I’ve often thought I could size people up pretty quickly - in great part by the firmness of their handshake and the directness of their eye contact. It’s not easy to fake either one.
I’d known Gilmore Somers by reputation for a long time, but it was in his home of 55-years in the outskirts of Mosquitoville, one of my all time favorite, off-the-beaten-path, crossroads in Vermont, where we first met. Somers turned 90 last summer in July, but none of that prevented him from standing as I entered his living room. He’s a big man. He describes himself as 6’7”, and though it may be less than that now, Somers can still tower over most of us.
His handshake is convincing. It made me smile. His eyes are clear, and they give the impression that little escapes his view.
Somers is soft spoken, one of those wonderful people who learned long ago that he can be. There is no need to raise his voice or wave his hands or his arms as he talks. Because of his physical presence he holds your attention, and in 90 years, I’d bet there were few who took that lightly.
Somers is a modest man. I’m sure he would never be forward about his accomplishments, but on this cold day in December as the wind whipped fresh snow through Mosquitoville, I persuaded him to fill in some details of his reputation as an athlete, deerslayer, logger and businessman, road commissioner, storyteller, husband and father and overall, generously friendly soul - the kind of person for whom the expression“gentle giant” was invented.
Somers was raised on a dairy farm in the South Part of Peacham. His father had the first corn harvester in the area. Somers was the youngest of eight children, and he remembers cutting corn on neighboring farms for four dollars an acre. His parents didn’t let him go to school until he was 8. But he caught on quickly, and by the time he was in 4thgrade he had earned the job of school janitor.“I was one of the larger ones in the school,” Somers says matter-of-factly,“and I was supposed to get $25 a year for the job. I guess my parents got the money because I never saw it. I’d go to the school first thing in the morning and start the fire. It might have been zero when I got there, but I’d load up the stove with four-foot wood and open the windows upstairs. You could warm fresh air quicker than stale, and by the time everyone got there at nine o’clock, it would be 72° in the classroom.”
Because of his size and his classroom success at the South Part School, Somers was on the fast track to Peacham Academy.“I skipped 7thgrade. When I got to Peacham my sister was only a year ahead of me. It was three miles from the farm, and Eunice’d drive the horse. I let her drive so I could hop off and walk with my friends as we caught up to them along the way.”
Peacham Academy’s principal was Irwin Hoxie. Hoxie was one of three teachers who taught six classes every day. He ran extracurricular programs, coached sports and served as principal all for $1,800 a year, until, that is, the trustees voted to reduce his pay in 1932 because of the Great Depression.
Somers still speaks with reverence about Principal Hoxie.“He was a great judge of character.” (In 9thgrade Somers was 6’4”.) “In my first year he put me in as center on the basketball team. I had never played much, but I controlled that post until I graduated. I could out-jump anyone. In my last year, the team was Norman and Paul Stoddard, Glendon Randall, Hazen Livingston, Herman Clark, Clifton Kinerson, Francis Lackie and myself. We ended the season with a 9 and 3 record, and we were going to the state tournament in Barre.” On the eve of the tournament, Somers came down with scarlet fever and was eventually out of school for 60 days. Somers says,“The team talked about what to do about the tournament, and finally, because I couldn’t play, they voted to withdraw. That was the end of the season.”
Somers graduated from the Academy in 1936, but more than 70 years later he still looks forward to its reunions.“Mr. Hoxie always said that of all the schools he taught at, Peacham Academy, that is the teachers and kids, were the best he ever knew. It’s a shame the school was closed.” [Peacham Academy was established as the Caledonia County Grammar School and closed for good in 1971.]
After graduation, Somers followed his brother to Worcester, MA and with a job in a plumbing supply business earned a reputation as a rugged and reliable worker. After carrying 125-pound oxygen and 225-pound acetylene bottles for welders, he was reassigned to the machine shop and a drill press. His ease in reading blueprints led to an offer to be shop superintendent, but Somers says,“I realized I couldn’t work inside all day, and two weeks later I was back on the farm in Peacham.”
In the winters of’38 and’39 Somers worked on the town road crew with Herman Douglas. Peacham had a 40 Cletrac crawler with hydraulic wings for a snowplow. Somers says,“I ran that plow every winter as long as Herman Douglas was road commissioner. It took about seven hours to plow the seven mile loop around Green Bay. There was one storm I remember when the wind blew and it drifted. There was me and a helper on the plow and 12 men shoveling in front of us. The wind was in the west, and there were 20-foot drifts. I was on that plow for 52 hours. That night we were up on East Hill at 11 o’clock. Herm told me to take his car and go home. He called at 7 the next morning and asked me to come back. I was at it again for 36 more hours. I think it was the winter of’39. There was more wind then.”
Somers was a boxer.“I’d fight at the fairs. They were three-round fights, and you’d get 15 percent of the gate receipts.” In 1942 he fought his way to the title of New Hampshire heavyweight champion, and at 189 pounds he squared off in an epic fight against Tiger Bromley for the state championship in Vermont.“The fight was in the Auditorium in Burlington,” Somers says.“I had cut wood all day, and I drove over there in the fog. I lost in a [referee’s] decision. If I’d had another couple of rounds, I would have had him. Those days were something. I fought right up until the War started.”
In 1946 Somers married a bright and beautiful woman from Barre, and after moving to this house outside of Mosquitoville in 1952, Gilmore and Ginny Somers raised six children. They were three boys and three girls: Marcy, Mallory, Gilmore Jr., Carrie, Lee and Jeffrey.
By then Somers was in the logging business. With the first diesel log truck in the area with a hydraulic loader on it, his work expanded.“With the old two-ton truck with dollies I could pull 8½ cords. With that diesel I could haul 10½ cords. I bought wood lots and cut off the timber, or I bought logs from farmers. At one point I had 18 men, two with horses and seven with bulldozers. I drawed off an awful lot of wood to mills in Danville, Groveton, Berlin, Shelburne and Stowe. I even sold logs in Canada, but I guess most of it went to Newman’s in Woodsville. That’s where Wal-Mart is going up now.
“My men always put the logs in piles with the pulp separate from saw logs. I’d have everything cleaned up by Friday night. That was payday. It was nothing fancy. My checks just said Gilmore Somers.
“We cut everything down to 8-inches in diameter, and we’d always keep the job squared away. They don’t always do it like that now.
“I did that until I quit in 1973.”
So Gilmore Somers retired, in a manner of speaking, but he served the town as road commissioner for three more years, and he likes to say,“I’ve been busy most of my life.”
With his wife of 61 years, Ginny, Gilmore Somers finds pleasure in the activities of their expanding family. There are 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.“We’ve always had fun,“ Ginny says.“There were times that we just got by, but we listened to the kids, and they learned to entertain themselves. I don’t want anyone to think that we thought we were perfect about all this, but we sure had good times. We’re just on the walk trying to go straight.”
Ginny is 84. She says,“I liked the old days. They were so nice. I still cook in my woodstove, and I don’t have a microwave.” Her eyes sparkle with her laughter.“Buttons and me don’t get along.”
One other constant through the years is Somers and deer hunting.“I started hunting my junior year in high school, and I got a deer just about every year since - except four or five years when I couldn’t.” Somers has a wall in his barn where antlers hang in rows that practically cover the wall.“Everyone of‘em has a story,” he says.“The one I got this year up on the hill behind the house was eight points - 170 pounds and a half.”
He leans against the barn door frame, lame now from a lifetime of physical exercise, and he looks off up the hill. This is his place, and you can almost imagine him remembering highlights and wonderful days from more than 70 years in these woods.
Gilmore Somers says,“I’ve always thought if you do what you like, you’ll do it well. But if you’re going to do it in Vermont you have to like four seasons. In the end, if you like it you’ll probably excel in it.”
Somers says,“I turned 90 on July 8, and the next year’s about half gone.”
Perhaps thinking about some day now gone, he laughs about his own contentment.“Don’t I wish I felt as good now as I did then.” He slides the door to his barn closed with the strength of a much younger man and with many years of familiarity. He smiles.“You just have to be thankful for what you have.”
It is cold, and the snow is falling harder now. Somers pulls off his glove to shake hands again. His eyes are steady, and his grip is firm. If this were a test of a man’s character, I’d given him the highest grade. I’m certain he’s not faking it.