“When I’d work for the old farmers around here I was so amazed by their lifestyle,” he says. “Their lives revolved around their farms and family. When you meet someone who is content—it really rubs off on you. They were like kings of their own little kingdoms.”
When Neil Fromm was twenty-five years old he drove his Volkswagen van from the Florida Keys up to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Known to Vermonters simply as “The Kingdom,” this mountainous, sparsely populated area is situated between the Connecticut River and the Green Mountains. Fromm, now fifty, is tall and solidly built, still looking the college basketball player he was three decades ago. “I moved to Marsfield and quickly met a guy twice my age named Dave Rooney. He took me under his wing and let me live in his brother’s house, who had recently been killed in a logging accident.” Rooney had draft horses and he and Fromm used them to sugar—the process of collecting sap from Maple trees to boil it down to maple syrup. The horses pulled a dray—a contraption with bobsled runners upfront pulling a travois dragging in the snow—from tree to tree collecting sap. That’s when Fromm got into horses. Later, when he made the move to East Albany, Fromm met a guy with two big Belgians, Bob and Duke. “I ended up buying them,” he remembers. “Paid half cash and worked off the rest. They were seventeen and so mellow you couldn’t do anything wrong. They basically trained me.”
Eventually, Fromm had two young sons and quit his side jobs. He started to log with Bob and Duke full-time. “I’d take my boys with me all the time, skidding logs. They’d just ride on their backs.” When his second son was born Fromm had realized he just wanted to live a simple life—have a good garden and be around for his sons. “When I’d work for the old farmers around here I was so amazed by their lifestyle,” he says. “Their lives revolved around their farms and family. When you meet someone who is content—it really rubs off on you. They were like kings of their own little kingdoms.”
Coming up the long drive to the simple cabin that Fromm built is like time travel. There are tapes stacked around a portable stereo and a composting toilet. The walls and floors are uneven—they give when you walk over them in a way that almost seems organic. Chickens meet you at your car and gigantic pigs talk at you from their sties in a way that seem only a percentage point away from human language. And then there are the horses. Six of them. Your brain struggles to make sense of the distance, either they’re closer than they seem or just much bigger than usual.
When it comes down to it, Fromm just prefers animals to machines. “It just feels better. I’ve helped guys with skidders—and I’m not saying it’s the right or wrong way to do it—but you’re just tearing the shit out of everything. It’s just really nice with the horses, in the end you only have this little trail.” He continues with a laugh, “Sometimes I’ll be mowing hay with the horses and people ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And I’ll ask them, ‘Why do you have a 4-wheeler?’ I like it. It’s what I do for pleasure, I guess. What’s the big deal?” Call it entertainment in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
Fromm logs mostly for lumber. Occasionally, people will hire him to remove the broken and dying material from their land. “I do it the way I do for a reason. I take the tipped over and broken trees, but I don’t ever want to sound like an environmental warrior. It’s true that there is an underlying philosophy, but I just do it because I like it.”
Fromm and his partner Tryna produce raw milk from seven cows, which they sell at farmers markets. They also tap five hundred maple trees, and last year produced sixty gallons of maple syrup. Additionally, they sell ground beef and pork. They have a big garden and equally productive chickens. “My biggest hope is that we can just be self-sustaining, right here.” Tryna tells me. “We have all the ingredients—just need time to pull it off.”
Two of Vermont’s finest folks, trying to farm and work their land in the right way, in a world that makes it nearly impossible.