Interviewee: Martha Brown Healy Briscoe
Narrator: Bob Steck
Place of Interview:
Date: January 6, 1989
Summary of talk: Martha’s early childhood, Vassar College and Radcliff College. She speaks about the Briscoe Farm, her husband and 2 sons. She was active in the Salisbury community serving on the Region I Board of Education, Democratic Town committee, and the League of Women Voters. She speaks of her husband, Jack being a Selectman in Salisbury and serving on the Connecticut State Board of Agriculture. She also talks about being an airplane spotter in WWII, and teaching people how to recognize aircraft.
Date: October 31,2011
Property of the Oral History Proj ect
Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library
Salisbury, CT 06068
BS: Will you spell your last name for us first?
MB: B as in boy, I always say, B-R-I-S-C-O-E. The Briscoes are tough about having an “e”on the end of it.
BS: Is that your full name?
MB: My middle name is Martha Brown Briscoe.
BS: Your maiden name?
MB: Well, that’s assorted. I was born Martha Howie Brown and later I was adopted and became Martha Brown Healy. So, I really have two maiden names. I can be called Martha Brown Healy Briscoe and in some contexts I am. But my legal maiden name after the age of 9 when I was adopted is Healy.
BS: Have you always lived here? Where you born here?
MB: I should say not. I was born in Boulder, Colorado. In 1909. I grew up in the suburb of Chicago. My husband and I came here in 1939.
BS: So, you lived in Chicago for
MB: I lived in suburb of Chicago from the time I was 20 months old until I went away to college and I never lived there again.
BS: I’m from Rock Island.
MB: Oh, are you? I grew up in Hinsdale.
BS: Oh, is that where you are.
MB: And do you know that the Estabrooks, Mary Lou Estabrook, at least, comes from Silas Grove, which in my day, was a completely inconsequential ,scruffy suburb of Hinsdale.
BS: I’ve never been there.
MB: Well, then it was nothing.
BS: I believe that Mr. Estabrook also comes from the mid-west.
MB: Yes, he does.
BS: Yes, I thought I recalled that. When did you get to Salisbury?
MB: In 1939. My husband at that time, since 1929, had been an instructor of English at Harvard. He decided at that time; he was an 18th Century man, and at that period 18th Century men were a dime a dozen, there was not a chance that we would stay on at Harvard, which was well equipt, nor any place else. As his father had before him, he got kind of restless at that age and decided to take on a shift in careers. He thought he might look around in farming, he had some farming experience an early teenager. The idea was that we were going to look around, find a farm, establish that, get it running and then, probably, create some sort a business, we weren’t all sure what. Being the time it was; we got here, established the farm, bought a very modest herd and a few more Guernseys. By the time we were well established as farmers, the war came and the most useful thing, the only thing for us was to do , was to dedicate ourselves to producing as much feed for the cows and milk as we could and that is what we dedicated ourselves to. Jack was on the tractor at 6:00 in the morning and I was the farm cook
BS: Did you have a crew?
MB: Yes, we did. We had one man who was exactly the same age as Jack, so they were both born in 1902, a man by the name of Danny Jones. Danny was taken out of an orphan asylum. As was his sister, by the Herringtons who owned the farm before we did and graciously allowed to work all day long, every day, (whether it was convenient to go to school?) His sister was placed in the farm across the way, was most recently the Verbick Farm. Danny came to the farm, it was almost like serve time for land, he’d never done anything else. We also hired the grandson of Mr. Herrington, who had owned the place. So we had Charlie Herrington and Danny. We had various fellows who came on with a great variety of abilities. One fellow, a New- Foundler from NewFoundland, during the war, who had the most beautiful bright blue eyes that I had ever seen, and absolutely nothing at all in the back of his head. We also had a member of the Women’s Land Army.
BS: Did you say, Women’s Land Army?
MB: Women’s Land Army. When she was recruited, she thought she was going into the Army and no one could be more surprised than she when she ended up on a farm!
BS: What is the Women’s Land Army?
MB: During the war they recruited the women to work on farms. She was so stupid that she didn’t catch on to what she was being recruited for.
BS: I gather that it was a dairy farm?
MB: It was a dairy farm. It”s always been a dairy farm. Actually, when we bought it, it was primarily a pig farm. It had cows, it had a small herd, but their biggest business was pigs. They had the Hotchkiss concession.
BS: The Hotchkiss School?
MB: The Hotchkiss School garbage collection, yes. For years we would find Hotchkiss forks and spoons scattered over the landscape because they boiled up the garbage and fed it to the pigs, what was left over was scattered over the landscape, well I guess a lot of it was scattered by the pigs. We’d find the forks and spoons around.
I brought here a couple of, which may be of interest to you, sketches of the farm that were done by my husband in the early days.
BS: Is this a copy, or could we make a copy?
MB: I have plenty of them. You could have that. And also this …..
BS: Oh, this is quite detailed.
MB: Jack had graduate training, he was a mechanical engineer. He ends up teaching English.
BS: That’s your son?
MB: No, my husband.
BS: Let me just go back a moment to yoursel£ You were born in Colorado. Now, did you go to primary school there?
MB: No, I left there when I was an infant.
BS: Oh, you left when you were an infant. So, you went to school then in Chicago?
MB: I went to school in Hinsdale.
BS: Oh, in Hinsdale. Were you into any work before you were married? What did you do before you were married?
MB: Well, after I graduated from college, I went to Vassar.
BS: Where were. you?
MB: I went to Vassar. I graduated in ’31 which is an inauspicious time for the work that I did. I tracked the streets of New York for six weeks and finally landed a job. Cole Publishing Company. They were putting out an encyclopedia which was a thinly veiled steal from Britannica. I was hired as a typist. I was a terrible typist and didn’t last at that any length of time. They finally put me on to going over the copy for towns, ( I’ve forgotten) under what population of the United States to make certain they did not conform so closely to the copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica as to be actionable. I knew a great deal about a great many towns under 10,000.
I lasted there, I was ultimately fired. Then I decided to go ahead with my, what had suddenly become, my major field in college. I went to Radcliff to do graduate work in Economics.
BS: At Radcliff? And, Economics?
MB: Yes. That is where I met my future husband. Well, we had met before, but those were irrelevant meetings.
BS: Did you get involved with any kind of Economic teaching or writing?
MB: Yes, I taught at the Kathryn Gibbs school in their, so called, “college department”.
BS: Which school?
MB: Kathryn Gibbs.
BS: Where is that?
MB: In Boston.
BS: Oh, in Boston.
MB: Yes, there are a whole series of Kathryn Gibbs schools, they are secretarial schools but they have a so called, “college department’: which is a course for girls who have graduated from college and they taught them beyond secretarial skills, and I was in that department. I assisted the man who was the professor who taught Economics.
BS: How many years did you do that?
MB: I think I did that a couple of years. After I was married, I had some odd jobs here and there. But mostly I did the graduate work.
BS: Then after that is when you went into farming, when you came here and went into farming.
MB: Yes, our first child was born in ’37 in Cambridge. And then we came here in ’39.
BS: How many children did you have?
MB: Jack and I had two sons.
BS: How long did you maintain the farm?
MB: We ran it until, let me see, I guess it was about ’68 when we finally began to look around to find a tenant because we were gettIng too old to run it ourselves. Jack died in ’75. But I kept that tenant, and then we have had my present tenants, who are perfectly satisfactory, since ’78.
BS: So, this is a working farm?
MB: It is a working farm right now, yes.
BS: Still a Dairy Farm?
MB: It’s still a Dairy Farm.
BS: I gather it’s a large place.
MB: Oh, they are milking a great number of cows. They are milking about, a total on the place, we have now are between 160-180 cows. We never milked more than 70 at the outside. But, there are 2 herds here, and they have taken in Mrs. Southhack’s cows. Her barn burned down. They rent a great deal land, and they have a farm. Pollard Brothers, are my tenants. They have a farm over in Falls Village. All of the young-stock are over there. Only the milking herd is here. I have about 238 acres of which 175 are tillable, the rest is in forest. I had a 28 acre swap adjoining the nature conservancy and I gave them 28 acres to round out their 100 acre holding.
BS: What about this Agri-business? Did you run into any problems in terms of this constant pushing out of the smaller farmers?
MB: It’s always struggling, it always will be because, farming, as I’m far from the first to point out, is almo~t the only business in which you buy at retail and sell at wholesale. If you are the small farmer, that is your situation. Farmers have tried to counter this with cooperatives, but that’s about as far as they have gotten. The great pressure is that farms have to be very heavily capitalized. They are more heavily capitalized than any other business.
BS: And then the cost of all that machinery.
MB: Machinery is another big expense. The problem is that it’s extremely difficult to share it because everyone needs it exactly the same week.
BS: For sure.
MB: At present, it’s a very chancy operation around here now because so many farms are going out of operation and the land is so high that no so called, “dirt farmer’: could possibly make a living if he had to buy the farm here.
BS: Was this the situation in the ’60’S?
MB: No. It was still reasonable. Of course, when we first came the prices we paid are laughable now.
BS: I remember during the depression things went cheaply in Iowa …..
MB: Well, yes, Iowa. And, I guess if you want to get land cheaply now, you can do it very well in North Dakota.
BS: There are places now. It’s already started. What was the community like when you got here to Salisbury?
MB: It was delightfuL We assumed that it would be a rather cold, New England community, and we would have great difficulty getting to know people. But, not at all, we found it extremely warm and very welcoming. We were very fortunate that our neighbors across the way were Fred and Ruth Bower, both long since dead. They introduced us to a lot of people and were very helpful. We met a great number of people and found ourselves very quicldy involved in local affairs. I don’t know how long it was before Jack Briscoe was on the Board of Selectman. It wasn’t long. It was 1949, it was the loth anniversary of opening of the high school, I know I had
already been on the Regional High School Board for several years.
BS: You were on the Regional High School Board?
MB: I was on it for 10 years.
BS: Oh, yes.
MB: Pretty soon, Jack was Democratic Town Chairman. We were very active and thoroughly enjoyed being in town.
BS: Well, the Democrats didn’t get into office around here at that time, did they?
MB: Certainly not, we were the minority. The town was run, was totally a Republican town. The first selectman was man named Abe Martin, who was benign dictator.
BS: What was his name?
MB: Abe Martin.
BS: Who followed him?
MB: William Barnett.
BS: Oh, Bill Barnett.
MB: Yes, I think he was in for the next 26 years, and a very good man. He ran the town with great efficiency. For many years, us democrats never bothered to run anybody against him because our philosophy, which we felt sure about was, we would not run somebody unless they were good enough to do the job and able and willing to take it. We did do, what seemed at the time; startling things, like having a platform, proposing things. I remember Jack shocked some of his Republican friends when he came out and suggested we have a manager of the road crew. Very revolutionary. Similar, surprising things ….
Bill Barnett was a very good man.
BS: Now, your involvement, apart from the Regional High School, was in any other areas community wise.
BS: What were some of the other things that you were involved with?
MB: I think it was Governor Baldwin who wanted a committee, he asked each town to appoint a committee on young citizens. We met and I guess I was in my mid 30’s, and it seemed I was the
oldest member of the committee, so I was chair. We proposed a number of things, all of which are now accomplished, that seemed very drastic at that time. The back of the Congregational church at that time, where still existed all the stalls where the faithful had tied up their horses during services. Those stalls were utilized, not for horses anymore, but as the locale for a good deal of sin in fact.
BS: The what?
MB: A good deal of sin. We proposed that they be abolished; be taken down. Well, this caused an uproar because each stall was owned by a different family and the lawyers had to find the heirs who were scattered all over the United States to get permission to tear them down.
BS: This was approximately what year?
MB: This was probably in the early ’50 .
BS: And these stalls were just behind the ..
MB: …. behind the Congregational Church. There was a whole row of stalls with a roof over them.
BS: But you did succeed.
MB: Yes, eventually it was done. But it was impossible for a while. And I later realized what a legal tangle we were in. We also suggested a drastic thing like a town financed recreation commission which was then privately financed. Which also seemed very drastic, but since has been successfully copied and I can’t remember what else. Someplace that report is on file.
BS: What about recreation in town? Was there a movie or anything?
MB: Yes, there was a movie house.
BS: In Salisbury?
MB: Right across from the railroad station.
BS: Right across from the ….
MB: From where the pizza place is.
BS: Oh, in Lakeville.
MB: In Lakeville.
BS: But, nothing in Salisbury. How did people spend their time apart from work and so on during that period. The 40’S, the 50’S?
MB: If you’re farming hard, there’s nothing.
BS: You worry about the winters.
MB: I assume that both my husband and I were spending a certain amount of time in Hartford. He was shortly on the State Board of Agriculture which he was Chairman of for 17 years. He was also on the Governor’s committee on Clean Air. I was on Clean Water. I was very active with the League of Women Voter’s. Spent a lot of time with that.
BS: Did you have a chapter here?
MB: This was ope of the oldest chapters in the United States, was the one in Salisbury.
BS: How did it start?
MB: It was organized in 1921. In the early days. When I was State President, I was one of the only one’s that disagreed with everything that the State League was for.
BS: Did you have a good membership, was it a large membership here?
MB: No, it was never terribly large, but it was active.
BS: A lot of support?
MB: No, not really. It had come to the old patterns of meeting when the ladies of the committee could meet. It did not… itself very much.
BS: What was the ethical? Position in the 40’S in this area? More or less?
MB: I would say it was a mixture of fascinating intellectuals, many of whom had been introduced to the area through Hotchkiss. A lot of them who had the opportunity to bring their careers or their weekends here. Bring their careers, were people like Bob Osborne, and people who could spend weekends here were like Mark VanDoren. Some people who were fortunate enough to run businesses that were challenging like, Maurice Firiski , and his wonderful bookshop.
BS: Was that the bookshop in Salisbury?
MB: His other bookshop, he had a very famous one in Cambridge which was a combination Salon and Bookshop.
BS: That was right across from the White Hart when I got here.
MB: Yes, it was rated, in its day as one of the ten best bookshops in the United States. Add to that a group of lively, interesting people who have always lived here such as George and Charlotte Miner, Nort Miner. It was a very challenging group to be with, not that we had a lot to time for recreation.
BS: I taught at Housatonic, and I ran across a couple of “fantasies” perhaps, or maybe they were real. I wondered if you had run across these. One was a story of the Hessian soldiers on Mount Riga. Did you ever hear anything about that?
MB: Yes, but I never tracked it down to see how accurate it is.
BS: What was the story you heard?
MB: Well, I heard that there were Hessian troops here during the Revolutionary War. And, that indeed, some of them bashed that lovely house in Salisbury, that Tavern.
BS: Yes, the Bushnell Tavern?
MB: Right. And that some of them deserted and settled here.
BS: That is the story I heard. And there is a similar story in New Jersey.
MB: Oh, is there?
BS: Yes, the other one was, let’s see, was the “Ancram Scream”.
MB: I don’t know that.
BS: I don’t know very much about that either. Now, the iron ore industry was still here when you came …. oh, no it was gone when you were here. Did Lime Rock have any …
MB: Lime Rock had been bought by what was the couple’s name? It was coming back.
BS: Oh, it was? When you came here. Does that mean that stores were open again?
MB: Yes, there was a store and a post office. The Inn was operating.
BS: Oh, yes.
MB: Of course, the railroad was operating to Millerton.
BS: Oh, yes, when we got here it was still operating. It’s a shame, now we go down to Dover or Pawling. I was wondering what some of your attitudes to some of the big causes of the day. Of course there was the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the War
MB: The Hispanic War was while I was still in Cambridge.
BS: You were still in Cambridge then?
MB: Yes, and I was excited about it, but didn’t do anything about it. I became a supporter of people who volunteered to go there. I believe you did.
BS: Yes. World War II, of course you were busy in terms of farm before that. Were there any other community activities that we haven’t noted that you were involved in?
MB: Yes, we hag. spotting posts here to spot airplanes at the Miner farm. Of course, the number of airplanes that flew over this locale were absolute minimum compared to where my husbands parents were in Flot1da, there the spotting posts were active all the time. Here, you were sit, stay there all night and not spot a single plane, but’! have a charming painting, a poster that Tom Blagden did, it’s gorgeous. Hanging on the wall is a painting of the observation post that was up there during the second World War, it was on the Miner farm and Tom Blagden, who was then head of the Art Department at Hotchkiss, painted this poster to gain support for the observation post and there was some kind of “do” in which there was an auction and a great variety of things were auctioned off in support of the post. It an evening affair and everything was awfully good.
The next day, around our dinner table, in which the farm hands and all was there, Danny Jones, our farmhand 1 mentioned, said “You know what, at that auction last night, someone paid thirtyfive dollars for just a picture!” And 1 never dared to tell Danny that 1 was the one who paid thirtyfive dollars for just a picture!
BS: That’s wonderful! 1 mentioned to you when 1 came in that 1 recalled that meeting at the Town Hall, and your involvement in that, and 1 just would like to get your impressions down on that incident.
MB: Well, 1 was clearly fed up with the rattle of nuclear weapons. Time for the common people to be listened to and put a stop to it. But, 1 haven’t gotten very far, have I?
BS: A little bit.
MB: 1 taught airplane recognition to the people manning the post. The Army shipped me down to New York and spent three days, they housed me in a hotel along with a batch of other people, and they taught us aircraft recognition. For three days, we had a graduation banquet and diplomas and I’ve always been very slow on focusing, but 1 came back and by george, I taught everybody who would listen to me. I had several classes on how to recognize airplanes. I don’t know how I did it, but I did.
BS: Good for you! Could you tell us what a typical farmer’s day, a farmer’s wife’s day was on the farm in the’ 40?
MB: Well, breakfast was a very important occasion. I learned as a college student, and a graduate student, that a simple cup of coffee and a piece of toast was it. But I learned as I began occasionally to help with chores, start work at 4:30, it was quite different when you get down to the house at 730, then what you are ready for is fruit, a large bowl of oatmeal, and I limited the men to 3 eggs, and lots of toast.
BS: Now, that was at 7:30, you would get up at 4:30.
MB: Well, I didn’t get up at 4:30, I would get up at 6:30.
BS: But they had coffee or something?
MB: They had nothing at 4:30 .
BS: Oh, they had nothing at 4:30, they just went right out and worked?
MB: Right. Then, in the morning, after you cleaned things up, you had to be certain that you were home at 11:00 as that was the sacred hour when the potatoes had to be put on to boil.
Because you could not have a noon meal without boiled or baked potatoes. You had meat and potatoes and vegetables and dessert. For the evening meal, the men were content with cold cuts,
potato salad and that sort of thing. That noon meal was extremely important. From the point of nutrition, they were dead right. They rested 20 minutes to liz hour before they went back to work.
BS: Did you participate in any of the farm work?
MB: Oh, yes.
BS: What kind of work did you personally do?
MB: I helped with haying. Jack was a great one for hiring inventions, and I helped not the team, just the mare to unload the hay and I fed the old mare that tedded the hay. And interestingly enough this period during which we farmed was extraordinary in that it was a complete revolution in energy use. When we came we had a team of four horses and an extra mare and we brought one tractor. Now, there aren’t any working teams any place around.
BS: Do you have any idea of how many farms that have gone out since?
MB: I don’t dare say. It would be a big mistake to quote figures erroneously, but a great many have, the most recent, the Lorenzo farm just up the road here.
BS: Yes, I heard.
MB: My great regret is that I’m afraid people will lose a taste for things that are good. When the day comes that people think that tomatoes from Florida are tomatoes, I think is the day that civilization is lost.
BS: Yes, and then we have to spend so much time washing everything for fear of what they put on them. .
MB: If you read the seed catalog it’s fascinating because they will say “excellent for shipping”. It’s a very honest catalog that caters to home and commercial farming. And then another seed, “perfect for the home gardener”.
BS: What are some of the major differences that might occur to you between life in Salisbury now, and when you first got here.
MB: I think that one of the major ones, and it’s one that distresses me nation -wide and I don’t know what we are going to do about it, is that there is almost no opportunity for a good work experience for a youngster or someone who has, as we used to say, had a strong back and a weak brain. It was quite true that there were occasions when you wanted ditches dug and all men had
to know how to do was handle a spade. It was a perfectly honest day’s work. Or, when our sons were growing up, they all worked on the farm, we could hire their friends, from the time they were quite young. Now, nobody’s going to turn a fifteen or sixteen year old boy loose on a thirty-
eight to seventy-eight thousand dollar Tractor. The lack of that experience, because when my grandchildren come here, they know its pretend work when they are put to work, it isn’t real. This is true, not just in farming.
BS: So, what happens to the young people in the area?
MB: People try to find recreation for them. Or, they don’t find recreation, they easily find themselves in trouble. They’re bored. They’re useless and bored, useless and bored kids are apt to be naughty kids. During the ten years I was on the board, it was partially the time, but when I was on the Regional High School Board, the pregnancy rate was extraordinarily rare. I’m sure it’s not true any more.
BS: The drugs.
MB: Well, I was starting to say drugs, but drugs weren’t around then.
BS: You were there when Stoddard was there.
BS: I came after Stoddard, but I understand he was a fine ….
MB: He was grand, as is Jack Mahoney.
BS: Oh, yes, that was the best thing that ever happened. He has such good relationships with the teachers. What would be your advice to the young people of Salisbury given our situation. Some of them leave, right?
MB: Most of them do.
BS: Most of them do, right,
MB: I enormously admired Ben Belcher with the work he did to get the affordable housing, but that’s only 16 units. For an ambitious blue collared worker in this town, it’s impossible to think about buying a house. Impossible to buy a farm. 30 acres adjoining my farm is rumored to be coming on the market for $362,000.00.
BS: I think I have read that this area is one of the most expensive in the country.
MB: It is. My two sons, John lives in Newport, PA., not to be confused with Newport, RI. It is
near Harrisburg, he’s a defensemen with the state government. It’s on the edge of Appalachia,
it’s really poor country. The difference in prices is awesome. For example, he had a man with a backhoe come the other day, he had trouble with his septic tank, and the man worked a couple of hours, brought the backhoe, I don’t know how many miles and he was going to take it back, and
he asked John if $28.00 was too much to charge him.
BS: Wow! Here, if one came just to tell you what had to be done ….
MB: On the other hand, John’s wife, Kate, has taught at Rutgers, she has a master’s degree, she is partially on her way to a PhD, she has about 8 years teaching experience, I think. She got a job at the local high school that she wanted and was very eager to get. The local teachers, grassgreen out of college, start at $22,500.00. Kate is going to get just under $19,000.00. It’s a poor state.
BS: Oh, that was in Harrisburg.
MB: That was in Harrisburg, at the high school. She said, “don’t worry about me, rna.” She is teaching world culture and US History and she says it’s great.
BS: You need the material compensation in view of what the prices are, but you certainly do get other kinds of competition.
MB: The thing that broke her heart …..
BS: What do you see in terms of some of the problems that we as a country have, and how does it . look to you.
MB: You find me in the state of the most profound gloom.
BS: Is that so? You’re not encouraged by the new relationship with Gorbachev and this country?
MB: Yes, yes I am. I think that is encouraging, but I find a hint of skepticism in our President elect that worries me in that relationship. I find the present flack about the chemical plant a very sorry business because who’s talking about manufacturing in the United States that made Agent Orange. It’s really is not our business. We can deplore, but it is certainly not our business and I earnestly hope that our current President does not utilize use his last two weeks to do something terribly nasty and I’m scared to death.
BS: We’ve got to learn that we could work through the United Nations. In other words, the only way to go is …
MB: Very startling that he had worked at all, but then he picked up his marbles and decided that the world court didn’t apply to the United States. Well, I only recently learned through, I don’t
know if it was public radio or where, that ………
BS: Oh, yes.
BS: It seems to me that there is another trend now in the world now, that there are countries that are standing up, I’m thinking now in terms of some of the western countries, West Germany.
MB: I hope so because in talking with my contemporaries, all that we worked and hoped (for may be lost.) Mature lives are being scuttled.
BS: You did mention that you have one son who lives in Harrisburg and working with the Government there, by the way a friend of mine, Norman Lurey, is with the Government in Harrisburg. He was a former Social Worker, so he’s a Social Worker Adviser with the Government.
MB: John is Harris Wolfleet’s assistant. He’s assistant to the, what do they call them, Secretary of Education, Commissioner.
BS: And your other son?
MB: He’s in Chicago. He started out as a teacher, but he is now, he trains people how to use systems for payroll and personnel and that sort of thing. He’s spent a number of years in
personnel. He ran the department. He was personal director for the , the other one, was particularly interested in trying to see that there is incorporated in school curriculums, especially high school curriculums, an element of public service.
End of tape.