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: The Howrigans: A dynasty of dairying  ( 2856 )
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« : July 24, 2005, 07:22:30 AM »

You may be wondering why I have this up on the Fairfax Forum -- Well, some of the Howrigan Clan has spilled over into Fairfax.  Rita
 (Howrigan) Magnan and her children are just a few of these descendants.  In earlier years, Loretta (Howrigan) Magnan could very well
have been one  of your teachers.  The home Howrigan Farm is located just a short ways from the end of the Buck Hollow Road making acquaintances here in Faifax a very common thing.  You will always see Robert and Tom Howrigan at any funeral or wake of any of our old timers here in Fairfax. and even though it has been over 50 years since I moved from Fairfield, they still think and refer to me as one of
 their neighbors, like they do everyone else in the small little Irish town of Fairfield.

Members of the Howrigan clan fly the Irish flag and sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" as they assemble for a group portrait at their
annual  family reunion July 16 in Georgia. The crowd of more than 100 included the eldest Vermont Howrigan, Robert, 86,
and the youngest,  Raegan Decker, 8 weeks.

The Howrigans: A dynasty of dairying

Published: Sunday, July 24, 2005

By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD -- When Harold Howrigan's four grandsons crammed into the back seat of their aunt's pickup truck for a road trip last week,
Tim Howrigan, 12, couldn't wait to tell the others what he'd heard about a breakthrough in mastitis research.

"The cows that get the new treatment, their calves produce more enzymes" to prevent the udder infection in dairy cows, he told them.
He explained to his 10- and 11-year-old cousins how it's better to keep cows healthy than to have to cure them after they've become sick.

In the Howrigan clan, you are never too young to learn the family business.

"It's in the blood," says W. Robert Howrigan, 86.

Howrigans have been milking cows in Fairfield since their arrival from Ireland's County Tipperary in 1849. One Howrigan,
William, and his wife, Margaret, reared 10 children on a 35-cow hill farm in the Depression days. Today, 32 of their children, grandchildren
and great-grandchildren work farms in Franklin County -- a dairy dynasty unique in Vermont.

The descendants of William and Margaret milk more than 3,000 cows and produce maple syrup from nearly 40,000 taps; their fields,
 pastures and woods cover 10,000 acres in Fairfield and neighboring towns.

More farms -- 38 of them -- ship milk from Fairfield than from any other Vermont town, in part because of the community's high
Howrigan count. The family has provided two of Vermont's most influential voices in state and national dairy policy: William's sons,
the late state Sen. Francis Howrigan and Harold, 81, a longtime leader of the St. Albans Co-operative Creamery.

Howrigans have graduated from Harvard; become nurses, doctors, teachers and lawyers; left Fairfield or Vermont for good.
But an extraordinary number of the men, and some of the women, have chosen a farm life like their parents'.

They constitute a one-clan countertrend to Vermont's annual loss of family farms in the face of low milk prices, the flight of
young people and the attraction of less back-breaking work.

"Saddam Hussein couldn't drive these people off their farms," Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says. "They love farming.
You can see that in their faces. And it's not just that they love what they do; they are making money at it."

The sprawling but tight-knit family network has proven fertile ground for growing both success and love of the farming life.
Dozens of pairs of Howrigan hands will materialize to help build an uncle's barn, move a cousin's herd or teach the finer points of
farming to a sister's child.

Kerr could not think of another Vermont farm clan as big and long-lasting as the Howrigans. "I don't see why what they've got isn't
sustainable forever and ever," he said.

Twelve-year-old Tim Howrigan, for one, knows just what he'll do when he grows up: "I'll be a cow farmer," he said.
A farm education

Margaret McCarthy Howrigan bore a child every 18 to 24 months between 1915 and 1933. She made sure 10 children were fed,
clothed and washed in a house not reached by electric lines until 1939.

A teacher before her marriage to William, she put as high a value on education as her husband put on improving his farmland and
tiny herd. Margaret's children would go to high school. Her girls, all five of them, would go to college if they wanted and every
one of them did.

William's boys were a different case. Yes, they were needed as workers on the farm, but in the Howrigan family, farming meant more
than the endless repetition of milking cows and cutting hay. A farm was for problem-solving today and improving for tomorrow.

As children, the Howrigans helped their father transplant lines of maples along Howrigan Road, build drainage on the roads in
their sugarbush to prevent erosion, and turn the piles of stone hauled from their fields into the foundation of an all-weather road.

Decades later, Francis, the oldest boy, would put this lesson into words his children still repeat: "Live as though you're going to
die tomorrow, farm as though you're going to live forever."

He and his brothers found challenges for the brain and plenty of stimulation for their entrepreneurial instincts right on the farm.
They grew up in a narrow, hill-edged valley but didn't see the farm as confining or constraining.

At 17 or 18, Harold built what he thinks was the first mechanical gutter cleaner in Vermont, an assemblage of chains and pulleys and
a 5-horsepower motor to haul manure out of the barn.

"I just got tired of shoveling," he said last week.

In his teens, Francis acquired a drag saw to cut firewood for neighbors. He bought a truck and began hauling milk and hay for
other farmers. In his 20s, he rented a nearby place "on halves" from a neighboring farmer, paying half the expenses and taxes,
 keeping half the income. By 32, he owned his first farm. Ultimately, he would accumulate 10 farms and more than 4,000 acres.

When Robert, Francis' younger brother, couldn't persuade his father to buy the farm next-door, he borrowed the money to buy it himself.
He, too, would acquire additional farms -- five in all -- to pass on to his sons.

Even Tom, who did go to college in his 30s and became a surgeon, continues to live in the house where he was born. At 84, he still
spends many of his days cutting brush and improving the family woodlot. "I consider myself a longtime surgeon but a lifetime
farmer," he said.

Some Howrigan sons still prefer to get their education on the farm. The family tells the story of Michael Howrigan, Francis' grandson,
who enrolled in college after high school.

"He called home every night. He wasn't homesick. He just couldn't stand not knowing what was happening on the farm," said his
father, also named Michael. The younger Michael soon quit school and went into partnership with his father.
The family business

There's no farming without family among the Howrigans. William's children started at 5 or 6, hauling wood for the stove, feeding
calves, scraping the barn, picking bugs off potato plants that yielded 300 bushels a year in the cold valley.

A big family also means constant companions -- siblings to share chores, play baseball in the pasture or climb the maples on
the hill. Most Howrigans grow up sociable, and the pleasures of sociability help make farming attractive.

"It's pretty magical. I have cousins and siblings that are my best friends," said Kate Howrigan Baldwin of Burlington, one of 12
children of Francis Howrigan. "There's an allegiance that is unspoken. You know you are going to help one another and be there for
one another. It's not a mandate -- it's what you want to do."

Family is the first thing Brendan Schreindorfer mentions when he is explaining how a village boy ended up buying his own milking herd
at the age of 24. His mother is a Howrigan -- William was his great-grandfather -- but his parents did not farm.

Instead, Brendan spent his youth tagging along behind his grandfather, Robert, and his uncles and cousins on their big farm
north of Fairfield Center.

He was determined to become a dairy farmer since he was a child, he said.

"I think it was the fact that everyone was always working together to get something done. People pull together and it pulls you
along. It's a family thing, and it never leaves your system once it's there," he said.

Five years ago, his parents co-signed a note to help him buy his herd. This winter, he borrowed money on his own to purchase a
625-acre farm in Sheldon. (He'd built up equity, but the Howrigan pedigree might have helped him get the loan, he said.)

His new place was run down -- his cousins helped him with repairs through the winter. He needed to move his herd this spring --
a small squadron of Howrigans showed up with trucks and trailers to help.

Howrigans help one another bring in hay, harvest corn, fix equipment and build barns. Patrick Howrigan, 54, of Sheldon, raised
the rafters of his 200-stall barn in a day, thanks to volunteers led by his brothers and cousins.

"A lot of neighbors helped, but family was the driving force," he said.
Love of the land

Harold Howrigan's air-conditioned pickup truck bounced down a dirt track through one of his fields last week, between rows
of corn taller than the cab. He nodded toward a nearby woods. The landowner, he said, had subdivided the land and put in five or six

There was the slightest hint of disappointment or disapproval in his tone. Since he bought his first farm in 1968, he has
acquired more than 1,000 acres, a rolling green landscape of maple woods and productive fields with million-dollar views.

"I've never sold an inch of land. I just don't want to do that," he said.

If the Howrigan clan has a leader and role model, Harold, at 81, fills the bill. His square face is topped by a puff of white hair, his
ruddy complexion crinkled by the weather. It's a face that would look equally at home in a Tipperary pub, a testament to his purely
Irish ancestry.

Like many of the Howrigan men, he seems gruff and a bit standoffish at first meeting. Howrigans have the "quiet gene," says
his niece Kate Baldwin.

Over the kitchen table in the farmhouse he shares with his wife, Anne, or on a tour of the land they farm with their three sons, he
expands. The gruffness melts into stories of childhood on the farm. He shows a visitor field after hillside field, not saying much,
apparently for the pure pleasure of looking at the land and the results of a lifetime's work.

Land was "a treasure," he said, to the Irish farmers who immigrated to Fairfield from a country where land ownership was all
but impossible for them. That fierce allegiance to one's own acres also runs in the Howrigan line.

Even in the hardscrabble days of the Depression, his father treated the land well -- planting trees, combing stones from the rocky
fields, preventing erosion. "He never cut a live maple," he said.

Harold and his sons use the latest technology in their sugarhouse, but they collect sap the way Harold's father did, with hanging
buckets and sled-top tanks pulled by five teams of horses.

Horses don't require new roads to be cut and are easier on the land. "There's no substitute for horses gathering sap. They're nicer to
work with, they come to you and stop. A tractor won't do that," he said.

With the other farmers of Fairfield, the Howrigans have created a town perhaps more pastoral than any other in Vermont.
From many of Howrigan's hillsides, the view of corn and hayfields and grazing heifers seems to have changed not at all in a
hundred years.

But does he value his land for its worth in bushels of corn alone? Or does he find it beautiful, as well?

"I think it is beautiful, and I work to keep it that way," he said, looking back toward the home farm. "I treasure it for its value as
working land and for its beauty, too."

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or e-mail cpage@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com

Henry Raymond
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