Cool temperatures and abundant rain have made gardening more of a challenge than usual in northern Vermont, yet Charlie Bothfeld’s Cabot garden has thrived.
The four varieties of sweet corn were easily knee high by the fourth of July and the beets and carrots had terrific germination. He claims he battles the weeds, but he is clearly the victor. What makes his gardening prowess particularly outstanding is that Charlie is 98-years-old.
Raised in Sherborn, Ma., Charlie was the second oldest in a family of seven. In 1936, most of his family moved to Cabot to farm. They had 2,000 layer hens in Massachusetts and he and his older brother Ted stayed behind to tend the farm and manage egg deliveries to Wellesley and Newton. They also had a three-acre garden and Charlie was active in 4-H gardening groups. He was awarded a gardening medal by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
He attended Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Amherst Ma., where he had “placement training” for the Medfield State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that at its height had a capacity for 2,200 patients. He was hired as soon as he graduated.
“They had 35-40 acres of vegetables, along with dairy, poultry and pigs,” he remembered. Every three weeks, they butchered 15 pigs. The farm supplied the hospital patients and sometimes other institutions in the area.
In 1937, Charlie had a blind date with a 19-year-old named Norma Sayer. They dated on and off for four years before they married, which remained strong for 72 years until Norma passed in 2013.
Six weeks after Charlie and Norma got married, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Charlie was no longer a farmer.
“I got the notice from the draft board to report within 24 hours,” he recalled. “We were in the process of buying a farm. We lost it all.”
After training and working in several areas he was assigned to the 10th Armor Division in Fort Benning, Ga.
“The army decided I had an adequate IQ for officers’ training,” he recalled. He reported to Officers’ Training School as a second lieutenant. He ended up in a tank battalion in Fort Knox, Ky.
On Dec. 13, 1944, he set sail with troops from New Jersey. The convoy was bombed en route. They landed in Liverpool and went to France where they drove tanks to Belgium, where the Battle of the Bulge had taken place. There was snow on the ground…and bodies to be picked up.
Charlie spent four and a half years as a soldier. He had several near death experiences and was awarded the bronze star medal, “...for heroic or meritorious achievement or service.”
“A tank had been hit by a panzerfaust,” (a recoilless anti-tank weapon) he said.
“The Germans were shooting and one person was killed. The rest of the crew got out. I made sure the guys were dead in the fox hole and I got the medics up there.”
Like so many veterans, for years Charlie did not discuss his war experiences. “There’s lots about me that nobody knows,” he said. “On July 4, (1945) the war was over in Europe and I was in San Luis Obispo, California, getting ready to invade Japan when they gave up.”
He went back to New York and got Norma for a seven-day drive across the country in a 1940 Mercury.
“We had a grand time,” he said. He was discharged from the army as a captain.
He purchased a farm in New Albion, N.Y.
“In those days you could make a living milking 20 cows,” he remembered. They produced maple syrup and, of course, had a huge garden. He was offered a job at the Medfield State Hospital where he had worked before the war. They sold the farm and moved back to Massachusetts. The pigs were gone, but as assistant head farmer, he still tended more than 35 acres of garden, 70 cows and a couple thousand laying hens.
In 1974, he retired from the hospital and moved to 14 acres in Cabot.
“There was an old house in disrepair that we burned. Hunters had poked a hole through the roof and used it for hunting deer,” he explained. A new house was built, a small greenhouse went up and gardens were created.
Gardening remains his favorite activity. “I like to see things grow,” he stated simply. A large patch of blueberries yield well every year and he also has a separate asparagus patch. He grows raspberries and likes “thimbleberries” (blackberries). The climate makes it difficult for him to grow some of his favorite vegetables.
“I always try to grow lima beans,” he explained. “And I loved growing popcorn, braiding it and hanging it up to dry.”
Charlie makes his own compost for his gardens and does the first tilling with a hand driven roto-tiller. After that he clears between the rows with his favorite stirrup hoe. From the beginning he has ordered from the Harris Seed Company and still plants some of the same varieties: Kentucky Pole beans, Lincoln peas, Detroit Dark Red beets and Ithaca head lettuce.
“I won’t plant any zucchini,” he said. He does like yellow crookneck squash. He also likes the more recent hybrid tomato, Juliet, which is a sweet-flavored grape tomato that grows in clusters. He used to grow blue hubbard squash, but has switched to butternut and buttercup.
His green thumb yields far more than the neighbors and area family can consume. One of many benefactors of his gardening skills is the Twin Valley Senior Center in East Montpelier. “Charlie is unbelievable,” said Rita Copeland, director of the center. “He brings us produce from his garden for every meal and we couldn’t have such great vegetables without him. He is such a sweetheart."