Shirley and John, by Matthew Ball

Shirley Sylvester says that the best part of “living on this farm is being out and about. I know every inch of this farm. I have walked all over these hills. I have walked all over these fields.”  Shirley moved to Cricket Cricket Creek Farm from town with her husband John and their toddler son in May of 1953.  They were looking for a place to rent in the country to raise their children. They have made it home ever since.

How does anybody end up and stay in a place?  During my couple of years living and working at Cricket Creek Farm, which I’ll tell ya has felt like a lifetime and a moment all at once, I have often thought about this. It is easy to end up in a place by happenchance, by need, and by desire, but it is harder to stay put.  In a time of rapid fire everything, from information to money to raw materials to bullets, I think it’s become increasingly difficult for people to create deep emotional attachments to places and less likely for people to be restrained by the practical and physical circumstances of places.  In essence, it’s become harder to make a home.

So maybe you can understand why, coming from how I see and think about things,  I am so enthralled by the lives of Shirley and John Sylvester who are my upstairs neighbors in the white house behind the willow tree at Cricket Creek Farm.  I cherish the infrequent but incredibly satisfying conversations I have with Shirley and John, but it is their muffled voices, the hum of Shirley’s vacuum cleaner, the tap of John’s hands and feet to the rhythms of life, and Shirley’s sprightly step as she goes to feed the farm cats every morning that brings me to a feeling of really being home.

For most of the Sylvesters’ time at Cricket Creek, the farm was owned by Norris Phelps.  With the help of several other families, the Phelps family raised a Holstein herd and their forage and feed at Cricket Creek until 2000, the year before the Sabot family purchased the farm.  Shirley says it was a great place to bring children up, “It was a resort” for them to play and learn in.

During a visit upstairs the other day I asked John what his favorite part of being on the farm has been.  He responded in his ever youthful expressions, “Working in the shop, working with the tools.” Even though John has not been in and around the workshop lately, which is in the middle of the farm parking lot, the legacy of his impeccability shines through our currently more chaotic habits. His  organization and attention to detail is beyond impressive. Shirley said the shop was “as neat and tidy as your dining room.” Often when I have looked for some odd or end that I know must be hiding in some corner of that old shop and I come across some little box labeled in a very distinguished handwriting  I feel as though I have traveled through somebody else’s brain.  It is quite astounding and humbling to pause and think about a man, decades, and the sheer amount of headaches that he has relieved in that space.  John has slowed down in recent years, but his memory for the details of  his farmwork are as sharp as he kept his tools.  He worked more than full time on the farm, as well as  serving as a town policeman six days a week.

In the evening, during the corn harvest, after everybody else had gone home John would stay and repair the corn chopper -whatever it took- rivets, welds, sharpening- you name it.  Asking him why he did it John simply said, “it needed to get done!”

In addition to being integral to the operation and overall sustainability of the farm, Shirley and John had careers off the farm in Williamstown. For 25 years Shirley worked at Corner House Publishers on Green River Road.  John was a Williamstown policeman from the middle 50’s through 1980.   Shirley got home when their children, Jonathan and Stacy, were done with the school day. John left for his shift at 3 in the afternoon  and worked late into the evening. But the Sylvesters always sat down for dinner together.  To be able to eat with his family John would leave the car radio on and the window open so he could hear if he got a call.  Needless to say, he didn’t always get the last bite.

When Shirley, who grew up in Bennington, and John, on Green River Road a few miles away, moved to the house on the shoulder of the Taconic hills they found a place that brought life and joy to them.  They  “love the whole farm,” as Shirley puts it. When I asked Shirley what she thinks about the current iteration of Cricket Creek Farm, she said “My hat goes off to Topher….He deserves a gold star. And his mother too.  They are very brave.”  Like Shirley, I am so comforted that the farm remains is in the hands of such grounded and caring people.