Future of Vermont Apple Orchard Divides a Family
The sun and the air and the light are good in this place and have made me healthy as I never was in my life. . . . It’s three miles from anywhere and wondrously self-contained. No one can get at you.
--Rudyard Kipling in an 1892 letter about Naulakha, his home in Dummerston, Vt.
The apple trees that are Fred Holbrook’s legacy spread up the slopes of Skyrocket Hill, stretching well beyond the barns of Scott Farm.
For almost 40 years these trees gave Holbrook, an eccentric recluse, the air and light in his life and made him one of the most renowned apple growers in the Northeast.
As he aged, single and childless, his mantra for his farm became simple: “No development, no houses.” It’s a special place: Spectacular vistas of the Connecticut River and the New Hampshire hills peep from between the orchard’s neat rows. The farmyard and one block of orchard graced scenes in the movie “The Cider House Rules.”
Holbrook decided to deed his farm and some of his wealth to the same organization that had bought the adjacent Vermont property of English author Rudyard Kipling from Holbrook’s family and restored it.
But his decision has been litigated almost since the moment the final documents were signed. That’s because, as Holbrook was deciding what to do with his farm, he was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
The ultimate ownership of Scott Farm and its 571 acres, five houses and six barns now rests with the Vermont Supreme Court. The total worth is estimated at $2 million.
“As with most cases where sizable assets have prompted a challenge to the owner’s capacity to transfer them, innuendoes as to greed and self-dealing abound,” Windham County Superior Court Judge John Wesley wrote in July 1999. “Few of the persons involved . . . have been immune from suggestions raising the specter of scurrilous motives.”
Holbrook, who turned 74 on Dec. 17, is apparently unaware of the forces swirling around the farm he so lovingly nurtured. He’s living in a Kentucky nursing home, his mind ravaged by Alzheimer’s.
Wesley’s ruling upheld Holbrook’s decision to give Scott Farm to Landmark Trust USA, the American branch of an English organization that restores and preserves historical buildings.
Landmark Trust president David Tansey says his group is carrying out Holbrook’s wishes by finding creative ways to keep the farm producing apples while diversifying enough to become profitable.
A winery rents one barn, and Miramax paid a fee to film “Cider House” on the property in 1998.
“We have a strong record of accomplishment around the world. Scott Farm is more than just a Dummerston farm,” Tansey said. “Nowadays a small farm is a relic of what made America what it is. We want to be part of preserving that heritage.”
But soon after the papers were signed in June 1995, Holbrook’s sister, Mary Panzera, who lives in Brattleboro, and a fourth cousin, John Goodhue of Paducah, Ky., came forward and asked a judge to reverse Holbrook’s gift. They said Holbrook was incapable of understanding the deal’s complexities.
They now point to a series of cognitive tests given Holbrook around the time the documents were signed and in subsequent months. The scores found Holbrook to be seriously affected by Alzheimer’s.
One test, requested by Goodhue, was recorded on videotape. “He didn’t know what day it was,” Goodhue said. “He couldn’t repeat ‘tree apple ball,’ yet he was deemed competent to give up everything he had.”
Tansey paints Goodhue as a gold-digging distant relative with no interest in Holbrook or Scott Farm, someone who is ignoring Holbrook’s best interests and the promise of keeping Scott Farm in agriculture.
Goodhue counters that he and Fred were close for years and insists he wants to keep the farm running as Fred wanted. He says Landmark wants the farm to generate money for its laudable, but expensive, rehabilitation projects and should have put a nondevelopment clause in the deed.
To that, Tansey replies that the Trust “needed to have the flexibility of raising capital by selling the development rights.”
Judge Wesley described Holbrook, now 74, as a “Vermont original.”
“Fred was a ‘character,’ a laconic son-of-the-soil of a type familiar in Yankee mythology--as thrifty with words as with pennies, occasionally given to enigmatic responses, and a close keeper of his own counsel,” Wesley wrote in his court opinion.
Holbrook is the last in a family prominent in southeastern Vermont for 150 years. His great-great-grandfather, also named Fred, served two terms as governor during the Civil War. In addition to volunteering Vermont as a haven where wounded Union soldiers could recuperate, Governor Holbrook was known for progressive agricultural policies.
A few decades later, Kipling, already one of the 19th century’s most famous authors, was attracted to Vermont by a relative of his American wife. He was sufficiently entranced that in 1892 he built Naulakha, a house that resembled a ship--long and narrow--and that offered superb views of the Connecticut River Valley. Its name is a Hindi word loosely translated as “great jewel.”
It was there that Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” and “Captains Courageous” and began writing “Kim” and “The Just So Stories.”
Kipling quit his idyll in 1896 after a spat with his wife’s family. Three years later, he decided never to return after his beloved daughter Josephine, for whom “The Just So Stories” were written, died of pneumonia at age 6. She fell ill on the Atlantic crossing while they were headed back to Vermont.
In 1903 Kipling sold Naulakha and 11 acres to Mary Cabot, Holbrook’s great-aunt.
For a time, the whimsical house was used as a summer home by her sister, Grace, and brother-in-law, Frederick, who were the grandparents of today’s Fred Holbrook. In 1911 they bought the neighboring property, Scott Farm, which they expanded over the years and turned into a model of Vermont agriculture. The first apple trees were planted in 1915.
Fred’s father, Cabot Holbrook, gave up the farm’s dairy cows and focused on apples and maple syrup. Cabot ran the farm until the late 1950s, when Fred returned after military service in Southeast Asia.
Holbrook then devoted his life to the apples. Over time he became one of the most accomplished orchardists in the Northeast. He had his idiosyncrasies; people who know him describe Holbrook as an abrasive but kindly recluse.
“Generally speaking, he was very mild mannered,” said John Carnahan, a longtime friend of the Holbrook family who also sits on the board of the Landmark Trust. “He had a very passionate approach to raising apples.”
In the early 1990s the Landmark Trust took an interest in Naulakha. It was still owned by Holbrook’s family but had been abandoned for decades; it was in terrible shape.
The English group buys unusual old buildings, restores them and then rents them to people who want to experience history in a uniquely intimate way. Kipling’s American home was the Trust’s first property in the United States.
Holbrook’s decision to give Scott Farm to the Trust was a natural decision, according to Tansey. He had seen how well the Trust had restored Naulakha, and he wanted that same dedication given to his farm.
“We had long discussions with Fred Holbrook,” Tansey said. “His designs for the farm matched our goal for property renovations.”
But Holbrook was also showing signs of Alzheimer’s. He became forgetful and, to some, easily confused.
How far the disease had progressed at that point is the main issue in dispute between the Trust and Goodhue.
Tansey, and Wesley in his ruling, said none of the lawyers or accountants present at the property closing in mid-1995 questioned Holbrook’s competence at the time.
Goodhue arrived in Vermont late that summer, asserting that Tansey had taken advantage of his cousin.
“They are so suggestion-prone,” Goodhue said of Alzheimer’s’ sufferers. “When I found Fred, he was just totally distraught, weeping” after signing the papers.
Goodhue said he’d found in Holbrook’s house a will he’d written in the mid-1950s that leaves everything to his sister.
“He was like the child who broke the cookie jar but doesn’t know how to put it back together,” Goodhue said.
Goodhue, a grocer who provisions grain barges on the Mississippi River, grew up near Dummerston, in western Massachusetts. He said he and Holbrook used to ski together and had a long, close relationship.
“He and my father were best friends growing up,” Goodhue said.
But in his ruling, Wesley found “no evidence of any relationship” between Goodhue and Holbrook, and Tansey maintains that Goodhue’s only interest in returning was to reverse the decision and acquire Scott Farm.
Goodhue moved Holbrook to a Paducah nursing home in 1998 so he could better supervise his care and says he visits his cousin at least once every day.
Goodhue’s last hope is that the Supreme Court will reverse Wesley’s decision. The farm would then go to Holbrook’s sister, who is a party to the suit but has not pursued it as vigorously as Goodhue.
“I pray that it happens,” he said. “It’s been six years that we have been fighting this.”
The Superior Court trial stretched over seven days in late 1998 and early 1999.
The arguments centered on Holbrook’s wishes for Scott Farm and his ability to understand what he was doing when he gave the property to Landmark Trust.
Wesley took seven months to write his 99-page decision. He found that although Holbrook had good and bad days in the summer of 1995, he understood his decision.
Wesley also ruled that Tansey did not exert undue influence on Holbrook.
“I don’t know if we can define if someone is competent or not,” said Susan Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Assn. She did not testify at the trial but is familiar with the Holbrook case.
“It’s very difficult to create a set of criteria that proves when someone makes a decision whether that decision is good,” she said.
Goodhue said that if he won his appeal he would return to Vermont with Holbrook. The farm would be preserved forever and would stay in the Holbrook family. Goodhue said he would like to keep on the Putney family that has managed the orchard for years.
“It didn’t go the way I know Freddy would have wanted,” Goodhue said.