Ghost farm

Friday, 24 September 2010 05:40 PM Written by 

DEERFIELD, MASS. -- Eaglebrook School  

I bet there's not a better or more beautiful middle school in America than Eaglebrook.

Its campus hangs on the side of a low mountain overlooking the historic village of Deerfield on US 5 north not 25 miles from Vermont.

It's not your run-of-the mill public middle school. It's private and exclusive and so pricy that if you have to ask what a year's tuition and room and board costs, you're not rich enough to send your heir there.DSC_1839

Its nearly 250-boy student body, one quarter of them day students, fork over Harvard-level annual fees that would stagger a movie star.

Along with many future successful businessmen and scholars, Michael Douglas, actor Kurt's son, went there.

Michael was present in 1960 when Steinbeck pulled in with his pickup-camper hybrid to see his son John, who was 13 or 14. 

In those days, former headmaster Stuart Chase told me, Steinbeck would have found schoolboys outfitted in identical Navy blue blazers and thick-striped school ties.

Today's students don't dress so formally, Chase said. But they aren't allowed to ruin the school's pre-prep school milieu with bluejeans, torn pants or un-collared shirts.

Chase wasn't running Eaglebrook when Steinbeck arrived from Sag Harbor on Friday evening, Sept. 23, 1960. Since it was too late to see his son, Steinbeck says in "Travels With Charley," he drove up to the top of the mountain and "found a dairy, bought some milk, and asked permission to camp under an apple tree."

Chase, whose father preceded him as Eaglebrook headmaster and whose son succeeded him eight years ago, gave me directions to the apple orchard. He also told me how time and uninterested heirs had turned a thriving farm into the abandoned and overgrown white hulk it is today.DSC_1852

Climbing the road above Eaglebrook I twisted my way through the dense woods to the top and found the apple orchard right where Chase said it would be. 

He called it a "skeleton" of an orchard and that's what it was. The trees were still there.

They were thick and tall and old and gnarly and heavy with red apples -- apples that were not being harvested, polished and sold but were providing a feast for the local insect population.

The trees that weren't surrounded by weeds and golden rod were being strangled by rose bushes and grape vines. Rotting fruit on the ground made the orchard smell like apple juice.


The gate to the former orchard was invitingly off its hinges and lying flat in the low jungle. I drove my RAV4 through the opening in the heavy stone wall and parked/posed it under what could have been the same very large apple tree Steinbeck camped under.


Unlike Steinbeck, however, there was no dairy man with a Ph.D. in mathematics to shoot the breeze with while I swatted bugs and tried not to stand too long in the shag carpet of baby poison ivy plants.

Humans had lost control of the orchard and nature was slowly reasserting itself on the rest of the place.

Steinbeck could probably have written a novelette about the process. 

The big beautiful (white) farmhouse and the (white) dairy barn, looked fine and prosperous. It was as if one day someone just dropped a water hose or closed a barn door and drove to Boston.


It almost looked like someone could come in, cut the grass, throw a switch and get back to dairy farming in a week or so. Almost.







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