Arthur Rothstein was supposed to be in New Hampshire taking
photographs of logging activity for the Historical Section of the
Farm Security Administration. But there he was on a cold February
day in 1936 in North Hartland, Vt., playing hooky, admiring a
four-story bank barn swathed in pristine snow and set against a
flawless blue sky.
In the image he captured, the angles of the various additions to
the barn catch the mosaic of sun and shadow, freezing them into a
patchwork of intersecting planes. The values in the black-and-white
picture vary from the darkest dark beneath the ground floor bank on
the barn's east side to the blinding white of the south-facing main
No person or footprint breaks the carpet of snow. This
photograph became many things in the years ahead, but it is also a
picture of silence made visible.
Rothstein's print of the barn and other images of Vermont he
took reached the desk of Roy Stryker, Rothstein's boss in
Washington, D.C., and Stryker was delighted by what he saw.
Stryker was the director of the Historical Section, a division
of the Farm Security Administration, which was charged with
recording visually projects that had been undertaken by President
Franklin Roosevelt's Resettlement Administration. Millions of
Americans suffering through the Great Depression were at last
finding jobs in FDR's work programs, and this was true of
photographers, painters, sculptors, and musicians as well.
A dozen or so gifted photographers were hired by Stryker to
photograph the government's work and its clients. And the final
archive-a collection of roughly 270,000 images, taken between 1935
and 1943-resides at the Library of Congress today. It is the
largest visual arts project documenting the American scene ever
undertaken by the federal government.
Approximately 1,700 of the photographs in the FSA archive are of
Vermont and Vermonters, images shot by eight photographers who made
a total of nine trips to the state during those years. Rothstein,
whose image of the barn in North Hartland is in that collection,
was Stryker's first hire, a city kid, age 21, barely out of
For many years, the caption for Rothstein's stunning photograph
read "Windsor County, New Hampshire," which meant it was often
overlooked, but that error has since been corrected. In 1973 Roy
Stryker compiled a book showcasing his favorite images taken by the
photographers who worked for him, and Rothstein's picture of the
North Hartland barn made the cut.
Today, Ed and Kelly Meacham own and work that farm with their
grown son and his wife, but this sprawling complex of barns,
milking parlors, house, tie barn, farmstand, and silos is still
known in the Upper Valley as the LeMax Farm, for Lesle Maxfield,
who moved his growing family off their small Tunbridge farm to this
bigger one in 1947.
The Meachams bought it half a century later from Louis Maxfield,
Lesle's son, who farmed these several hundred acres for 50 years,
decade by decade buying out the shares of the rest of his family.
At one time he had 100 milkers, but the farm's fame came from its
world class breeding stock and Maxfield's years of work in Holstein
associations helping to set standards for the breed.
"I really wanted to grow something of a family farm heritage,
but that didn't work out," Maxfield says in a youthful voice that
belies his 84 years. His sons had other plans for their lives.
After the Meachams showed an interest in the dairy farm and put
in four years of hard work to learn its ways, Maxfield sold it to
them. He now winters in Florida, but he lives nearby during the
rest of the year. He still shows up on the Meacham's doorstep to
lend whatever help he can.
Maxfield and the Meachams speak so affectionately of each other
that it's hard to imagine that Maxfield even bothers to knock
before he comes through the door.
Out front on Route 5, a sign reads "LeMax Farm," a name that, of
course, was acquired after Rothstein's visit. The farm was
originally known as the "Miller Farm."
"They were probably raising sheep way back then," says Ed
Meacham, a large, soft-spoken man who now milks 85 cows. He is
referring to the time, 150 years ago, when Robert Dexter Miller, a
congregational minister, owned the land, served a local church, and
kept his faith despite burying five of his six children.
Somehow generations of Millers hung on to the farm until the
Maxfields took over. Around 1893 the Millers were prospering enough
in the burgeoning New England dairy market to build this
spectacular barn, and a little more than a decade later, they built
a Victorian house close to the road, where the Meachams now
Everett Miller, the last of his family to own the farm, was
likely the farmer who walked out to greet Arthur Rothstein when he
set up his tripod and box camera.
Meacham is not the least bit surprised that someone would be
interested in the history of his barn. People have been stopping to
admire it for decades.
"Quite a few people stop and take pictures," he says.
His dining room is a virtual shrine to the barn. The walls are
covered with paintings of the barn and photographs that have been
taken over the years by visitors. Every year students from Vermont
Technical College in Randolph visit the farm to study its
construction. Students from Hartford High School come by each year,
"Just imagine the amount of wood that went into that," says
Meacham in awe as he turns to scan the barn from bottom to top.
"What was it like to haul up those rafters?"
This barn is four stories high. It has an enclosed bridge, stone
supporting walls, and three entrance ramps. It was built to
accommodate larger herds of cows that reflected the surge in the
state's dairy industry in the latter nineteenth century as
refrigerated rail cars began carrying butter and, later, milk to
The barn is supported by a web of massive beams, each about a
foot square, strong enough to have once held some 16,000 bales of
Underfoot, overhead, and protruding from every crook and cranny,
there's still hay, some of it decades old. The air is full of it;
motes of it swarm like no-see'ums in the sunlight that floods
through the windows. Most is baled and stacked. Dinner for the
current bovine residents.
Rothstein's photograph, meanwhile, has become an icon in the
history of photography, an image that transcends a utilitarian
record, one that has become art.
In 2008 the Council on the Future of Vermont in a survey asked
the state's residents what Vermont values and traditions they would
like to keep.
"Ninety-nine percent of Vermonters wanted to preserve the
working landscape," says Eric Gilbertson, field services
representative for the Preservation Trust. Although the barn that
caught Arthur Rothstein's eye that day in February 1936 could
easily be dismissed as obsolete in light of modern dairy practices,
it still serves a purpose. Gilbertson calls it a cherished
"physical record of Vermont's working landscape."
Maxfield's connection to the magnificent structure goes beyond
history and his years of mucking out stalls. His ties are deeply
personal. "That farm naturally became a part of me. And I was part
of it. And still am."
Nancy Price Graff is a Montpelier freelance
writer and editor.