WEATHERSFIELD, Vt. — Songwriting, like most art forms, is often as much about the process as it is the product. For Vermont country singer Ben Fuller, the writing of “Spark” — his newly released song about the tragedy of Ascutney dairy farmer Romaine Tenney — forged a personal connection with local history, residents and family members who still remember the event.
Who was Romaine Tenney?
Tenney lived nearly his entire life on a family-owned farm in the town of Weathersfield. An article by Howard Mansfield in Yankee Magazine titled “I Will Not Leave” (from the March/April 2013 issue) called Tenney, “a bachelor farmer,” one who milked his cows by hand and had no electricity in his home. If Tenney wasn’t on his farm, people frequently found him hitching a ride to or from Claremont, New Hampshire.
His farm unfortunately sat directly in the proposed path for Interstate 91. Despite the state’s order to vacate and offer to compensate him $10,600 for the land, Tenney refused to leave. He even refused the offer when a court jury raised the compensation by $3,000.
“Nowadays, if someone offered one of us [an equivalent today of], say, $500,000, we would probably take the money,” Fuller said. “But for Tenney, there was no amount of money to replace his land.”
On Saturday, Sept. 12, 1964, shortly after midnight, Tenney barricaded himself inside his farmhouse and set it on fire, killing himself in the process.
Recalling the story, Ben’s father, David Fuller, said that Tenney had announced his intent in advance.
“He said that he was going to burn the place down,” David Fuller said. “No one believed him.”
Tenney reportedly told his relatives that he would not be seeing them again, and emptied the barn, including the animals, before barricading himself in. Fuller believes he probably chose to start the fire after midnight to reduce the chance of anyone showing up in time.
Writing the song
About two months ago, Ben Fuller was in his apartment in Nashville, Tennessee, toying with a song idea about a farmer who lost his farm. Fuller could still remember, having grown up on a dairy farm himself, his father struggling with tight finances and having to shuffle through which bills to pay first.
Fuller recalled it being a stormy night, and that he wanted his song to have a haunting feel. David Fuller suggested the idea to research Romaine Tenney’s story.
“I was blown away by his story,” Ben Fuller said. “It happened just eight minutes from where I grew up.”
Fuller spent nearly two weeks researching Tenney, reading articles and interviewing people like Weathersfield historian Ginger Wimberg.
Tenney’s story is still a sensitive subject for many people, including farmers and residents who experienced the event. Ascutney firefighter Rod Spaulding, who was 24 years old at the time, was one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene.
“Fifty-five years later, Spaulding still hates the fact that he could not save him,” Fuller said. “That’s a heavy burden to carry, even when there was no way of saving Tenney.”
Just as Fuller intended “Spark” to be a haunting song. The song title itself was partly inspired by imagining the fire and rescue personnel who first discovered Tenney’s remains.
According to Fuller’s research, the fire had been so hot that personnel had to wait until the following day before entering the building. Underneath a melted box spring bed frame, they reportedly found a rifle that appeared to have been recently fired alongside charred bones.
“That gave me chills,” Fuller said. “The rumor is that Tenney had killed himself with the rifle when the fire became too hot to tolerate.”
Fuller captured that macabre image in the following lines of the song: “[They] buried his pride under the road / with a spark, a gun and some bones.”
An unexpected encounter
On Sept. 19, while back in Vermont performing at shows, Fuller visited the home of Joan Newcity of Windsor. Newcity’s granddaughter, Lillian Merriam, a senior at Windsor High School, was doing her senior research project on music and wanted to interview Fuller.
During the interview, Fuller mentioned his song “Spark,” which had not been recorded yet. When Fuller said Tenney’s name, Newcity became excited and said, “I’m Joan Newcity! I’m his niece!”
“I had no idea about any of that when I went there,” Fuller said. “She went upstairs and came back with loads of old photographs of Tenney and shared stories.”
Fuller wanted to play her the song but he hadn’t brought his guitar.
Last week, Fuller was back in Vermont for a show. This time, he returned with his guitar to Newcity’s home and played her “Spark.”
“She had tears on her face,” Fuller said. “She said that my song captured everything that her uncle had stood for.”
Fuller released “Spark” on iTunes and other online stores the following day. Vermont and New Hampshire radio stations, from WCNL in Newport, New Hampshire to The Point in Vermont, have been playing “Spark” twice a day since its release. Fuller said he has been contacted by numerous relatives of Tenney, complimenting the song’s accurate portrayal.
For Fuller, hearing from family that he so vividly captured his subject is his aspiration as a songwriter.
“Pursuing a music career has been an amazing struggle, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Fuller said.
The songwriter hopes the song will bring attention to Tenney’s story and help raise money to build a fitting memorial to the farmer.
Ideally, Fuller envisions having a statue of Tenney close to I-91, preferably in the median, to symbolize him standing in the face of the highway he fought against. Though he said he understands why some have suggested putting the memorial near the park-and-ride off Exit 9.
“The park-and-ride isn’t where his farm was located, but people suggest putting it there because it’s the safest place,” Fuller said.
At this point in his journey, Fuller is appreciative to the local radio stations that are playing “Spark” daily for everyone in the area to hear.
“I’m so lucky to have stations playing my song during their peak listening hours,” Fuller said. “I’ve only been in Nashville for a year, and it’s difficult to get play without a record label. It’s just a reminder that I can’t do it all on my own.”
Editor's note: 11th paragraph, quote originally attributed to "David Fuller" is changed to "Ben Fuller, on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2019