Flagpole

The man from whom we bought this place, Lute Nims, then 82, now deceased, took me on a special trip to the barn, where he pointed out a faded, chalky-white, wooden flagpole laying along the three-foot wall overlooking the hay pit. The pole was impressive, something I was barely familiar with – a straight tapered tree, small branches stripped off, leaving pimples – extending nearly the full length of the wall, some 30 feet, perhaps eight inches thick at the broken-off base. “This is the flagpole,” he said, pointing under a pile of old wooden ladders resting in a 45-degree angle against the thigh-high wall. “I want to show you where it stood before it broke some years ago.”

We walked out of the barn and to the flagpole’s former place along the southern periphery of the yard, in a shallow depression behind two massive Japanese maples that shield the colonial home from the road, lending privacy from passersby when foliaged. Mr. Nims began walking around in baby steps, probing with his toes and looking down before stopping, pressing the toe of his right shoe down and saying, ‘”Here it is! See? Put your foot here and feel the hole. The base is still in there.”

I pressed down with my toes and felt it, perhaps an inch or two deep, jagged wooden base at the bottom. I knew Mr. Nims had brought me there to, in his dignified, gentle manner, encourage me to someday re-erect the proud old ship’s-mast of a flagpole, a survivor from the distant past, dating back to who knows when, definitely 19th century, perhaps earlier. A rare find gracing anyone’s property today. There are few authentic, old wooden flagpoles left. Very few. The only other one I know of is in Deerfield.

From that moment, probably in March of 1997, I knew I would someday put that flagpole back up and hang a flag from it, but I was never satisfied with the location. It made no sense that it should go there, in a depression that morphs into a deep puddle during winter melts and summer storms. I questioned that it “belonged” there. There had to be a more appropriate place, one that was obvious. There was. I found it. “Documented.”

Thankfully, Mr. Nims left behind many old photos of this place and its people after transferring the deed to my family. He said he had relatives who’d like the pictures but he thought they belonged with the place, its rich history, and should not be removed, forever separated, legacy lost. Because of those pictures, the ones he intentionally left behind, I soon discovered that my suspicions were valid about the flagpole site he had shown me. That was not its original place. It had likely been placed there sometime during the 20th century, before the handsome, ornamental Japanese maples were planted, probably after the first time it had rotted and snapped off, leaving the base in the ground. Whoever planted the trees, probably Helen Gerrett, had left the proud flagpole in place, likely unaware that two of the prettiest trees in Greenfield would someday grow as tall as they now stand.

Over the years, hidden behind those trees in the damp depression where water frequently pools deep enough to sail a toy boat, the buried base of that pimpled wooden pole had rotted and snapped off in the wind, dropping to the turf like a felled fir. From there, the prostrate pole had been lugged to the barn and lain in the runway, where it was pointed out to me by pastkeeper Nims, aware of its importance, hopeful I would rehabilitate it.

A 19th century photo of my buildings, the words Old Tavern Farm painted in bold white letters across the carriage sheds, shows the flagpole right in front of the sheds, gracing the crest of the island inside the horseshoe driveway. It was an ideal site, semi-centered, large wooden globe overextending the ridge cap by perhaps 10 feet, framed by a 2 1/2-story barn on the left, dwelling on the right. When we inquired about the best way to re-install the pole to its proper, showy place, we were advised to keep the base above ground in a pinned, cast-iron sleeve set in a frame four feet below ground in a concrete boot. That way it would regain its original standing height. We did so just in time for the Fourth of July 2000, when we celebrated the occasion with a cookout for my family and that of steeplejack Mike Mastrototara, who had advised us, ordered the sleeve from Steel Shed in Bernardston and gold-leafed the antique wooden globe, now split in two and lying on a shelf for posterity. In retrospect, we should have known better. How could we expect an ancient wooden artifact like that to survive more harsh weather? When it split and fell to the ground, we replaced it from a catalog with a contemporary, hollow brass globe, which is, to be honest, a sorry replacement. The original is always better.

But, still, it is comforting to know that our historic flagpole, a venerable wooden monument, is ┬ástanding where it was meant to be, where it originally stood, all because of a 19th century photo. I have twice painted it, first before the proper, patriotic raising, again a few years later. The sleeve simplifies the project, eliminating the need for a ladder. By removing the bottom of two pins in the base, you can slowly walk the pole down to a horizontal position, temporarily resting the top third across a carpenter’s horse standing in the driveway. Soon, it’ll need another coat of brilliant-white Benjamin Moore – formal high-gloss, of course, for emphasis.

It’s a treasure, standing tall sentry over our historic Greenfield Meadows landmark, once a public house on the post road to Bennington.

One rare relic fronting another.

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