NH Love Stories: Chicken Farmer Rock
Photo by John Colburn
Twelve feet or so off the east edge of State Road 103, which runs north-south through the town of Newbury, New Hampshire (population 1,500 or so), there sits a squarish brown-gray slab of rock roughly the height of a man. Its southern face is flat, nearly smooth, at a billboard angle toward the traffic, coming north.
About 25 years ago, across from the rock on the west side of the road, there sat a tidy white cedar-shingled house in whose backyard, as it is remembered, a dozen chickens pecked about. Their eggs made breakfasts (and a tiny sideline business) for a family named the Rules - whose daughter Gretchen was pretty, smart, wistful, and 16.
There was a boy - a shy boy, also wistful, also a farmer, whose name is forgotten today - who pined for Gretchen Rule. He cast about for ways to tell her or show her - without telling or showing himself - then he hit upon the rock.
"CHICKEN FARMER, I LOVE YOU" he wrote on it, in eight-inch high, spray-painted letters, one moonlit, high-starred night - or so the story goes.
And the girl saw and guessed the author (though it was only, really, a guess) - and the town and the passing motorists smiled, made their own guesses, and went on about their ways.
The message endured for years, though brambles grew up to obscure it, and the letters, once so bold and white, began to fade. Gretchen Rule went away to Harvard, then on to life. The boy, whoever he was - or is - became a man. The rock grew into a relic, a love note out of time.
One night - 10, perhaps 12 years ago (no one saw it happen, and no one today can say for sure) - the brambles were cut away. And the message was repainted and renewed: "CHICKEN FARMER, I STILL LOVE YOU."
The rock became a landmark. "It's your first left past Chicken Rock" the locals were wont to say. "Chicken," "love" and "farmer" were the first words one Newbury kindergartner - today a teenager - learned to read. And every two years or so, barely noticed, the letters would be freshened and the brambles cut away.
Then, late last April, an unknown caller complained of "graffiti" to the New Hampshire Dept. of Transportation (or DOT). By nightfall the same day, a three-foot square of rust-colored primer was all that was left of a shy boy's long-ago love. The Concord Monitor offered its requiem: "Love Message to Chicken Farmer No More."
A week passed. Then with the coming of dawn on April 30, the new sun rose on New Hampshire's stubbornest love: "CHICKEN FARMER, I STILL LOVE YOU."
The same message, the same eight-inch letters. But bolder this time: thicker-lettered, almost crude, and painted rather than sprayed. As though written by an angry and defiant hand.
In Newbury, the townspeople, inspired now as never before, took steps to assure that their landmark would live on. "A Petition for the Status Quo" they called it and filled it with 192 signatures in the space of a day. The DOT responded with a letter. The Chicken Rock's message would be forever safe.
And somewhere, surely, a shy, 40-ish man must have smiled.
Originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of Yankee Magazine as "The Best Love Story of 1997." Also ran in "Chicken Soup for the Lover's Soul" and in the Concord Monitor.