Sills Interview : file # 35
I am interviewing Norman Sills about his times at Salisbury, his farming experiences, his time at the Institute of World Affairs, while he was Town Historian, and his work on the Appalachian Trail. His home is 17 Cobble Road, Salisbury, Ct. The date today is October 26, 2012. This is Jean McMillen.
JM:What is your full name?
NS:Norman D. Sills
JM:Where were you born?
NS:New York City
NS:June 29, 1922.
JM:What were your parents’ names?
NS:My father was Richard Malcolm Sills, known as R. Malcolm. He didn’t use his first name.
JM:And your mother?
JM:Do you have siblings?
NS:Yes, I had 2 brothers.
JM:And their names?
NS:Richard Malcolm Jr. who is now dead and David Lawrence who is still living.
JM:What is your education?
NS:I went to UConn; I graduated from UConn.
JM:Now you said to me that you worked at the Institute of World Affairs. Who was the gentleman who was running it then or whom did you work for?
JM:How long did you work there?
NS:About a year. I knew him before; he was our minister. When he got hired by the Institute, he asked me to work for him.
JM:Were you the estate manager or groundskeeper or just a little bit of everything?
NS:yeah, a little bit of everything.
JM:From there did you go to the farm on Between-the-Lakes road?
JM:Did you go to Helen Miles or Fred?
NS:Helen, Fred wasn’t around; he wasn’t involved.
JM:Fred was the nephew, wasn’t he?
NS:He was her grandnephew.
JM:Where was that farm located on Between-the-Lakes Road, at the top or middle?
NS:Right before you get to, it was on the main lake across from the railroad tracks.
JM:It just before the railroad tracks that used to be. Were you the farm manager, then?
NS:No, I leased it; I didn’t work for Helen Miles, she had nothing to do with it.
JM:It was your farm that you rented.
NS:I owned all the equipment and all the cows.
JM:How many cows did you run at that time?
NS:I started out with one. I got up to ten, and then I got more than that.
JM:This was dairy cattle.
Ns;I decided I needed a bigger farm.
JM:Then did you go up to Hamlin Hill?
NS:Yeah. I was at the farm on Between-the-Lakes for 7 years. It is hard for people to understand they think that I was a farm manager or worked for somebody, but I didn’t work for anybody.
JM:You rented the farm property and you ran it.
NS:On both those farms I paid rent and they had nothing to do with it, either Miles or Rand. They paid the taxes.
JM:You worked the land and the cattle.
JM:You were at Hamlin Hill for about 17 years?
JM:Hamlin Hill is located at the top of Prospect Hill Road?
JM:Whom did you rent it from?
NS:John McClintock, that estate was owned by three families and John McClintock was the main one that dealt with me. He lived in the big house up there. He was the one that I dealt with; the only way I dealt with him was to write a check to him once a month. I paid him the rent once a month.
JM:After you left Hamlin Hill you went to work for the Appalachian Mountain Club.
JM:You hiked the trail after you retired from Hamlin Hill. Or were you working the Appalachian Trail at the same time?
NS:What was interesting was that I knew a lot of people but I wasn’t working on a formal basis. I was a volunteer. When I sold out, selling out is a term that farmers use, I sold everything all in one day. It was quite a gamble really to sell your whole life’s work, cattle machinery, everything. Then I moved to Taconic road where Dave Heck lives now. (#173 Taconic Road Ed.) Dave Heck bought it from me.
JM:Now what was your job when you worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club for 5 years? What is it that you were supposed to be doing? Were you rerouting trails?
NS:I was the first one that was hired to do anything at all. In rerouting the trails I had to talk to the landowners and worked with the crews that did the work.
JM:You actually groomed the trails or bushwhacked the trails?
NS:I did have to talk with the land owners but not a lot as I tried not to get too involved, especially with those who did not like the trail.
JM;There was a lot of controversy at that time.
NS:None of it bounced off me.
JM:No but you were the guy they were going to go after because you were local.
JM:There was quite a lot of discussion in the “Lakeville Journal” about the trails.
NS:Yeah, Bob Estabrook in one respect he was a friend of the trail. He liked to hike himself; he enjoyed the trail. He felt it should stay in private ownership which if it had, the trail wouldn’t be.
JM:No because not everybody takes the same care.
NS:It wouldn’t be if kept in private hands. He objected to the government taking it over.
JM:There were a lot of people who objected.
NS:It wouldn’t have been a trail.
JM: No, you have to have consistent oversight of anything that is that large.
NS:That’s right. He was very nice to me and I got along fine. We never had any conflict, but we had a different approach. We never had any clashes. In fact he’s the one who got me into the Rotary Club.
JM:How long were you in Rotary?
NS:About five or six years. I got out about the time Nancy got Alzheimer’s.
JM:I am going to go back to you and Nancy and your children in a bit, but I want to do the Appalachian Trail. When did you hike the trail yourself? After you left Hamlin Hill farm, was it after you retired when you were 62 (in June of 1984 Ed.).
NS: I moved from Hamlin Hill to Taconic Road.
JM:You were hiking in the 1980’s because the book you wrote “Love Letters from the Trail: Hiking the Appalachian Trail in the 1980’s”. You had said that when you were 62, the next day you started hiking.
JM:You were Town Historian from 1999 to August 2005.
NS:I took over from Ginny Moskowitz.
JM:Who took over after you?
JM:When you were Town Historian, did you have a focus or a reason or something that you really wanted to correct or implement?
NS:No I don’t think so. I had been helping Ginny Moskowitz on a part-time basis. So when she decided to retire…
JM:It was the logical step for you to take over.
NS:Yeah, I was never appointed or elected.
JM:it’s not that kind of a job I don’t think.
NS:There wasn’t anybody standing in line waiting.
JM:I know. Katherine would like to retire and there isn’t anybody standing in line for her.
NS:I was lucky in that I was working as a volunteer for several years so it was a natural thing for me to take over. Ginny wanted me to take over. Katherine had also been working with her, but…
JM:Not as much as you had been.
NS:No (While Historian he wrote “Salisbury: From Primitive Frontier to flourishing Town” which is available at the Salisbury Association. Ed.)
JM:I had worked with Ginny a little bit, too, and then I started working with Katherine. That is sort of how I got the Oral History Project.
NS:Katherine and I would work together, but we worked on different things.
JM;Katherine and I work together but on different projects. I am having so much fun with this; I do not want to give it up. Now I want to go back to-where did you meet your wife?
JM:Let’s be more specific because I love this part. Yes, at UConn but where?
NS:Well at the horse farm I guess in the horse barn. She liked to remember that she first knew who I was or first paid attention to me when she had a flat tire on her bicycle, and I fixed the flat for her. At that time she meant nothing to me. I thought she was a nice girl. I would have done that for anybody. That’s how we got acquainted, and we started to date. That’s about it.
JM:She came from New Canaan?
JM:That’s where you were married?
JM:In 1950 I think you said. Tell me about your first time coming to Salisbury.
NS:Yeah. We got married on Saturday in New Canaan, and we were planning to go to Maine for our honeymoon. It was too far to go that same day so we got as far as Salisbury. We went to the White hart Inn and tried to get a room, but they didn’t have a Honeymoon Suite. We stayed there but the next day we had to get breakfast across the street in the building where the bank is now. The white hart did not serve breakfast at that time. So we couldn’t get breakfast there so we went across the street and got breakfast at the restaurant (where Salisbury Bank & Trust is Ed.)
JM:Was the Ragamont working at that time?
NS:Yeah, but they were only open in the summertime. They weren’t open in the winter; the owners went somewhere during the winter.
JM:You and Nancy had 5 children, and their names?
NS:Peggy is the oldest, Jeffery, Mark, then the two girls Virginia and Eugenie.
JM:Eugenie I knew as Shirley. And they are all doing well, now aren’t they?
NS:Yeah, Mark is married and lives in Idaho.
JM;I know you wrote a couple of books; one of them was about your hike on the Appalachian Trail and the other one was the history of the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut. What else did you write? Did you write a biography of your life? You did write a third book didn’t you? (The 3rd book was the history of Salisbury, previously mentioned. Ed.)
NS:Those two books are about the Appalachian Trail. Elaine Hecht and her husband who put out the Salisbury Association newsletter. He helped me with the book for free. I had asked Elaine to edit it, but she said that she didn’t have the time, so that is when I decided to self-publish. Her husband was the one who arranged that.
JM:I am going to read all your civic activities. This is taken from the dedication to both you and Nancy from the 2000 Town Report. You were involved in a lot of things.
NS:But don’t forget I lived in town for over 50 years; most people do not stay in one place that long. It seems like a lot of things but over a 50 year period of time.
JM:But at this time in 2000 you were a member of the Conservation Commission, the Town Historian, in the past you had been a member of the Recreation Commission, the Board of Education, Salisbury Central School Building Committee, the Land Trust Committee of the Salisbury Association.
NS:I was then involved in a lot of things.
JM:You were also on the Grove Advisory Committee, the Vo Ag Advisory Committee at Housatonic Valley Regional, the Litchfield County Dairy Committee, the Trails Committee of the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association, and the Board of Management of the Appalachian Trail Conference.
NS:There things are all true but over 50 years. I wasn’t on any two of them at the same time.
JM:Yeah, but you had a variety of interests so you would do something for maybe a year or two, and then move on to something else.
NS:That’s about what it was. That’s what I did. But I wasn’t really super active on any of them.
JM:But you still need volunteers to fill the slots to contribute. That’s the thing that is so important, and what I am finding in this town. There are so many people willing to give their time to help others. That is exactly what you have done over your fifty years career here in Salisbury.
NS:If I had only been here 10 years; that would have been different.
JM:Now when you were not living in town, sometimes you would swim in the lake, and it seems to me you had to pay a fee for swimming in the lake.
NS:That goes back to when I first came to Salisbury; the first time I came to Salisbury I was working for the state. I had a job working for the Department of Farms & Markets. I would visit different farms so I knew where Salisbury was. Then there were a lot of farms here; I worked with another man, we used to go together. We went to Grassland Farm.
JM:And all the other farms which were around here.
NS;Most of them are all gone now, well, Grasslands is still going.
JM:Grassland is still going, but a lot of the others are gone.
NS:Grasslands is not commercial any more. At one time I counted 50 farms in the town of Salisbury.
JM:This must have been in the 1950’s because Dave Timmons was running the Grove at that time?
NS:He was running the Grove when I was working for the state. It cost $.25 to go swimming. Then by the time I moved here, the Grove was sort of in the process; the town had bought it, but hadn’t done anything with it yet. The first manager that I knew was Frank Markey.
JM:Frank Markey took it over in the 50’s and did a wonderful job with it.
NS:He was the first one that I knew. Now you see these girls in bikinis; Frank wouldn’t allow it.
JM:Oh no, that was verboten back then.
NS:He would turn over in his grave if he could see them now; otherwise he did a good job.
JM:He had “Keep off the Grass” signs; you didn’t walk on the grass.
NS:No. He ran it with an iron hand. I never worked for him, but I used to swim there. I didn’t have to pay to swim there at the end.
JM:Is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview?
NS:No, not really, except that I wonder if I would have been better off if I hadn’t stayed in Salisbury for so long. Most people come, stay for a few years, and then move on, and I just stayed.
JM:We are so grateful that you stayed. These are the people that are the backbone of the town. They stay; they work for the town; they give their time.
NS:You say that, but I didn’t make that big an impression on the town.
JM:You did what you thought was…
NS:For example when they were looking for someone to take Ginny’s place, there was nobody else. It wasn’t as if I was standing line.
JM:No there is not a long line for volunteer jobs, not at all.
NS:I just did it because I liked living here.
JM:We are so glad that you did because it filled a void.
NS:The jobs they had, the volunteer jobs weren’t in great demand.
JM:Yes, but the need was there and you filled it. Not everybody would do that.
NS:Someone else might have done a better job.
JM:I don’t think so. Thank you so much for your time and your memories.