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Urban Couple Restores 18th Century New Hampshire Farm - 2002-09-28

In an era of multi-national, mechanized agriculture, some Americans are choosing to relearn the techniques and relive the lifestyle of yesterday's family farms. Sanborn Mills Farm is a sprawling 18th century spread in the New England State of New Hampshire, which one erstwhile urban couple is trying to restore and transform into a showcase and school for the good old ways.

All 174 hectares of the Sanborn Mills Farm are still muddy from a recent rain, and 95-year-old Ruth Sanborn must be careful while picking her way up the hill past the main house, the old saw mills and grist mill, the ice house, the blacksmith shop and other outlying buildings toward the big barn. Ruth Sanborn is the last surviving direct descendent of the Sanborn Family that bought this plot back in 1770.

In 1996, Paula and Colin Cabot bought this farm. They wanted to restore it and turn it into a center for learning traditional farm crafts. Ms. Sanborn is still fond of pointing out to Paula the various elements of what was once essentially a self-sufficient mini-village.

Soon, we are joined in our trudge through the mud by Paula's Cabot's husband, Colin Cabot. The two were successful theatrical producers for many years before they began this rural second career. I ask them why, in an age when machines can produce much faster, cheaper and more efficiently than humans ever could, they want to do things the old-style way.

Paula Cabot: "I think there are two reasons," she said. "One of which is the desire to have a hands-on experience, a slower, more significant experience between the body and what is being produced, as opposed to a cerebral experience which is what we tend to have more of now. And not [be] really as involved with the whole process."
Colin Cabot: "I think it has a salutary effect on the perception of the rat race," said Colin Cabot. "You're having to do a lot more work and lot more time is spent. But it's a different quality of time. And that is what we're interested in."
Paula Cabot: "It's hard to slow yourself down," she said. "But I think the ultimate reward is a richness within oneself, a richness of experience."
Colin Cabot: "People who lose their connection to the land are missing something, and who have never been connected to the land are indeed rootless," he said. "And I think it's important to reestablish those connections. So our vision for the place is to get back to the crafts that allowed people to work the land."

We arrive at a mammoth barn constructed of 19th century rough-hewn timber grown and sawed right here on the farm. Paula Cabot strains her neck to see Esme, a lone little black lamb which wags its tail at her just like a puppy. "This is Esme. Sweetheart? Hi! We acquired her when she was 12 hours old," she said. "She had been rejected by her mother. So we've been bottle feeding her. [To Esme:] Want to walk around a little bit?"

Adam Phillips:"What are we looking at here?"
Colin Cabot: "We're looking at six Cotswold ewes and seven babies, seven lambs, and that are the only registered flock of black Cotswolds in New Hampshire," answered Colin Cabot. "Black Cotswolds is the recessive gene of the Cotswold breed, and its quite fun to have the only herd - flock."
Adam Phillips: " What makes them special and who did you want them?"
Colin Cabot: "They are not particularly good for meat," he said. "And so they are not your ordinary run-of-the-mill sheep. What they are special for is their wool. So we've already got buyers for their fleeces, and their fleeces are made into things like doll hair… as well as things like beautiful scarves and sweaters and things like that. The color of their wool is very prized by weavers because it has a sort of a natural gray, sort of organic-looking quality to it that makes it very special."
Adam Phillips: "How does your acquisition of these sheep fit in with your vision for what you want to do with the property overall?"
Colin Cabot: "We want to have representative animals that would have been used on a sustainable farm," he said. "That would be sheep, a couple of cows for milk, and also oxen for doing work running the sawmill and actually pulling logs out of the woods to say nothing of building stone walls… We'll probably have a couple of draught horses by the time were done. And we certainly will have regular barnyard fowl, the chickens and the ducks and the geese. They re actually coming next week, so we're getting that ready too."

Like so much on a farm, getting ready means heating and shaping metal at a blacksmith forge a difficult skill that Colin Cabot is learning while making an ornament for his duck house while his wife Paula looks on. "I think there is a great reward from knowing that you have done something with your hands that has actually produced something," she said. "And I think it gives us a greater connection with those who went before. And a greater respect."

But more than making duck finials or fine wool or even healthy food, the Cabots hope that this farm will help build community between themselves and others who want to live the old lifestyle, and between this farm and the surrounding community. A community, in Colin Cabot's view, is a group of people who share common concerns and who take care of each other. "Take care of each other at all levels of their life whether they are teaching them the skills they need to use as young people to be effective in the world, or whether they are taking care of them literally by helping their elders," he said.

Paula and Colin Cabot hope that Sanborn Mills farm will be restored and open to the public for hard work and learning sometime in 2005. But be patient. All good things take their good time.