A little north of Boston, where Rte. 28 begins to undulate through the rolling plains and scattered hills of the New Hampshire lowlands, the old Robert Frost farm, restored and freshly painted, nestles between two ridges.
Just one-horse farms and "absurdly small towns" in Frost's day, this area surrounding the village of Derry lately has been invaded by young professionals from Boston, attracted by the pastoral setting and the absence of sales taxes and income taxes. Still small by any but New Hampshire standards, populations have grown. Towns of 50 are now 500. Old-timers are becoming alarmed.
But the rough, lake-strewn land that the creeping glaciers of the last ice age chiseled and grooved is still the same. The autumn foliage is just as dazzling, with 85 percent of the state covered by woods. And now the farm is open to the public, offering guided or self-directed tours, and visitors can wander the woods and fields that inspired many of Frost's most famous poems.
Winner of four Pulitzer prizes and for many years considered America's unofficial poet laureate, Frost lived here as a young man from 1900 to 1910, farming during the day, writing at night, taking long walks, becoming "versed in country things." Almost 50 of his major poems were written here, or credited by Frost to settings and incidents from his life here. And he once told a friend, "The core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm down the road from Derry Village."
The five "free" years were his last five in Derry, and were spent teaching English part-time at nearby Pinkerton Academy for $200 a year. The salary let him concentrate more on poetry and less on farm chores, though he still depended on his chickens and his orchards to make ends meet. "One of my apple trees," he once told an editor, "standing stock still and rooted, earns more money in a year than I can earn with all my locomotion and artistic detachment."
The small farmhouse, with its attached barn, side piazza, bay-windowed parlor and apple trees framing the front door, is typically New England.
The front door opens into a hall, with stairs on the left leading to three second-floor bedrooms. To the right is the parlor, and Frost's ancient Morris chair in which he wrote on a board laid across the arms. According to Frost, "The chair I could write in had to have just the right arms to support a shelf stolen from the closet and not to interfere with my elbows."
The small bookcase in the parlor contains the books Frost read as a child, which were required reading for his children. His eldest daughter, Lesley, called them "the jewelry of the house," since they were so valuable to the family and treated so delicately by them.
Beyond the parlor is the dining room, with doors leading to a corner bedroom (containing the crib that served all six Frost children), and an ell, housing kitchen, pantry and grain shed.
Frost's grandfather bought the one-horse farm for Frost in 1900, when the poet was 26. A year later the old man died and willed the farm to Frost on condition he work it for 10 years -- an enterprise for which Frost, then, had neither interest nor aptitude.
Frost the farmer always came second to Frost the poet, who left his chores for long, solitary walks, and who soon had his cow worked around to a milking routine (noon and midnight) that allowed him to sleep late and write far into the night -- a pattern he continued throughout his life.
On winter nights, after the family had gone to bed, he would write in the kitchen near the glow of the wood stove, startled by midnight sounds, wary of snowfalls silently building to blizzards, as he later described in "Storm Fear."
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length, --
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
In 1911, with the 10-year requirement complete, Frost sold the farm and was glad to be free of it. But a year later in England, with the time and distance to appreciate it, he was writing poems about the place.
"I never knew how much of a yankee I was till I had been out of New Hampshire a few months," he wrote to a friend. "I suppose the life in such towns as Plymouth and Derry . . . is the best on earth."
Over the years the farm changed hands several times and began to deteriorate. Frost's wife Elinor died in 1938, and she had asked that her ashes be scattered at nearby Hyla Brook, where the family had spent so many idyllic hours. But the place had changed so much that when Frost returned to honor her request, he couldn't bring himself to do it.
By the 1950s, the place had fallen into complete ruin and had become a commercial garage and auto graveyard with the unlikely name of "Frosty Acres."
Well into his 80s, Frost saw the old farm for the last time in this condition, with junk cars strewn about and its peace and solitude completely destroyed. He vowed to reclaim it but died before he had the opportunity.
In 1964, a year after his death, the state of New Hampshire did it for him. It bought the farm and, assisted by Lesley, set about to restore the place to its turn-of-the-century condition.
The pasture was a major project in itself, since it required clearing away the skeletons of a few hundred junk cars and replacing the dead topsoil with new loam.
Lesley collected as many of the Frost furnishings as had survived the 60-odd years and substituted the rest with similar period pieces -- even matching the wallpaper in age, color and design -- until the farmhouse was exactly as she remembered it being in 1910.
The barn also was restored and is now used to show two 15-minute films on Frost, which begin a very detailed and personalized guided tour around the house.
In addition to the tour, there is a "poet's walk" set out around the farm's perimeter so visitors can wander through the settings that inspired some of the most evocative poetry of the century.
The walk takes about 30 minutes and begins behind the barn at the long hayfield, inspiration for many of Frost's poems, and where he labored in "Mowing."
There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
Along the trail, the hayfield stretches back to the Old South Road. Once a thoroughfare, the road is now just a footpath that meanders through a hardwood grove, which Frost was homesick for in England, when he wrote "Birches."
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
The trail passes Hyla Brook, and you come upon the "Mending Wall." Frost and his neighbor, Napoleon Guay, would meet here during spring mending time and follow the wall on their respective sides, putting back the boulders that ground swells and passing hunters had displaced. Guay insisted on this New England ritual as a matter of tradition. Frost considered it senseless.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
The trail leads back to the farmhouse, through the hayfield and past half a dozen fruit trees clustered in a small stand south of the barn. This is all that remains of the orchard where Frost had gone so drowsy "After Apple-Picking."
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.