Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Alumni

Back to the Future

Promoting craftsmanship and agrarian skills in an idyllic New Hampshire setting

November-December 2019

Colin Cabot takes heart in the traditional skills, like woodworking, that are preserved at Sanborn Mills Farm.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Colin Cabot takes heart in the traditional skills, like woodworking, that are preserved at Sanborn Mills Farm.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

The new blacksmith shop’s five forges are used in workshops ranging from basic techniques to hardware- and tool-making.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


The new blacksmith shop’s five forges are used in workshops ranging from basic techniques to hardware- and tool-making.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

lass="caption">Workers employ draft horses and oxen at Sanborn Mills Farm.

Photograph courtesy of Sanborn Mills Farm    


lass="caption">Workers employ draft horses and oxen at Sanborn Mills Farm.

Photograph courtesy of Sanborn Mills Farm    

Striding through the newly rebuilt barn at his Sanborn Mills Farm, in Loudon, New Hampshire, F. Colin Cabot ’72 explains his plan: to develop a center for learning and preserving traditional crafts and farming skills, like blacksmithing and ox-yoke-making.

In the barn’s teaching kitchen, visitors will cook and can the farm’s produce, and they’ll gather in the dining room, for which a carpenter is busy creating Shaker-style tables and chairs from the property’s ash trees; decimated by the emerald ash borer, they are now milled and kiln-dried on site, using eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tools and techniques.

“Making things by hand and creating art are so undervalued in today’s world,” says Cabot, “that I suppose I want to provide access to a different way of living than what, for lack of a better term, is often called ‘the rat race.’”

A tall, prepossessing man who’s retained his boyish grin, Cabot was a theatrical producer in Milwaukee for two decades, before diving into rural life. His days at Sanborn Mills Farm, beautifying the landscape and overseeing a team of employees, are not unlike producing live theater. He laughs cheerfully at the thought of this, and doesn’t disagree.

Upstairs, he leads the way through seven dorm rooms and shared baths. “The view is better over here,” he calls out, directing attention through one window to a hilly pastoral scene. The dirt road winds past the main house (built in 1875), two dams, and a scattering of outbuildings. “There’s the original grist mill, and the old blacksmith shop, and the water-powered sawmill,” he says. “Those are what hooked us, because there’s no other place that I know of that has those three industrial/preindustrial structures all in one place, and in working condition.”

They weren’t entirely “working” when Cabot and his actress wife, Paula Dewey Cabot, bought the dilapidated property in 1996. What started with a few restoration and renovation projects—stabilizing the mills, rebuilding both dams, and clearing a site for “The Red House,” an antique saved from destruction in a fire-department training exercise in Maine, and for a second barn moved 20 miles from Northwood, New Hampshire—has led to wholesale re-booting of the working farm. Both mills are now operational, fields are cultivated, and a new, fully equipped teaching blacksmith shop has five forge stations.

This past year, the focus was on revamping the largest barn (it once incorporated a milking shed), and the abutting “New Carriage Barn.” There’s also a new addition on the main house, where Cabot and his wife live when in residence. (They spend about half the year in Key West, and also visit his family’s estate Les Quatre Vents, on the Saint Lawrence River north of Quebec City.)

 

Cabot’s artistic vision for Sanborn Mills Farm knows almost no bounds, making it a boon for those who care deeply about craftsmanship, as well as artisans working on-site, including six woodworkers/carpenters, three farmers/teamsters, two millwrights, and a gardener. Cabot also aims to foster self-sufficiency in the age of climate change. When a tool or piece of vintage equipment breaks, he points out, you don’t need to go to a store to replace it: you can learn how to fix it—just as you can learn how to grow food, forge tools, and weave cloth: “It can be done!”

Inside the New Carriage Barn, a multipurpose space to be used for gatherings and workshops, Cabot had challenged carpenters to construct a free-standing, wooden spiral staircase. Also made from wood on the property, it required, among other labors, steam-bending, kerfing, and laminating six layers of white pine, and an underside covered with steam-bent and twisted tongue-and-groove ash wood strips. That section would “normally be all made of plaster—but I forbade it!” he says, in a mock-tyrant voice. “The idea is to remember how to do this stuff because nobody knows how to do it anymore, and these skills and crafts are dying out.”

The scheduled yoke-making workshops may seem more anachronistic. But they’re of “vital interest to anyone who wants to work with oxen,” Cabot explains: yokes aren’t commercially available anywhere, and they must be hand-made to custom-fit specific animals. The long process involves cutting, drying, and carving the yoke from green wood—and requires knowing which trees are strong enough to withstand the pressure of the workload, and when and how they should be harvested. The farm currently buys its oxbows from Amish communities in Ohio, because, he reports, “We do not have any hickory in our forest, and because we haven’t taken the trouble to build a jog to bend the bows after making them bendable in a steam box.”

Employees at Sanborn do work with teams of oxen and two Percheron draft horses to plow, plant, and till. Sheds also house two pigs (raised for meat), a dozen layer chickens, and occasional batches of meat chickens. Down the dirt road, adjacent to an additional small farmstead that Cabot also owns, are several acres of vegetable gardens and fields of corn, wheat, hay, and flax.

With its dams, mills, and non-motorized practices, the farm operates somewhat as it did when the Sanborn family, which first settled there in 1770, developed it as the community’s critical locus of agrarian technology from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. The footprint of Cabot’s farm—with its 10 buildings, arable land, and managed forests—is 540.5 acres, smaller than the Sanborn operation. But it’s also surrounded by nearly 2,000 contiguous acres held in conservation easements placed by a group of property owners in the 1980s.

Sweeping views and majestic rural beauty suit the single-minded, visionary projects that run in the family. His father, the late Francis H. Cabot ’49, a financier and self-taught horticulturist, spent decades creating extraordinary landscapes. Stonecrop Gardens, a plantsman’s haven and horticulture school in the Hudson Valley, is open to the public; Les Quatre Vents, and the elder Cabot, star in The Gardener, a 2018 documentary. “He explains how he got into gardening: because he’d had business reverses and then he found out he loved this and he could do it—and do it right,” Cabot says of his father, who also founded the Garden Conservancy and helped preserve old mills. “His art involved setting up liminal spaces, preparing for transporting surprises: ‘Aha! Moments.’”

Although Cabot never spoke with his father about the concept of the numen “as a prereligious divinity,” he says they both felt what renowned British gardener Penelope Hobhouse says in The Gardener, which he paraphrases as: “when you’re in the presence of something that is so beautiful that you can’t believe it’s an accident or just evolution, the numen is present.” Both men approached their living creations with that aesthetic in mind, he adds: through a “making process [as] a piecemeal development without a master plan: letting the site speak to us over time.” Sanborn Mills Farm, though, also has an externalized purpose: “I strive to find a vocation—making a craft school, using the mills as practical machines—whereas he was making an intensely private expression of his personal vision.”

 

Cabot followed his father to Harvard, where he concentrated in English literature and immersed himself in theater, participating in more than 40 productions, and served as president of the Harvard (now Harvard-Radcliffe) Dramatic Club. In hindsight, though, he says he feels that he “wasted” his Harvard education, and was “scarred” by that tumultuous period on campus; he felt angry and disillusioned by the University’s actions during student protests (see “Echoes of 1969,” March April, page 52). He then spent two “miserable” years at the Business School, failing to graduate, and left Harvard for Milwaukee with his then-wife and fellow theater practitioner, Marie Kohler ’73, to be closer to her family.

There, he served as assistant to Clair Richardson, the brilliant, erratic co-founder of the Skylight Opera Theatre, before spending a year abroad working for another larger-than-life personality, the opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti. He then returned to Milwaukee to become the Skylight’s managing director, and for 12 years built the company, expanding both the staff and the annual budget (from $150,000 to $1.8 million). “I loved the theater. We had a wonderful time, it was a family—a community of people and we worked hard and made things happen,” he says. In 1989, however, feeling burned-out, he “retired” to take a volunteer post, chairman of the campaign to build the Skylight’s new performance space. The grand 358-seat Cabot Theatre, a replica of an eighteenth-century European opera house, opened in 1993.

By then, he and Kohler (they have two grown daughters) had divorced and he had married Dewey; the two met through the theater and periodically performed as a cabaret duo: she sang and he accompanied her on the piano. Because the theater-building had ended and because “artistic people and nonprofits need change,” he and Dewey in 1996 began eyeing a move to Boston to pursue graduate degrees (urban planning for him, Celtic studies for her), and second careers. Then a friend showed them the fateful real-estate listing for Sanborn Farm. Resurrecting pre-Industrial Revolution machinery (“as a tribute to the achievement of water power”) and renting it out for use, captured Cabot’s imagination.

Twenty-three years later, he is still enthralled, still “having fun” fashioning buildings and landscapes with artistic flourishes. Next year, he plans to re-assemble the town of Loudon’s former grange (removed to make way for new town offices) and erect a donated 1919 Lord & Burnham greenhouse on the farm.

Alongside all that, he’s also addressing the realistic matter of the farm’s sustainability. Cabot has established the nonprofit Sanborn Mills Inc., with its own executive director, and plans are under way to design a long-term business model that identifies more sources of revenue, and an endowment, to cover operating costs and further develop the center. A slate of weekend workshops, including fiber arts and draft-animal handling, are scheduled to run from April through early November. And part of the plan entails expanded public programming and training partnerships (apprenticeships already exist with North Bennet Street School, in Boston, and the Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers). There’s also the possibility that other academic, architectural, and trade organizations, like the International Molinological Society, Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, and the Timber Framers Guild, could use the farm for conferences and educational events.

Cabot allows that he’s “guilty of succumbing to the concept of ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Perhaps I devote so much energy to creating things of beauty that function in a pleasing way because I want others to experience what I think is meaningful, inspiring, and, most of all, restorative.” He idealizes the Jeffersonian agricultural ideal—sans slaves—of sustainable community farms, because he believes “that modern industrial agriculture has made it almost impossible for people to connect with nature and the land.” He points to other influences, such as the writer, activist, and farmer Wendell Berry, Land Institute founder Wes Jackson, and environmentalist Bill McKibben ’82: “In reading the work of these modern conservationists, and the writer Michael Pollan [RI ’16], you realize we have to do this.”

“This” is succinctly captured in a quotation that Cabot has had meticulously painted over a bank of windows in the large common room of the main house: “The Life So Short, the Craft So Long to Learn.” This Chaucerian version of Ovid’s Ars longa, vita brevis (itself originally from Hippocrates) means, Cabot explains, that “if you take the ‘making part’ of art seriously—like growing hickory trees for oxbows—you will run out of time before you get the job done,” he adds. “The only way to keep art—craft—alive is to have a community of artisans continually transmitting knowledge across generations—to those who will follow them.”  

You Might Also Like:

William Monroe Trotter (first row, fifth from right) with other leaders of the Liberty League, circa 1918

Click on arrow at right to see full image
At a gathering, circa 1918, of leaders of the Liberty League, Trotter sits in the first row (fifth from right).

Photograph courtesy of the Hubert Harrison Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library

William Monroe Trotter

You Might Also Like:

William Monroe Trotter (first row, fifth from right) with other leaders of the Liberty League, circa 1918

Click on arrow at right to see full image
At a gathering, circa 1918, of leaders of the Liberty League, Trotter sits in the first row (fifth from right).

Photograph courtesy of the Hubert Harrison Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library

William Monroe Trotter