John Harney Jr. cover sheet:
Narrator:John Harney Jr.
Date of Interview:Oct. 16, 2014
Summary of talk: Family background, inn keeping at the White hart, outdoors activities, local heroes, and changes in the town.
John Harney, Jr.: No, Ithaca. I was apparently — someone should have been studying more up at Cornell. Apparently there was a break in the action and all of a sudden I appeared (laughs). Dad was at Cornell in hotel administration [school] and so my first residence was — I’m not sure if it was the bottom, middle or top drawer, of a bureau, in some student room, wherever they were living, up at Cornell that was my first residence, so there we are.
PS: A dorm room.
JH: A dorm room. Something. I don’t know where they were, but apparently that’s the story, amazingly enough, a crib was not to be had at that point, and apparently a drawer did just as well.
PS: So when did you move here?
JH: They went too. I think they went to West Cornwall, the covered bridge? that pink building, that must have been about ’58 or something —
PS: You were born in —
JH: ’54. So they went down, Mom and Dad had a country inn there in the middle of town, and it was quite something, apparently. So instead of having inventory, Joe Bates had the meat store just up the road in West Cornwall, it was a hundred feet up, and so apparently if someone came in and ordered fie steaks, Mom would take the order, and Dad would rush out the back door, pad his way up to Joe Bates’ meat shop, grab the key off the sill, go in, get the steaks out of the refrigerator, write a quick note — “I’ve got five steaks” — and then run back down and start cooking (laughs).
PS: Is the building that was the inn still there?
JH: Yeah, it is, it’s that big pink, that huge big building that’s just up from the Moose, on the same side
PS: That’s getting renovated
JH: Yeah, it’s getting renovated. then Mario [Sebben], you know, the barber, was down there at that point, so I guess the three boys — Keith, Mike and I — would be dropped off at his barbershop down there. I guess Mario babysat us for while he cut hair, I don’t know what happened.
PS: Keith and Mike are your brothers?
JH: Right, yeah. After that, Dad came up here, and did some sort of partnership with Reese Harris and Don Warner with the White Hart, so they were probably the money and Dad was operations, and that had to have been around ’60, somewhere in there. Then they stayed, they managed it until, into the early ’80s.
I was thinking about it — I remember Dad with Everett Dirksen. He somehow got Everett Dirksen to come in and those were his Goldwater years, which he never strayed far from.
PS: Your father or Dirksen?
JH: (Laughs) Yeah, Dad. I think he was a little to the right of Genghis Khan. But he was very proud of the fact that he got Senator Everett Dirksen in, and I just remember, we were renting the house at the corner of Reservoir and Belgo, the one with the wavy stone walls. I just remember seeing those two men, both were really thin, one was older, I guess that was Mr. Dirksen, and so, sort of like those black patent shoes, black socks, dark trousers, white sort of starched shirt with a narrow dark tie, and I just remember them sitting out on the lawn on chairs, discussing politics.
PS: Did you go to Salisbury Central?
JH: Yeah, Salisbury Central. Well, first Town Hill, until fourth grade. Then they must have decided there was no sense throwing away good money after bad, and so they put me back into Salisbury Central. So I graduated from Salisbury Central in ’68, went to Salisbury School ’til ’72. and then Williams College until ’79.
PS: When you were a kid in Lakeville, who were your friends? Who did you run with?
JH: So Bob Dufour lived on Lakeview; Matty Kiefer, Gordy Whitbeck; all those kids who skied in SWSA — Jack Phelps, Jack Phelps’ brothers. We sort of just hooked up with all the kids in the SWSA program — the Pollocks. Their Dad was the pastor at the Methodist Church; Gordy, Bam Whitbeck; Victor Clarke and his kids, all those people. And it was sort of magical, because for like a decade, all the parents — I don’t know what happened to the sense of time, but then there seemed to be plenty of time, because on Sundays and the weekends during the winter there would be five to 10 families, parents and children, on cross-country ski tours, starting on Selleck Hill. We’d go up on Mt. Riga and have lunch at Dresser’s cabin, which since it faced south always was the warmest with the deck and everything. Then we’d ski all over Mt. Riga and up to Bear Mountain, Lion’s Head [garbled]. It was a different time, because you don’t see that happening now. No one either has the time, or maybe it was lack of snow the last couple of decades or something, but it’s interesting. When I ski up there alone, which I like to do during the winter, I don’t feel alone because I just remember all of the times skiing with the Ericksons, the Whitbecks, the Kiefers and the Harneys. I mean, all of those people, it was quite something. Then we also did the jumping, so Larry Stone — we heard more bad music in Larry’s old Volkswagen, freezing, going up to Lake Placid or Brattleboro, than one would care to. That’s when Vic Clarke and George Kiefer would just fill their VW buses with skis and kids and off we would go. Birger Torrensen was the coach an Olympian in 1960. He was married to one of the Satres. He was in the Tenth Mountain Division; he was one of our heroes. So we had Birger Torrensen, we had Larry Stone, George Kiefer. George Kiefer’s favorite thing on a ski tour was to say to the unsuspecting novice, usually another parent, on one particular occasion, my mother — you know, pine tar is an old favorite of the people who lived up on the mountain. All you would do is just take a knife and swipe the pine tar, get at the pine, whatever, that congealed pine sap, and, amazingly, it is a wonderful, refreshing treat, sort of like a gum. George got Mom to take some skiing up on Greylock, and the results were not great.
So you’ve got Vic Clarke also, who was irreplaceable. His theory of business was that if it was a sunny day, it was too nice to work, so he would be on the river canoeing or kayaking, or in the winter skiing, or rock-climbing. He introduced us to a whole different way of living, where on the nice days you would go out, and on the rainy days, that was a day for work.
PS: Did he spell Clarke with an “e”?
JH: I think so. I’ll get that. So Vic Clarke was one of our heroes. He would — you just don’t see it anymore — he would spend more time with all of us kids, outdoor things, showing us rock climbing, and you asked him “What kind of knot was that?” he would be tying. Uusually it was all very intricate knots that are very specific. It would be different each time, and he says to us, “It’s a Hindu rig.”
“Does it hold?”
“Well, we’ll find out.”
Down at Clarke’s house on 331 Main Street he was putting up that supporting stuff —
JH: Scaffolding, and Larry was helping him,. Larry goes “This just doesn’t look very secure.” He reassured him, not to worry, and a wind came and it shook like all hell. There was Vic and Larry holding on to whatever they could hold on to on the roof. Vic was laughing. So he had a wonderful way about him that was very — he was always hospitable and encouraging to us kids. He was one of the great ones.
We learned how to work from George. He had us help with the Christmas trees, and learning the joys of trimming the trees in the summer with the deerflies, cutting them in November, and stacking them in trailers. So there would be a huge crowd of young adolescents in 7th and 8th grade that George would sort of instruct as far as woodcraft.— Christopher Rand, who wrote the book, his description of George is so accurate, because back then, in the late ’60s early ’70s, my memories of George, walking through —
Nobody ever walked through the woods so swiftly and confidently as George. We’d all be like running after him. He’d have a marking axe in one hand; he would be just like marking trees with one little quick movement. But his stride was just — and he knew everything. So we learned— George was like a father to a lot of us.
The other guy I remember is Skeet Morey [garbled]. He was the best woodsman God has ever made. He taught us all how to hunt, and trap, he knew the woods and the animals better than they did, and all he did — he just took great joy also just in walking through the woods. He always had a stick or a rifle or something, he would show us, he would go the raccoon or the mink or the otter or whatever we were after , he’d say do this, this and this, and hence we’ll have to do this. He’d show us how to put the traps in beeswax for the scent, and how to figure out where to place them, how to deal with everything. He also showed us how to hunt, to the displeasure of my father, because hunting with Skeet also meant sort of free-lancing, so we never had any licenses. It was old-style, apparently, hunting. So Dad would come home, and he’d open the garage door. “God damn it!” and he’d shut it, because there would be deer hanging in there. “Are these things legal? “No, we were out with Skeet.”
Skeet also showed us how to fish. He usually fished with worms, and like down in the stream by the ski jump, and more importantly, how to clean and eat ’em. They were fabulous. So Skeet was — he brought us up on Mt. Riga, in the mountain laurel, and he said to my two brothers and I to stay right there, he would push deer, they would come out at this certain point, and to shoot them right there.
So we were in the snow, in the mountain laurel, and sure enough, the deer came right out at the same spot that he said. We shot it, and he came out through the laurel laughing. A little while later, he was showing us how to clean, and we were all leaning over, intent, trying to learn, trying to be woodsmen, and all of a sudden he stood up abruptly and spun around and said to my brother Mike, “Hold this.”
It was this enormous liver — of the deer — and he put it in Mike’s hands. Whereupon Mike fainted, fell back, in the snow, with this enormous liver on top of his chest. Skeet howled with laughter. Oh, all he did was laugh.
So, growing up in Salisbury you had people like that. And Birger Torrensen — Olympian, cross-country and jumping, took the time to teach and coach all the kids in town, whoever was interested, in cross-country skiing and jumping. He was an amazing man. He was like — just one of our other heroes. He was so patient with us, and taught us and would just continually show us how to cross-country ski. We were packing the jumps, like the 60 meter — that scares the crap out of me, even now. I mean, I just will not go down the hill, from the top of the — from the top of the landing. There is Birger in his late 70s or something, on a pair of cross-country skis, he was packing, everyone’s packing. All of a sudden you see this Norwegian just turn his skis downhill and straight down the hill he went, and did this perfect Telemark through the transition, as if it were nothing, and then a graceful turn further on the landing hill, and that was that. And none of us would do it.
Also I just remember up in the fields on Selleck Hill he would all of a sudden turn his – you know, go down those big fields and these graceful Telemark turns, just these big, huge, sweeping turns, and everyone was in awe. I mean, no one could believe what he was doing. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.
So we had all these people who just took time to help bring us up.
PS: You’ve raised how many kids?
PS: All in Lakeville?
JH: Let’s see. Sharon’s got her daughter, Rachel, who was always out in Denver, and then Kathleen: Rachel, Kathleen, Becket, and then Griff.
PS: So how has Salisbury changed from your childhood to theirs?
JH: It’s very different. I wish that they could have had a lot of the similar experiences and — we could wander around at will, in the fields and woods with everyone, and not worry about Lyme disease. That’s the biggest, one of the bigger changes, in that all of a sudden, a lot of that is shut down as far as the outdoors experience. You’re a lot more cautious.
Who replaces George Kiefer? Vic Clark, or Birger Torrensen? Larry is now up in Lake Placid. I guess everything just evolves and changes, so both Becket and Griff went more for theater.
I was all excited for football and soccer, and skiing. I was all ready to go. I was going to be a wonderful, happy parent. All of a sudden I have to make a shift to being a wonderful, happy theater parent (laughs).
It’s considerably different, just seemed like parents had more time, families had more time, when we were growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, and it seems like probably the kids are more busy right now, with school and their other activities. Then they find their own heroes, like Michael Berkeley, Lori Belter, you know, they just have to find their own heroes among the adults in the venues that they’re interested in. But it makes me a little bit sad that it’s changed in that respect. I’m sure the generation before me probably thought we were — the world was coming to an end with us. And everyone survived.
But I think the touchstone for me, growing up here, and coming back, has always been the outdoors. For me, no matter how much Salisbury and Lakeville changes, where I spend most of my time, when I’m not working, is either on the river or the lakes or ponds, or up on Mt. Riga, doing what I did as a child. And the big difference is now I have more gear (laughs).
So it’s interesting. In some respects Salisbury has changed considerably, to whatever it is, 50 or 60 percent weekend ownership. It seemed like that wasn’t the case in the Sixties and Seventies, so it was more [garbled] just families. It was probably not as affluent then, is my guess, and more families were just here, working. Something happened where it became more of a weekend community, which is great. It offers tons of opportunities to everyone.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed — you can go, within five minutes, and hike, disappear, on Indian Mountain, Mt. Riga, Lion’s Head, Sage’s Ravine. You can disappear so that part of Salisbury is always there. All of the lakes and rivers are heavily underused, so it’s like you are the only one in the universe. So that part of Salisbury has not changed.
Property of the Oral History Project: The Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library, Salisbury, Ct. 06068