farm back to the Willis family. He got $2, 000 for it. "And not only that but he divided the land," explains Donald Sheehan, director of the Robert Frost Place.
Now poetry is once again being written at the old farmhouse.
So far, four poets, Katha Pollitt, Robert Haas, Gary Miranda, and William Matthews, one chosen each year by the Atlantic Monthly, have spent a summer here , and Mary Jo Salter has just moved in.
To Katha Pollitt, who came to this remote spot from the middle of New York City, her summer here gave her that most valuable commodity, "a concentrated amount of time writing." She has nothing but praise for Franconia and the opportunity it gave her:
"This little town in the country," she says, "is prepared to do something for poetry. . . . It's hard for writers to feel that anybody cares about what they are doing but here is this little corner of New Hampshire and it does care."