Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Perley Interview

“Duke” Perley and Penny, Larry, and Buddy Severance
“Duke” Perley and Penny, Larry, and Buddy Severance

Written By

Devon Karn

Written on

December 01 , 2011

Below is an excerpt from Devon Karn’s extended interview with Duke Perley and Penny Severance of the Perley Farm. Read Devon’s full article here.

Duke Perley: We’ve farmed here for 40 years, and down the river, 135 years.

Penny Severance: I was a neighbor, so I always came down as a little kid and helped if the cows got out. [Duke] used to come and get us to help put the cows back in. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper I’ve been helping the Perleys do something with the farm. He used to give me a quarter, then it got to 50 cents. I still have all my 50-cent pieces. My husband and I have both lost our dad, so Perl’s been our godfather whether he wants us or not, he’s stuck with us. He’s who we go to for fatherly advice, anything that we need.

Duke: They’re both good people. Larry and her are hard workers. I just treat him like he’s my son. Like I’ve told him many times and I’ve told Penny, you work – I’m too old to do it now – and I’ll supply the money. That’s it. Whatever we can come up with, we come up with, and work together and if we can afford something, we buy it, and if we can’t, we don’t buy it.

Penny: On the day of the flood I tried to get down here because I was going to help them do evening chores, but the river had already started up over the flat over there that I have to come across so I couldn’t even get over here. There’s a bridge they call the Foxdam bridge, but the water was up over that. So my family is here, and my daughter and I are on the other side of the river.

We never thought the water would come up like it did because we’ve seen the water come up, but then it goes down. And that day, it started going down. He saw it on the bridge pillars out there – it had come up, then it started going down. So he was like, we’ll be ok. There’s a Vietnam vet that lives out back in the trailer, and my husband said when the water was getting up there, his first thought was to get Bobby out of there. So he went out, and it’s a good thing he did, because Bobby was sound asleep on the couch. He didn’t even know. He almost had to break the door down to get him out and took him up to the upper place, which is three minutes away. When he came back down, he was pushing water with the front bumper of his truck.

We were preparing for wind, we drew up water. But it never poured, it never rained hard. It was just a steady rain.

Duke: I was in Jersey. I just had a pacemaker put in. I said to my nieces, ‘That storm’s coming in,’ and right on the Atlantic coast, they live. I said, ‘Get the kids, they like to fish in the river, your grandchildren, your daughter-in-law, and both my nieces, and we’ll all go to Vermont where it’s safe.’ So we came up here. They got a little wind down there, and they took us out in a boat up here.

Penny: They came up Saturday night and were taken out in a boat Sunday night.

Duke: At least the boys got something to remember!

Even when they took us out in the boat to the fire station, the firemen said, ‘Do you have a place to go?’ And we didn’t have any place to go, so they took us to the firehouse in Bethel. It was still raining then, just a slight, nice rain. I’ve lived here 40 years and I’ve never seen the water come up like that. They tell me Quebec opened two dams, and that raised the water level up, but we would still be ok. But then they opened the dam in Morrisville, to keep from flooding Montpelier – which maybe they should’ve flooded Montpelier, cleaned house up there, but anyhow – as soon as they did, within 15 minutes in the house, I was telling everyone to get upstairs. I was up to my knees in water. Just that quick. Of course my one niece said ‘I’m glad you brought us to where it’s safe, Duke, at least we’re not where it’s bad!’ It was an experience. I never thought this would happen.

What happened here was what happened in 1927, only it took out the town of Gaysville with all the factories. The houses came down, got against the bridges, and caused a dam. Only so long, and it couldn’t hold it, and it took the bridge out and all the water came down. And of course, we have all kinds of things to deal with it. Back in those days, there were horse and buggies, they didn’t have no way of doing anything. The same thing happened to this property in ’27 as it did now.

I bought the schoolhouse down here last June, and put $65,000 in that, and now the floorboards, everything is shot.

Penny: When the water started coming up, we had some cows out to pasture, our dry cows and heifers were all out to pasture. And then the milk cows were in the barn because my husband and son were milking. There was no time to do anything, because we’re thinking, do we let them loose in the barn?

But the water came so fast, he was in water up to his waist in the barn. And he had to get out.

Duke: There was 12 in there, and they were still standing when we got in there the next morning.

Penny: We had a foot and a half of mud throughout everything, the house, barn, every outlet there was.

Duke: That’s the problem we had, you got this much mud. We had two antique cars in that garage. The doors are all closed, no doors open. The Lincoln on this side of the garage had so much crap got under the hood – now there’s nothing open – sticks and leaves and mud got in there and just bulged the hood right up. I had a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible over there in the far bay, and that didn’t have a thing on the motor. And I lost my new truck, filled with water, my niece lost her new GMC Envoy that was here.

Penny: My son had a truck we had just bought this summer, but all we had was liability on it because we were able to pay for it, and that was full of water and mud. The door panel on the passenger side was half-full of mud. He could only roll the window down halfway. We just got that running, he took it to school and started working on it. Then we ended up, because the clutch wasn’t releasing, took it out to one of his friend’s whose parents had a garage and they got it going for him. We just got it back, and it’s working, knock on wood. They said there might be some bugs in it. Then the starter went, and when it he took if off, where the starter bolts on, it was full of sand that had gotten up in there. So we had to re-do the starter.

We had seven vehicles that we lost. My husband and I had just bought a new truck three months ago, and Bobby lost his car, a Volkswagen.

My son’s main thought was, ‘I gotta get these cows milked before it gets really bad.’ So he was focusing on getting his animals taken care of. He had a set of twin bulls that we had a month before that, and Perl told him there’s your set of oxen. And he was raising them for oxen in the calf barn, but one of them drowned and the other one survived. Then we had another heifer that was hooked in line with the other heifers and she drowned. We don’t know how any of the cows made it in the barn.

We lost all the cows on pasture. There were 10. Someone had cut the railroad fence and the 10 got out, but they were so scared that a lot of them ran and ended up in the water. We had one cow that was within two weeks of having a calf that my son watched drown.

Duke: The state has helped us. They took our tractors up to VTC and are completely going through them, overhauling them, free of charge for us.

Penny: We had one tractor – a 4020, it’s a big John Deere – that the back tires are six feet tall. It was hooked to a bailer in what used to be the field out there, and that tractor was totally submerged. And you wouldn’t have even known there was a tractor out there.

Duke: A woman and her son stopped here a week or so afterwards, and she said, ‘How are you folks making out? I was here the first three days after the flood. And I just want to ask you one question.’ So I said, what’s that. And she said, ‘Who put that linoleum down in the kitchen?’ Well the guy that put it down is dead, his son took the business over. Why? She said, ‘Because it took three of us two and a half hours to get that stuff off the floor! And I’m putting new linoleum in my kitchen and I want they guy who put that down!’ I said well he’s gone, he can’t help you.”

Penny: It’s hard for us to even imagine what took place the first couple of weeks. Just because it’s so much. It was really hard for us to have everybody come because we’ve always been the giving people, the helping people. And to have to receive the help – that’s harder.

Duke: I got a motel the day we got out of the firehouse in Bethel. They put us in there, they had all kinds of mats they brought from the high school, and people were back in there with mattresses and blankets. They got everything all settled and got it warm in there, and then one of the farmers come over and he said, “Duke, these people are gonna hate me. We gotta move upstairs. Look out the front window. And the water was flopping right against the doors of the firehouse. So they moved us all, and it was cold up there. But we survived. And then it was the first time I took a bath then put dirty clothes back on and it felt good.”

The boat took us out to the railroad. To give you an idea of how deep the water was, when he pulled up with the boat, we were stepping out onto the railroad.

Penny: Our big hay wagons that were out in the fields here, one of them was out in the pasture with feed on it, and we had one right out here with almost 200 round bales. Those all went. We were just able to purchase these after the flood. One of the wagons set out here full of feed that we were going to pull in, because we knew they said it was going to rain and it’s just easier to have it covered and pull it in. Those wagons ended up way down by the Jehova’s Witness church, and then a full one ended up where the railroad tracks bend, up on the tracks, behind the pizza place. And the railroad company was able to pick it off and they took it down so we could get it. That’s how much force the water had.

Duke: I can’t imagine. In the barn, we’ve got a place where it bulged in. If that were to give way, we would have lost the barn. But it didn’t because we had plastic on the wall. People can say what they want about how strong plastic is, but that plastic was just stretched as far as it could go, and it held. It held the wall with the water against it.

We sat in the kitchen, me and my nieces, and I said, ‘Don’t get excited, everything’s ok. I’ve lived here 40 years, I know this river like the back of my hand. It’ll come up a little bit, maybe, might go over the road a little bit. Then my niece called me, I was in the living room, and she said Uncle Duke, come out here. You’re right, it’s going down. And I said, see, it’s all over. What it’s doing is washing down over Bigelow’s fields over here and some of the lower levels. Then we were in the kitchen, and she said Uncle Duke, come out here, it’s going to come in the windows pretty soon. When they opened that dam in Morrisville, that was the end of it. That’s what killed us. And I told them, get upstairs.

When the guy in the guy in the boat came, he had taken me and the two boys out first, and when they came to take the rest of them out, my niece hands a shopping bag to the driver and says hold on to that bag, don’t let that bag get away from you. So he hung right on to that bag, and he gets over here to the railroad, and he says, ‘I couldn’t help it, I don’t know what’s in the bag, I thought maybe it was diamonds, so I had to look!’ And it was two half-gallons of Canadian Mist in there. He said, ‘Lady, these would have floated!’ And she said, ‘Yeah but they might not have floated where I could grab them!” So we get down to the motel, and I said, ‘Boy, I could use a drink.’ And she said, ‘I’ll be right back with the ice.’ She’s a riot.

Penny: We have to do things to laugh. We cry, but we laugh. That’s how we got through it all. We had to, it’s just stupid little things to laugh.

Duke: Larry got out of the barn and got on the big tractor, started that up and came over – Buddy was with him – and I said put Buddy in here and I opened my bedroom window and Larry’s out there with the tractor saying he could pull up and get you out of here. I said, ‘Larry, if you go out on that road, that river will suck you right in, big tractor or not.’ And it’s a big tractor, 145 horsepower.

Penny: He thought if he could get everyone from the house he could find a way through the fields.

Duke: I said, go put the tractor away, and get in the house before the water comes in.

When the guy in the boat picked Larry up off the tractor, he came over here and said, ‘We’re not going to leave your dog, bring him over here and hand him to me.’ He weighs 145 pounds! So of course he’s swimming some now. The guy said, ‘Will he bite?’ And I said, ‘He will if we leave him here!’

Penny: My sister was up on the railroad tracks and she had called me, that’s how I kept in contact. She was letting me know what was going on here, and I’m in hysterics because I can’t get here. I kept telling her, because Duke just came back and no one knew he had a pacemaker, to get him out and make sure they get the dog!

We’ve just been cleaning. We put a new milk tank in. We had a ton of milk in the milk tank, and it moved back eight inches. The water did it. We had a bunch of guys here and they thought they could move it back, but they couldn’t even budge it. They found out that between the jackets of the bulk tank, the mud and water got in there. It was trashed. We lost 6,000 pounds of milk.

Duke: It’s a funny thing. In the barn, there were two plastic pails, and they’re right there. But the sledgehammer’s gone. We found it out in the field.

Penny: I had a metal wheelbarrow. I had just, the week before, repainted painted the whole milk house. I took out an old bench. I put in new cupboards. I had put all the tools and metal pieces from the old bench into this wheelbarrow, wheeled it into the calf barn, and that wheelbarrow ended up against a 6x6 post outside. It left marks in the post, the water just slammed it into the post. There’s stuff we don’t even know is missing yet, we don’t know until we need it and can’t find it.

Duke: If it wasn’t for the mud… We’re gutting the house. The sheetrock’s off the walls. The volunteers did that. I’ve been picking up stuff because we couldn’t get a dumpster down here when they were stripping everything out, so they just threw everything out on the lawn and out back. I’ve got a lot of this picked up. But now we’ve gotta change our water line because it comes from the well up above but it goes to the house, then to the barn. And there’s no heat, no nothing. So we’ve got to dig up, find the water line, and get it to go directly to the barn because if it freezes this winter we’re done.

Penny: People would say to me, ‘Oh my god, you lost so much.’ And we’re all saying there’s people out there who are worse of than we are. There’s people up in Bethel who lost their whole house. We’ve been brought up that you don’t put all your value on material things. Your family, that’s what’s most important. As long as our family is ok, we’re going to make it. It’s when something happens to one of us that our wheel’s going to wobble. I can’t focus on what we lost, I have to focus on what we have left. And like my husband says, those cows in that barn fought to stay alive, and we’re going to fight for them to keep them going.

Even thought it’s been a couple of months since the flood, we’re still seeing effects of it in the cows. We’ve had four cows freshen since the flood, and they’re getting sick. The vet had told us it could be quite a while that you’ll have to watch. They were all in this water and mud, you just don’t know. There was two days that we couldn’t milk because we had no power. There was a foot an a half of mud and they couldn’t lay down so they stood up for two days. They didn’t have water. One of our friends had a truck – I had a van, but you can’t do much of anything with a van – so we had a 150-gallon sap tank that we filled with water from his house, and we lugged it by 5-gallon pails to the cows. And they were scared to drink, they were scared of the water.

When we got down here Monday night, someone had brought down a little generator and he had a light that he made up so he could hook it to the end of the barn and shine down because it was so dark in there. Some of the boys that were here, I told them we need to at least get some of the mud out of this manger so I can feed them. We just kept working and working and we finally got the muck out of the manger so we could put hay down for the cows to eat. Tuesday night, my brother gave us a big generator and Larry Trotier that has Trotier’s Equipment down to South Royalton brought us a big generator so we could finally milk the cows. Then the power company got the power turned on to the barn, so we had water then. My son and I had to scoop the mud out of the water bowls and get them cleaned out. There’s a button on them that the cows push to get water. When you push the button, it makes kind of a hissy sound when the water comes in, and they’re used to it. But when we pushed that button, they were scared. Both him and I had to really talk to them and telling them it’s ok. And they were ok. But if it had been somebody else the cows didn’t know, they would have just been crazy because they were so scared.

Monday night, when we finally got a light hooked up so we could go in, the first few cows – the cows are like our kids, we name them – the could see me coming down the manger and their eyes lit up, and I could see them smelling and they were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s mom!’ And each one that I walked by, they would lap me. And they were like, ‘We know you, and it’s ok.’ It was such a good feeling to have them still alive, and they were looking for us as much as we were looking for them.

We spent until midnight here the first few weeks, just trying to get stuff done. It’s like we were here doing stuff, but to tell you now everything step by step, it’s so hard because you’re in a zone. I know we had people here, people brought us food, we couldn’t have done it without the community and beyond that helped us.

The mailbox that’s down here in the middle of the field, that actually sat out by the street. The water took the mailbox. My husband and I were just having a down moment and my son and another kid who’s like a son to us – he was here Monday morning at 6 o’clock, waiting for us at the railroad tracks to come up to the barn, and he’s been here since moment one – they went down and said, ‘We’re going to build a fire on the beach. So they were scrounging around in the dark with their flashlights, found the mailbox, which was still attached to the post. That’s why the mailbox is in the middle of the beach. And it just stayed there. We have to laugh. They built us a little bonfire on the beach and they dug out two old lawn chairs and had them set up. You have to find the sense of humor in it.

This is our life. How do you throw your hands up in the air and walk away from it? This is what we do, this is our life.

Farming is like a religion of it’s own. So when something happens, all the farmers come together. We’ve had farmers that brought us sawdust, they brought us hay, everyone wants to know what they can do to help. I had people in Massachusetts that have a  summer camp up here. They said they were coming up and wanted to bring us grain, and asked what we use. We lost our grain bin. They brought us up bags of grain, and another week she said they were coming back the next weekend, asked what we needed. They brought us more grain, they brought us shavings.

Duke: Tractor Supply donated bags of shavings. We lost all of our fencing – the water just took it down – so we have to rebuild that fence. They donated a roll of woven wire. Someone bought us a roll of wire. People came and built us this small paddock area where the cows are now.

Penny: The main thing about the river that I look at is they need to get gravel bars and stuff out of that river. Because the river is now getting shallower and wider, and they need to dig it back down.

Duke: When I was a kid, we had a diving board out front and the water was 12 feet deep. And you can walk across that river now. But they dug it out every spring, with a big steam shovel, and all the towns got their gravel. We used to have huge fish in there, now we have no fish at all, hardly. They’re saying you can’t go in the river because you’ll kill the fish. There ain’t no fish in there. We used to fish in there with a safety pin on a string from a stick with nothing on it.

Penny: It would look a lot better down here if we were heading into spring rather than trying to get everything done before winter.

Duke: We’ve been buying cows, and we’re going to look at two heifers for sale today. We’re alright. It’s a bump in the road, but it’s a big bump.

Photo by Elizabeth Ferry

About the Author

Devon Karn

Devon Karn

Devon Karn is a freelance copywriter who writes, gardens, and revels in Vermont’s bounty from her historic Burlington neighborhood.

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Home Stories Issues 2012 Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Perley Interview