New Hampshire's Real Life Yankees

Granite Staters who embody what it is to be a Yankee

“The Yankee: In acuteness and perseverance, he resembles the Scotch. In frugal neatness, he resembles the Dutch. But in truth, a Yankee is nothing else on earth but himself."  – Frances Trollope, Novelist (1779-1863)

Harris Ilsley at his family farm, Harrisway Farm
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

The term Yankee means different things to different people. To someone outside the United States, it’s an American. To a Southerner, it’s a Northerner. To a Northerner, it’s a New Englander. To a New Englander, it might mean someone of English stock whose roots go back to the Mayflower.

Some hear the word and think “old farmer.” That’s part of it, but if there’s anything a Yankee resists, it’s the limited imagination of other people.

New Hampshire’s Yankees are farmers, but they are also statesmen, orators, outdoorsmen, musicians, authors, historians, educators and more.

Even Judson Hale, the editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, admits that defining a Yankee is not easy, concluding generously (in one of his blog entries) that “a Yankee is someone either native to New England or perhaps whose ancestors were.”

Certain traits do exemplify the Yankee character: common sense, dry wit, a deep connection to the natural world and an acceptance of hardship. Yankees either have a penchant for storytelling that may stretch the truth or they’re taciturn.

Mike Johnson, 75, comes from a long line of farmers in Swanzey. His family owns 190 acres spread over two towns, and leases more for haying. For close to three decades, he rented 50 acres from an old woman in town. When she died, she left the use of the land to Johnson for the rest of his life. For free. Without saying a word to him about it while she was alive. “That’s a Yankee,” Johnson says.  

And there’s the ability to pinch a penny. “Though frugality and shrewdness in business dealings are traits characteristic of New Englanders as a whole, I think New Hampshirites are the most frugal of all,” Hale writes in his book “Inside New England.”  

But a Yankee preserves much more than material goods. The zeal for conservation also includes local culture, whether it’s the mom-and-pop maple syrup operations, the traditional music of the state or how town government is run.

Real as granite, the Yankee stands as the antithesis of the modern throwaway culture — a society that would have you believe self-promotion is a value and Facebook is friendship.

The Antidote to Plastic

Mike Morrison, 66, of Swanzey has met his share of Yankees. A retired high school biology teacher, Morrison teaches so many youth and adult outdoorsmanship programs, often for New Hampshire Fish and Game, that Field & Stream magazine honored him in 2012 as a “Hero of Conservation.”

His motivation for teaching hunting, fishing and archery is the same as why he visits — and values so dearly — the state’s old-timers.

“It would be unfortunate to lose so much traditional knowledge, skill and craft,” he says.

He calls the current cultural landscape one of tragic disconnect — not only between people and the environment but also from each other. “Too many of our young people are adrift,” says Morrison. “All age groups are isolated from each other … even in the way we regard mind, body, and spirit as separate entities. My deal is to reconnect.”

Morrison has visited Harris Ilsley, 83, of Weare, for more than two decades. Growing up on a cattle, dairy and poultry farm, Ilsley mostly used school as a place to rest until he left in seventh grade. But he possesses a wealth of knowledge about the natural world.

“Never once did I leave a conversation with Harris without learning something from his lifetime of observations,” Morrison says. “Going to the elders to learn is something every culture has done all through time. Except for us.”

The old-timers may not use a cell phone, know how to Tweet or how to “brand” themselves, concepts deemed important today. But, as Morrison says, these people are “the antidote to plastic.” And if they did Tweet, they would actually have something of consequence to say.

Harris Ilsley
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

Yankees Are Who They Are

When you pull into the overgrown driveway of Harrisway Farm, you enter another world. Like the name implies, this farm is Harris’ way. Ilsley doesn’t do phones. He doesn’t do television. He doesn’t do doctors. He doesn’t do political correctness. And he doesn’t do retirement.

“I don’t believe in retirement,” he says, puffing on his ever-present pipe. “People who retire all get Alzheimer’s quicker than ones who don’t.”

If you’re a trapper, and you’re dropping off mink, muskrat, coyote, beaver, fox, otter or raccoon for Ilsley to prepare for the fur trade, you can either lay on the horn or go looking.

Ilsley will be around. He did take two trips to Boston to watch Ted Williams play, but he didn’t care for the city. He stays within walking distance of the house he bought with his dad in 1959 when the old homestead in East Weare was flooded to make way for the Everett Dam. This “new place” — the one with the electricity — still doesn’t feel like home, he says wistfully.

He’s also “been grounded” for the past seven years after failing the eye test at a “most inhospitable” DMV. The loss of freedom of any kind grates at him.

“We’ve lost a lot of freedoms,” he says. “This business about having to wear seat belts. We used to ride on the running boards of the Model T Fords!”

Visitors may find Ilsley working in the half of his barn that’s still standing — “I’m not the first guy who’s had the roof fall down on him” — or in his workshop, whittling a woodland songbird.

“I’m always a slow starter and a strong finisher. When I learn something, it takes a good person to keep up with me.” – Harris Ilsley

He’s carved birds for decades, trying to capture the idiosyncratic nature of each species. His carvings are lessons in ornithology. A glance tells you which berries a certain bird prefers or how another species nests. He uses no patterns, relying mostly on what he’s seen in the woods since childhood.

Harris Ilsley at work on one of his bird carvings
Photo by matthew lomanno

His current project is an Eastern meadowlark, but he’s been musing about making an eagle — if he can find a big enough piece of wood. Typically, he uses poplar, and sometimes basswood. “I just chop me off a piece of whatever the beavers are chomping on,” he says.

Over the decades, Ilsley has stashed about 75 carved birds in the nooks and crannies of his home. He sold them for a couple of years way back, but he hated the pressure of taking orders, the nuisance of shipping and having to answer the phone, an irritant he did away with when he closed the family’s poultry business.

His father, Lewis, came from the North Country town of Errol, where even today the population hovers around 300 and construction is the biggest employer. “Dad was the head of the household. He didn’t ask you if you wanted to do something. If my father called you for chore time, you best not make him call two times,” he says.

One of Ilsley’s chores was keeping pests away from the chickens. That meant trapping, which led to selling pelts to Sears and Roebuck. Minks were craftier than most; Ilsley had to study books to learn how to catch them.

“I’m always a slow starter and a strong finisher. When I learn something, it takes a good person to keep up with me.”

Years of farm work, beekeeping, raising earthworms for anglers and handling fur have slowed his pace. There were times his back was so wracked with pain that he crawled on his hands and knees to collect eggs. His mom sewed him kneepads.

“When I was young and vigorous, I would work 12 to 13 hours a day.” Now, at 83, he paces himself, working for 10 minutes and then resting for 10.

“But maybe I’m not old,” he muses. “You never know your mileage.”

One thing he knows for sure: “I’ll die in my saddle.”

Stacey Ward Cole
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

A Lasting Legacy

Stacey Ward Cole, 91, of Swanzey, had a bit more book learning than Ilsley. When his parents split up when he was 8, grandfather Cole took over, sending the youngster to private schools for eight years. “When I was 16, he said, ‘Boy, I have done all I can for you. You’re on your own now.’”

When he graduated from Vermont Academy in 1939, Cole was deemed “not college material,” and pushed instead toward the University of New Hampshire’s Thompson School of Agriculture (now the Thompson School of Applied Science). He worked at different area farms for tuition money, graduating in 1941.

He did all right for himself, being appointed by two governors to serve as a trustee for the University System of New Hampshire from 1974 to 1986. He even had a building named after him — Cole Hall — in Durham in 1990.

Cole moved into his home — Red Crow Farm of Swanzey — when he was 19. He farmed here with his late wife, Mildred Emergene Hale, for 25 years, tending to 46 head of Jersey cattle and 5,000 laying hens. After the death of his father-in-law, who helped him on the farm, Cole stopped operations.

“These hands of mine,” he says, holding them up. They could operate machinery, but “they couldn’t fix anything.”

Then came his years as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 1965 to 1967 and again from 1989 to 1996. So thoroughly did Cole relish the political arena, you’d swear he was the reincarnation of his ancestor, Major General Artemas Ward — second in command to George Washington — who, after the Revolutionary War, served in both the Massachusetts Statehouse and the US House of Representatives.

“When you give your word, you keep it, because your word is what you are.” – Stacey Cole

Both sides of his family — the Coles and the Wards — came to New England in the early 1600s after fleeing from religious persecution in England. At least one of his ancestors was persecuted here as well — she was tried as a witch (but acquitted). “That was the old Salem witchcraft tradition. Anyone who was a little odd,” Cole says. “I never met one of my relatives who wasn’t.”

Cole’s family moved from Massachusetts to the small New Hampshire towns of Surry and Gilsum, and then to Keene in the 1850s. Cole’s great-great-grandfather and his son bought a good deal of land, of which Cole owns a vestige. He’ll leave 500 acres to Keene’s Conservation Committee, much as his grandfather donated the 500-acre watershed of the Babbidge Reservoir Dam that supplies the city with drinking water.

After he’s gone, Cole wants the city to work with a forester to manage the land for wildlife and forestry. “I hope they operate it well,” he says. “Most people think if you’re a conservationist, you don’t want any trees cut. That’s not a true conservationist, that’s a tree hugger …. If you let it grow into wilderness, you’ve got what is then a mature forest and there’s nothing growing for the deer to eat or the partridge to nest in or the rabbits to run around in. The trees kill the understory.”

Good Yankee Advice

In 1966, Cole interviewed with the New Hampshire Petroleum Council —“big oil.” He was asked if he thought he could fill the shoes of his predecessor. Cole said no. He said, “I’ve never filled anyone’s shoes except for those of Stacey Cole. And if you hire me, those are the shoes you’re going to hire.”

When he named his salary, he was the only one of the applicants to say the fee was non-negotiable.

He got the job.

“Always know your worth,” he says.

A look into Stacey Ward Cole's home
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

This is the type of Yankee advice he likes giving out. He says he doesn’t live his life by any Yankee sayings, but “I’ve made up quite a few of my own.”

There’s only one thing you’ll ever own in life — your name, he says. “You better make it good. It’s the only thing that will be left on your tombstone. When you give your word, you keep it, because your word is what you are.”

One year at the farm, his tomato crop did poorly. They were so small you couldn’t even slice them for a sandwich. Demonstrating his Yankee ingenuity, Cole put the tomatoes in strawberry baskets and made a sign that read: “Picnic Tomatoes.”

“I sold out.”

In 1962, he began writing “Nature Talks” for the Union Leader newspaper, a weekly column he still writes today.

Fans call him at home sometimes, and together they try to solve the mysteries of the state’s natural world. To help a caller narrow down which bird she heard, for example, Cole will imitate the song of a wood thrush and then a hermit thrush so she can hear the difference.

His writing earned him Plymouth State University’s Robert Frost Contemporary American Award in 2003. The award used to be given to northern New Englanders who best exemplified Frost’s traits of individuality, hard work, humanitarianism and devotion to the country “north of Boston.”

He recently signed a book contract with Plaidswede Publishing of Concord, which specializes in New Hampshire and New England books, including works by Fritz Wetherbee and Rebecca Rule.

“God has been good to me,” Cole says. “Someone asked Henry David Thoreau when he was dying if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau replied, ‘I didn’t know we had ever quarreled.’ That’s me.”

If he ever had to move, Cole says he would choose Montana, a place he feels at home. He feels less so in Vermont, a state of socialists, he says. “I never knew a liberal Yankee.”

Sylvia (Sawyer) Miskoe
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

Deep Roots

Sylvia (Sawyer) Miskoe, 77, of Concord also had the good sense to know a good thing when she saw it. When her husband graduated from college, the young couple was trying to decide where to live. They wanted to live near good jobs, but they also wanted to love where they lived. The Federal-style farmhouse that had been in Miskoe’s family since the 1880s fit the bill.

Miskoe had lived there as a kid with her brother and parents; the family moved from the village of Woodsville in Haverhill when Miskoe was 12 to give her a better education. Her mother’s two uncles and an aunt were already residents. “We were all living here in a big dysfunctional mess.”

Not that Miskoe necessarily minded.

With her mother’s side of the family, the Irish side, if you broke a dish, you would be met with silence. And then someone would yell from the other room, “Did you break it?” and everyone laughed. Drop the china in front of her father’s family — the Yankee line that came over before 1630 — and it would have been a much-whispered-about scandal.

{Regarding contra dancing} “Where else can you go and spend all evening hugging people and when you go home still feel good about the night? Friendships do develop and you become a family.”  – Sylvia Miskoe

When her dad married her mom, a Catholic, “it was more than they could stomach,” Miskoe says.

Her approach to life has been much more embracing. As a child, she loved dancing and could read music by the third grade. At college, one of her dorm buddies had an accordion, and she found she could pick out tunes. Square dancing was popular then, and she met Dudley Laufman at the dances where he called steps and played accordion at the same time. (He went on to receive the National Endowment of the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship.) When he decided to get an accordion from Bob

McQuillen (2002 NEA National Heritage Fellow), Miskoe persuaded her father to buy her Laufman’s accordion.

The Music Fed Her Soul

She’s come a long way. She and her accordion have since represented New Hampshire at the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Celebrate New Hampshire festival held in 2000 in Hopkinton. She plays at dances and to cheer up patients at the hospital, teaches classes and, in 2008, received a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant.

Sylvia Miskoe
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

While both square and contra music and dancing can be traced back to the English colonists who settled the state in the 1620s, part of what makes the art forms so intriguing for Miskoe is how they changed over time as new cultures moved in. In the mid- to late 1800s, French Canadians came to work in the lumber camps and mills. Over time, the Irish and Scottish traditions came too. Miskoe values it all.

Looking Backward, Moving Forward

There’s another way you can tell a Yankee. Unlike people who travel around the world in search of something only to find it upon their return, a Yankee often never leaves. Instead, they stay put and mine their surroundings for what feeds them: a sense of place, connection and belonging.

“The Yankee sensibility connects us to our roots,” says Jane Eklund of Hancock, who for 15 years wrote about the people and places of the Monadnock Region as an editor for the Ledger-Transcript newspaper.

“I can’t wander by a cellar hole of an old Class 6 road and not think about the days the whole landscape was pasture, about the people who lugged those stones from the fields and piled them into walls. In the same way these features of the land persist, the character of the Yankee persists too. We’re reminded of it when we sit among our neighbors every year at town meeting and make decisions the way the early settlers did.

“When I snap a photo of an old cellar hole and post it to Facebook, I’m saying: Yes, I’m a member of a global, online, virtual community,” Eklund admits. “But this old foundation? This is where I come from.”

Yankee Bona Fides

We asked four of the state's most well-known Yankees a critical question: “What's the “Yankee-est” thing you do?”

Fritz Wetherbee, author and storyteller for WMUR-TV’s “NH Chronicle

The last time I went to a barber was 27 years ago. I cut (what I have of) my own hair with one of those comb-and-razor-blade “thingies.” It’s good enough.

And I use the cheapest double-edged razor blades I can find.

Yankees are not cheap. They are expensive. It’s the stuff they do that’s cheap.

My great-great grandfather, Ira Hanson, up in North Woodstock, bought a second-hand tombstone and had his name incised on the opposite side. Any idea where I might find a second-hand tombstone for sale?

I cannot bring myself to throw out those coffee cans that have handles or Pringle’s Potato Chip cans. They look so useful.

Click here for a list of Fritz Wetherbee's books at Plaidswede Publishing, including his latest "Milestone," which we reviewed back in May.

Judson D. Hale Sr., editor-in-chief, Yankee Publishing Inc., and author

The Yankee-est thing I do these days is taking refreshing naps at my desk here at Yankee Publishing. To succeed in this, proper balance is the key. If one's head tilts too far backwards, for instance, then one's mouth tends to open widely and occasional gagging sounds result. Too far forward and drooling becomes an obvious give-away. Most true Yankees I know easily achieve the proper balance …  in all things.
Or …

The Yankee-est thing I have been doing all my adult life — particularly on Sunday evenings — is dining on cornbeef hash directly from the can at room temperature. (Cleanup involves only a fork.)

In addition to his duties overseeing Yankee magazine and the Old Farmer's Almanac, Judson D. Hale Sr. has written a number of books including, "Inside New England," "Discovering Our Faraway Brother (with Patricia Whitcomb)," "Wisdom From the Old Farmer's Almanac Book of Everyday Advice" and "The Education of a Yankee."

Rebecca Rule, author, humorist, storyteller

I move stone walls.  It's true. Not only do I scavenge for rocks  around the property and in the woods, but I build walls here and there — and frequently rearrange or even relocate them. Nothing fancy. Rocks as big as I can lift tucked in together and piled two or three feet high usually with some flattish stones on top. I like stone walls and the cats enjoy sitting on them.

My daughter suggested one other — eating dessert on the dinner plate I just used — no sense making more dishes.

And of course, we eat breakfast, dinner and supper in that order.

'Nother thing. I eat pie for breakfast. With a wedge of cheese.

Oh, and in the true Yankee spirit, I consider stacking wood an art form.

Learn more about Rebecca Rule by visiting her website. Rebecca is the author of a number of books including, "Moved and Seconded" (that we reviewed last year), "Live Free and Eat Pie," "Headin' for the Rhubarb," "Could Have Been Worse," "The Best Revenge" and her children's book "The Iciest, Diciest, Scariest Sled Ride Ever."

Fred Marple, aka Ken Sheldon, unofficial spokesman for the fictional NH town of Frost Heaves

I’m considered cheap, but I come by it honestly. I reuse tea bags, a trick I learned from Nana, who said it was a sin if you didn’t get two or three cups out of every bag.

Mother used to rinse out the empty ketchup bottle and use it in her beef stew rather than waste the ketchup that was stuck to the inside of the bottle.

One time, the gas gauge on the old Ford broke. Rather than pay a mechanic to fix it, Dad attached a piece of chalk to the dashboard with a string. He’d write the odometer reading on the dashboard, and when he’d gone 300 miles, it was time to put more gas in. His only expense was a new piece of chalk now and then. Come to think of it, that was probably used too.

Fred Marple and his Frost Heaves bunch have four shows ("Foliage Follies") coming up on October 11, 12 and 19 at the Peterborough Players Theatre, 55 Hadley Rd., Peterborough. Click here for tickets, times and more information. We also suggest checking out the video "Yoga for Yankees." You'll also see Fred Marple appear from time to time on our "Last Laugh" page in the magazine. Here's his most recent humor piece, "Why Roads Are Less Traveled."


Check out more of Matthew Lomanno's photos of Harris Ilsley, Stacey Ward Cole and Sylvia Miskoe.

Categories: Features