Home for Supper
Remembering Lewis Hill
Written onFebruary 09 , 2016
Ask a longtime Vermont fruit grower or gardener about Lewis Hill and they’ll probably tell you how he inspired and nurtured their love of growing fruit. Maybe he introduced them to uncommon fruits such as black currants and elderberry. Stop by the home of a Greensboro resident and maybe they’d show you the plants or daylily cultivars they bought from one of Lewis Hill’s nurseries. Maybe they’d also show you a marriage certificate signed by Justice of the Peace, Lewis Hill; he liked to joke that he married more than a hundred women. Talk with a member of the Caspian Lake 4-H group that Lewis led from 1947 into the 1970s and they might recount how Lewis influenced their sense of place and love for Vermont forests.
Lewis Hill passed away in 2008, but he was the kind of man people remember—for his good work, his love of nature and community, and his humorous stories. Born in 1924 and the youngest of 11 children, Lewis grew up on Hillcrest Farm in Greensboro. Although his childhood was full of cold winters, a one room-schoolhouse, and hard work, it planted the seeds for his independent streak and love of storytelling. Lewis wrote about growing up in his two memoirs, Fetched Up Yankee and Yankee Summer. Both are filled with Vermont rural history and Lewis’s good humor.
Like many gardeners, we first came to know Lewis Hill through his books. In our case, it was his books about growing fruit, pruning, and cold-climate gardening. These are just a few of the 14 gardening books that he collaborated on or co-wrote with his wife and partner of 39 years, Nancy Davis Hill, the good woman behind the good man. Many of these books, such as Pruning Made Easy and The Flower Gardener’s Bible, are still in print, a testament to their insightful information and readability. Many continue to fill the shelves of prestigious universities, from the University of California to the University of Vermont.
Lewis’s book The Fruit Growers Bible (formerly Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden) has recently been updated by Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont extension service. Leonard was a longstanding associate of Lewis’s and a friend of the Hills. We recently met with Leonard and reminisced about Lewis and his many contributions to horticulture, in Vermont and beyond.
Lewis was one of the founding members and early officers of Green Works: Vermont Nursery and Landscaping Association (originally called the Vermont Plantsmen Association). This organization grew from 30 or so in 1964 to hundreds of members today. This active association hosts conferences and horticultural shows, compiles a member directory, and offers Vermont horticultural certification.
Over the years, the Hills owned and operated several nurseries including Hillcrest, Vermont Daylilies, and Berryhill. Through plant breeding and selection, Lewis developed two elderberry and two black currant cultivars, along with nine registered daylilies. Lewis and Nancy received the Vermont Nursery and Landscaping Association’s Horticultural Achievement Award in 1992 for their years of work in the nursery and horticulture areas.
Todd Hardie of Thornhill Farm in Greensboro calls Lewis “the gentle giant of Vermont horticulture.” Todd credits Lewis with introducing him to elderberries and educating him about their health benefits. Todd founded Honey Gardens in the 1980s, a business that sold a popular elderberry-honey syrup. He recently planted hundreds of elderberry plants including the two Lewis Hill cultivars (Coomer and Berryhill). Elderberries and black currants were two of Lewis’s favorite fruits, but he was awfully fond of apples, too. In The Fruit Grower’s Bible he wrote, “We grow many different kinds of fruits, and I love them all, but every time a nursery catalog arrives, I automatically turn to the apple section first, to be tempted by the best new selections.” He grew the old-fashioned heirloom varieties as well as newer varieties. One of his favorites was Duchess of Oldenburg, which is especially good for pies and sauces. That’s one of our favorites too.
Besides meeting Lewis through his books, we also met him in the 1990s. We’d been riding bikes in the Greensboro area on our anniversary when we happened upon Hillcrest Farm. Although we were a little nervous about just stopping in, both Nancy and Lewis greeted us like neighbors. We talked about some of the challenges of growing cherry and plum trees in Vermont. Lewis shared his knowledge readily. Although he took some correspondence classes to expand his understanding of plants and horticulture, most of his learning came from hands-on work and experimentation at his nursery and farm. He wasn’t afraid to try new things, whether it was recycling metal roofing as mulch or developing propagation techniques for softwood cuttings.
One cold sunny day this past January, we met Nancy Hill at the Greensboro Historical Society, a society she and Lewis helped start. The Hill family were some of the first settlers in the area, a fact that sparked Lewis’s interest in local and family history. Lewis had collected and saved farm and household items from his grandparents and great-grandparents, including his grandfather Aaron’s account book, cheese presses, and a spinning wheel. Nancy used to keep the old wooden washboard with its hand-gouged grooves on the wall in their kitchen. She said it served as a reminder to be thankful for modern conveniences. After Lewis’s death, Nancy and other historical society members developed the Hill Exhibit for permanent display of these items.
After we viewed the exhibit, Nancy invited us back to her home for tea. She has moved away from the Hillcrest homestead she shared with Lewis, passing it on to Lewis’s great-nephew. He and his wife recently started up Hillcrest Nursery again, carrying on the Lewis Hill tradition by selling edible plants, daylilies, and more. Lewis had previously granted the Hillcrest homestead’s conservation rights to the Greensboro Land Trust.
We noticed the U.S. Peace Corps license plate holder as we followed Nancy’s car up the hill. Being former Peace Corps volunteers ourselves, we asked her about it. She’d served in Thailand in the late 1960s, having postponed her marriage to Lewis until she came home, much to the disappointment of many family members. Although Nancy liked to travel and continued to do so after she and Lewis married, she mentioned that Lewis wasn’t much for traveling. He always said he liked to be “home for supper.”
Over raspberry scones, Nancy shared the Caspian Lake 4-H scrapbook that held old newspaper clippings and black-and-white photographs from the late 1940s to the 1970s. She served the tea as we watched the woodpecker at the feeder through the picture window and told us that Lewis would mainly want to be remembered for the work he did with the 4-H kids. The 4-H club he led for more than 25 years focused on conservation, forestry, horticulture, and community service with 150 boys involved over the years. In 1974, Lewis was one of four 4-H leaders recognized nationally for his service. It was something of which he was quite proud.
Clive Gray, one of Lewis’s old friends, came in toward the end of our visit. Clive had just come from a Long Pond Conservancy meeting. Long Pond near Greensboro is an undeveloped area of northern hardwood forest surrounding a pristine pond. It also includes a 30-acre white cedar swamp. “The Long Pond Natural Area is a real tribute to Lewis,” Clive remarked to us. Lewis and Nancy were instrumental in getting zoning at Long Pond back in the early 1970s. Later, they and other community members started the Friends of Long Pond and helped get 800 acres of surrounding shore land and woods protected through The Nature Conservancy.
Lewis Hill was a true Vermont entrepreneur, starting his first nursery business, Hillcrest Nursery, in 1940. He also had his own printing press and ran a printing business in the late 1950s. He printed notecards and stationery and sold those locally and by mail order. He learned to fly and develop his own film. He had a busy Christmas wreath business. For a short time, he even had a transportation business in which he drove summer visitors back and forth from their camps on Caspian Lake to New York City or New Jersey. In the 1990s, when Lewis was in his 70s, he and Nancy toured the back roads of the Northeast Kingdom on their motorcycles, aptly calling themselves “Hill’s Angels.”
As we remember Lewis and the many contributions he made to gardening, horticulture, the nursery industry, local history, and Vermont conservation, we are inspired by the way he interwove his many interests into doing great things for the people and places of Vermont. We are also reminded that living life well isn’t about making a lot of money or trying to garner attention. Lewis would probably be embarrassed by this article. He followed his passions and did good work not to be a hero, but maybe that’s why he was.
Nancy and John Hayden own and operate The Farm Between (thefarmbetween.com), an organic fruit nursery and fruit farm in Jeffersonville. They specialize in uncommon fruits such as black currants and elderberries.