Newton F. Tolman
This posting is excerpted from an article by Newt Tolman, with illustrations by Mark Kelley, that appeared in Yankee Magazine in August 1973. It is posted here with Yankee’s approval. Family photographs have been added by Karen Tolman.
My mother never cared a damn about fancy names or titles. Ma and Pop Tolman, as they became known to several thousand who had been their paying guests at one time or another, owned a small inn and summer resort. It was probably, for its size, the best-known in New England for more than half a century.
All business decisions, and most other decisions as well, were made by Ma, who was a law unto herself and unto her ever-loyal husband. So, the place never had an official name. Mail designed for the farmhouse, to this day, is variously addressed to Tolman Pond, Tolman Pond Farm, Tolman Farmhouse, or whatnot.
Ma couldn’t have cared less. She didn’t believe in advertising and that “printed rubbish” such as letterheads or signs. There was never a typewriter in the house until after I was married and had invested in a second-hand portable.
No bookkeeping of any sort was ever done. Once or twice a year, when Ma wanted to know how much money they had in the bank account, she would go down to Keene and ask Wallace Mason, the bank president. She wouldn’t have trusted the teller.
Whenever guests were about to leave and asked for a bill-for a few days’ stay or maybe for a whole summer — Ma would keep them waiting until she was sure she could leave the kitchen stove without burning something, find an old used envelope, and scribble some undecipherable figures with a well-chewed pencil stub. Then, she’d say, “It comes to about a hundred and ninety-two dollars, I guess.” If they wanted a receipt, they could whistle for it.
I first tried in earnest to improve some of Ma’s operating methods when I was about 17, and had left school to help with the family business and the farm. I told her the law said that every inn must keep a register, and there was a big fine for violations. “Haven’t any time for such nonsense,” was all she would say.
I bought a register myself and set it up on a little desk, with pen and ink. Ma promptly took the pen and ink off to her own room and put the register in the pantry for writing recipes, notes on when the cows were due to freshen, and for a handy source of paper on which to write letters to her friends.
Later efforts at keeping a register, over the years, fared no better. Finally, we gave it up.
The more casually Ma treated the clientele, the more popular “Tolman Pond” became. By April, she would have received enough applications for the next summer to fill the place many times over — from people in about every state in the United States, and some from abroad. Most letters she would just say she didn’t like the sound of, and heave them into the stove.
Occasionally some family would arrive and ask for a cottage they had reserved, for a month or whatever, long before. Ma would say, “Oh, did I write that you could have it? Well, that’s too bad. I must have forgotten. I told the Browns they could have it, and they’re already moved in. Why don’t you look around over Jaffrey way; there are some nice hotels and things over there.” And she would go back into her kitchen, remarking how stupid some people were, coming all the way from New York without telephoning first.
Perhaps I should say here, before going into detail later, that Ma’s contrary nature extended into all other directions as well as the running of an inn. Much as people were attracted by her famous and enormously diversified and inventive cooking, probably they were more attracted by her company. She was a pillar of the church, but could out-swear a teamster when it seemed appropriate; a totally undiscriminating reader; a tireless letter-writer; loved all sports, excelled at games, especially any card game known to man; and even in her old age, was not above using a certain four-letter word when hard pressed at Scrabble with some of her cronies.
It seemed to put an endless number of people, of all ages and types, in a good humor just to hang around her kitchen and the little sitting room adjoining it. Though many always refused when she offered them chocolates. People were forever giving her fancy chocolate assortments, and within the hour they would look as though the mice had been at them. She would have nipped off a bit from each one, just to test the filling.
In my younger days, I used to wonder why Ma and Pop always got along so well and seemed so happy together, more so in fact than almost any other couple I knew. It seemed to me there were very great difference in their natures.
For example, Ma was a terrific liar when she chose — such a good one, it wouldn’t take her long to convince herself that some outrageous fabrication was actually the truth, because she had decided it should be. She would say that each of the five Turner boys, over in the other end of town, had a different father, because she didn’t approve of Mrs. Turner and her ways. Actually, all the boys had squeaky voices, exactly like old Jim Turner’s, and they resembled him unmistakably; but this cut no ice at all with Ma, and she stuck to her story for the rest of her life.
Pop, on the other hand, was known far and wide for his scrupulous honesty. Some of his sharper relatives used to imply that he was too honest ever to amount to much, in fact.
Ma’s best friends said Pop let her do much more than her share; that he was shiftless, easy-going, and so on. But Pop’s intimates thought Ma was domineering and unreasonable, and stingy with their money.
Now, on looking back, I conclude that their great secret asset was an enormously robust sense of humor on both sides. Both could almost always find something funny in almost any situation, however disastrous. And they were as capable of laughing at themselves as at each other.
They had little else to keep them going in the early days, back around 1900. They had fallen in love when Ma came to teach the village school and boarded with Pop’s parents at the farm. Barely 20, she was a popular belle of Milford, her home town, but bent on a teaching career. The wilds of Nelson, with its one-room school of 30, including some rough and intractable backwoods boys up to 18 years old, was a challenge. She soon had it licked.
When Ma married my father, she had found a man who had at least a few of the qualities she thought any upstanding husband should have. He was handsome, fairly tall, enormously strong with a prizefighter’s figure, a local champion at boxing and wrestling and swimming, and good at most other sports. An expert hunter and fisherman. Sang a good bass, played first cornet in the town band, and danced a fine Money Musk. Knew all the tricks of farming and wood-and-timber cutting. Was a skilled carpenter, cabinet-maker, and builder. Inventive and had a knack for machinery. Never lost his temper and had no excessive bad habits. But more important, he never seemed to mind being given enough commands by his wife, every day of his life, to keep three men busy.
Still, Ma always found plenty to criticize — why hadn’t he fixed the henhouse roof yet, and when was he going to build a new cold frame for her kitchen garden, and why hadn’t he finished hauling sawdust to pack the icehouse? And he smoked his pipe too much, spent too much time telling stories to the boarders, and so on and on.
However, Pop was in plenty of good company when it came to Ma’s criticism. For nobody escaped it. Friends, relatives, neighbors, even characters in the books she read. Even the paying guests. Ma could find something to criticize about anybody in the world, except herself.
The wonder is, how seldom anybody objected. The guests she complained about most often and openly were likely to be those who came back year after year.
Their first several years on the farm must have been a life of unimaginable hardships for Ma and Pop. The cultivated fields had long been abandoned, and the barns and outbuildings were mostly beyond repair. The only way Pop could pay off a $500 mortgage was by working ten-hour days in a sawmill, five miles down the road, for a dollar a day.
Ma worked on the farm at times, besides doing the housework. She could milk five or six cows, split hardwood for the kitchen stove, and pitch hay. Pop built a big new barn, cutting and sawing all the timber himself. Ma used the four bedrooms and the attic for the boarders in summer, and often had a few in winter too, in spite of no plumbing and few comforts of any kind. And so began what Ma called (to the embarrassment of my brother and me, when we were growing up) “the boarding business.”
In those days Ma had a fine figure, though, in terms of a later day, rather full thick, wavy hair, waistlong; a marvelously fine-featured face, with perfect teeth, wide blue eyes, and a natural peaches-and-cream complexion she would retain into her eighties.
Few guests at the farm could equal her at swimming, tennis, horsemanship, snowshoeing, even mountain climbing over on Monadnock. Evenings, she would lead off in the social activity — games, singing, amateur theatricals, dancing, or whatever. She must often have shocked the puritanical and prim ladies of the town beyond words. But as she also outdid them in church affairs — choir, Sunday school, church suppers — they seldom dared to be heard even grumbling in her presence.
One spring, Ma positively refused to renew the lease on a cottage occupied the summer before by a highly popular New York family, of the sort who would be regarded as “ideal clientele.” When I intervened with all the heated persuasion I could manage, it turned out Ma hadn’t liked the way the kids’ nurse — a very nice girl, incidentally — had “cottoned up” on the beach to one of the boys who worked at the farm. Ma wouldn’t budge, and the cottage was rented to somebody else, whom nobody liked very well.
In contrast, another incident occurred sometime after Pop’s death, when Ma was in her late seventies. An attractive young divorcee had been spending some winter months at the farm, and was soon having a passionate affair with a chap who lived nearby.
One week they would be planning marriage, and the next they wouldn’t be on speaking terms. Both were quite temperamental and what might be called rather unstable emotionally.
One night, after Ma had been asleep several hours, the girl crept into Ma’s room and waked her. “I’m so scared I just don’t know what to do, Ma,” she said, weeping. “Bob says he’s going to kill me — hit me, and I ran down here, and he’s looking all over the house, trying to find me…”
“That’s all right, dear,” Ma said. “Just crawl under my bed and stay quiet.”
So, the girl crawled under the bed, and Ma went out and called to Bob. There was nobody else in the house at the time. When he appeared, still yelling and stamping around, Ma told him she thought the girl had got her coat and gone out for a walk, and added, “Now you shut up and go straight home, and please don’t wake me up at this hour again, chasing around the house!”
“Okay, Ma, I’m sorry,” he said meekly, and left.
Telling me about it afterward, she said, “I guess they were just having one of their little tiffs, you know — it didn’t amount to anything. Anyway, I got her all dusted off and cheered up after she came out from under my bed, and then I told her to go upstairs and forget all about it.”
By the mid ‘30s there had been many changes at Tolman Pond since the first automobile arrived in 1900 (a Stanley Steamer bringing the Titus family from Lynn, Massachusetts, for their first summer vacation at the farm). Various ells and wings had been added over the years, connecting the original house, with its big central chimney, to the barn. On the front side, the general colonial character of the place had been kept; but from the rear it looked like the House of a Hundred and Seven Gables, with several more chimneys and all sorts of dormers added.
There were a dozen summer cottages, most of them housekeeping units. There were nine winterized bedrooms for guests, a dormitory, about three and a half bathrooms, and a ski lounge. My brother had installed a rope-tow on the ski slope I had cleared some years before. He had built his house up in the old pasture, and I was leaving the business to build my own house on another part of the farm.
The place was now filled to capacity much of the year, with a never-ending waiting list, and Ma was feeding from 30 to 60. She had grudgingly, at long last, consented to hiring a regular staff to help her; this usually consisted of one woman-of-all-work, a stalwart character named Mabel. In summer, there were tenants whose grandparents had once rented their cottages, and whose own grandchildren would also be doing so in years to come.
Ma’s methods, however, had not changed in the slightest, nor would they ever. Still no register, no prepared bills, and no bookkeeping. She would invariably address Dr. Knight as “Mr. Day,” the Gillespies as the “Gellipsies,” and similarly mangle many another name. Long-term guests who happened to go away for a night or two were likely, on returning, to find their beds occupied by total strangers.
When Mabel, irked at a woman who kept coming into the kitchen to complain about something, hit her in the rear with a well-aimed piece of stovewood, Ma took Mabel’s part in the ensuing hassle. The woman left.
“Dinner” was still served in the middle of the day, old farm-style “supper” at 6:30. Many guests had complained loudly about this for a long time, as had my brother and myself in our utterly futile efforts to “modernize” the establishment. But such was the genius of Ma’s cooking, probably no guest actually ever left because of her arbitrary schedule. As for breakfast, if you missed it at 8:00, you could forage around in the kitchen for whatever you could find — but Ma wouldn’t give you much help.
One spring a chauffeur-driven limousine pulled up at the farm, and an enormously stout and stately dowager emerged. She was looking for a possible lodging for some friends she was expecting later, and Ma told her to go ahead and look around as much as she liked.
The poor woman happened to step on a rotten board in a neglected section of the porch. One leg went straight down, just about to the hip, while the other slid forward. She was cast as solidly as our old mare the time her hind leg went down through the stable trapdoor. The chauffeur couldn’t budge her, and there was nobody else around the house. Ma finally found Al, a painfully shy farm boy around 18 who was working nearby.
“Come quick, Al,” Ma yelled at the top of her voice. “There’s a fat woman stuck in the porch — get a saw!”
When Al appeared with the saw and beheld the awful prospect of the task he was supposed to perform, he nearly defected, but Ma spoke firmly. “Just saw around her leg, Al,” she commanded, “And then get her out of there!”
So Al started sawing, and when the woman was freed, he and the chauffeur and Ma heaved her up on her feet.
“It only scratched her leg a little,” Ma said afterward. “I told her she should thank her lucky stars she hadn’t been really hurt, but she went off in a huff. Good riddance.” Then she added, “But oh, my goodness, she did look so funny, with that big flowered hat, sitting down on the floor — and I had to keep telling poor Al to open his eyes, so he wouldn’t saw right into her leg…”
Ma could afford to say good riddance, when she took the notion. We were starting to get reservations a year or more in advance. We had many doctors and professional people of all sorts — well-known people, writers, artists, musicians, movie stars, business people; there were also generals, admirals, ambassadors, and even Rumanian royalty.
Ma was not in the least impressed by such clientele. And to prove it, she would frequently turn away someone willing to pay three times what she usually asked, and accept some character like the Brooklyn ward-heeler we called, for some reason, Old Eaglebottom. He was a Damon Runyan type who wore shirts minus their collars, murdered the King’s English, and painted the old Bostonians at the dinner table with off-color jokes.
Or again, Ma would refuse an offer of $400 rent for a cottage, and let it go to some impoverished school teachers for $200, “Because they’re such nice people.” Whenever I tried to remonstrate, she would say, “Well, it’s my business, and I’ll run it my own way. I won’t have much longer to live anyway, and after I’m gone, you can do as you please.” Thirty years later, long after I had given up on trying to take an active part in the business, she was saying exactly the same thing.
Ma, though strong as a horse, was something of a hypochondriac. She was forever taking endless pills, patent medicines, and horrible-looking brews of various herbs which sat around on the pantry shelves between bowls of sauce, cake icings, and home-made cottage cheese.
So, her only physical ills, actually, came from being greatly overweight. She could never resist, between meals, frequent tastings of all the rich dishes she was concocting. Not to mention the chocolates.
During and after World War II, Ma heard often from sometime-Tolman Pond guests who had run into others, in Europe, Africa, the South Pacific, and just about everywhere else. No traveler herself, she was no more interested than as if they had met at the post office in Harrisville, New Hampshire.
Ma always had a number of kids of all ages around the place, sent by their trusting parents either to board or work parttime, and she usually took one or two city kids who couldn’t afford to pay.
She certainly had a way with kids, but it wasn’t derived from reading books in this field. To begin with, she never treated any two alike — she always played favorites, and blamed anything that went wrong on the ones she liked least, whether they were guilty or not. Any sort of plan or rules agreed upon in advance, she would often change without notice.
Complaints were never listened to. The most Ma would ever say to a kid with a grievance was, “Just use a little common sense, and you’ll be all right! Now don’t bother me, I’m too busy.” Except for the rather haphazard work program, the kids all did just about anything they pleased.
In 1928 Danny McKay, 13, was sent up from New Jersey to spend the summer. Danny was a precocious little genius and full of hell. He arrived wearing only shorts, sandals, and a vivid pink shirt he had dyed himself. He was smoking a meerschaum pipe, and carrying a small bag and a huge round can full of tobacco.
He announced that he was a Communist, and whenever he was within earshot of the older and stuffier guests would launch into long diatribes against the evils of capitalism. This was obviously a routine he had thought up to enliven his summer, and it worked quite well. People were soon complaining to Ma about that terrible boy. But Ma’s only reaction (she didn’t know nor care what Communism was all about) was to remark that anyone silly enough to let a spoiled brat of 13 upset them, deserved it.
It seems symbolic of Ma’s many-faceted nature that she was known by different names to her old friends, depending on their preference — Sarah, Sis, Sally, Sadie, Sade, Ma. Ma and Pop were not displeased when their small grandchildren took to calling them “Waylie” and “Sade.” And when finally there were great-grandchildren staying with her, she was alternately scolding them and spoiling them, contrary as ever.
It is now several years after Ma’s death and the end of Tolman Pond as an inn, a place of food and lodging, and whatever else it was called under her regime of more than 60 years. Yet we still get occasional letters from people who want to come back and stay at the farm. They seem to think it should have gone on forever, just as it was when Ma was there.
NEWTON FRENCH TOLMAN is a very talented musician as well as a professional writer and has led a very colorful life. Newt was born in Nelson, New Hampshire, 5 Sep 1908, to Wayland Parker and Sarah Frances French Tolman. He had one brother, Fran. Newt quit school at age 17 to help run the family farm and after a brief fling at seamanship helped build up the family summer resort known as Tolman Pond.
During the winter at the age of 20 he became one of the first ski instructors in the eastern United States. He ran a ski school for 15 years and also skied in Austria.
He left the family business in 1936, built his own home and became a contractor. Newt learned many trades. He was a mason, painter, carpenter, mechanic, plumber, lumberman and farmer. He was a forester, a fire warden, a licensed guide and served in local government.
In 1950 Newt bought the property in New Hampshire called Greengate. Greengate is described as the best piece of property in New Hampshire sitting on a hill in the middle of luscious lakes and mountains. Newt describes Greengate as follows: “It is a good place up here to watch airplanes. As they often pass below us, we can see what their top sides look like. But I suppose this cannot properly be called observing nature.” To be specific, the view from Greengate looks across at Mount Monadnock, Bald Mountain, Pack Monadnock, Temple Mountain, and Crotched Mountain. It looks down on Spoonwood, a totally uninhabited mile and a half long wilderness lake with wonderfully drinkable water. Newt describes the beauty and peace of Greengate: “When it is blowing for about a week and then stops, some winter night, there is nothing quite so wonderful… You can hear a hoot owl all the way over in the White Swamp. I have waked up in the night and it has been so quiet I could hear the interest accumulating on last year’s unpaid taxes.”
About 1958 he gave up all outdoor work except guiding in the bird season, and became a full-time writer. He had a series of articles published in the Berkshire Eagle, a Pittsfield, Mass., award winning paper, The Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. A third book, the history of Westminster, Mass., is of interest naturally to people of that area. He has finished a book on old-time square dance melodies, partly as a result of playing the flute in the summer at a Newport, R.I. folk festival. Newt was quite a musician. He could perform a Bach Fugue in C Minor on flute, piccolo, clarinet or saxophone but preferred to play Finnegan’s Wake at a Saturday night square dance in the Nelson Town Hall.
In 1961 he and his wife, Janet, sold some land and spent the proceeds on a winter-long tour of Nigeria, West Africa, where they were the only American tourists to spend more than a few days since that country became independent in 1960. This experience was recorded in his book entitled Our Loons Are Always Laughing.
In 1964 they spent some months exploring the Everglades of Florida, also quail country in South Carolina. His wife was a remarkable person, most attractive and a very capable and licensed guide. She was a professionally trained artist who had studied in Paris. She was one of the founders of the Young Republican Club in New York and later, after she married Newt, became a representative in the New Hampshire legislature and a member of the county delegation. She died in 1984.
Other books by Newt are: The Search for General Miles, North of Monadnock, The Nelson Music Collection, The Blue-Tailed Slink.
From Gus Ellicott:
Excellent posting, as always!!
In the summer of ’47, Eleanor (my mother), Genie (my sister) and I moved into the farmhouse apartment over the ski-room, and found ourselves in a community of wonderful folks.
First orders of business were to learn to swim and condition the soles of our bare feet. Ma took delight in having Genie in the building, a bond that never ended. Further, it didn’t take long for Ma to occupy my free time with chores, as a sidekick to Pop and Bobby Curtis, or whatever else she could manufacture.
The four-cow milking exercise was a treat while spraying the cats with warm samples. After the cats got theirs, the milk went up to the milk room for separation, and then to the outside cooler where campers would pick up a quart. Ma then made sacks of cottage cheese in her kitchen.
Ma also orchestrated the annual 4th of July event. She would cook up a fish chowder. The fish for that culinary delight would have to come from the pond, caught by those individuals that she would commission to occupy her fishing vessels.
There was ice to be cut from the pond and put up in the ice house packed in sawdust, a great place to go in summer heat, if you didn’t get caught. We also got a treat watching Bobby Curtis take a dip in the water hole (in the wintertime). Yes, there was ice skating, and later, ice driving lessons on the pond.
In the spring, Newt fired up the sugar house, sap buckets were hung, Jim (the Morgan) was hitched to the gathering sled, yokes were put into service, and as new syrup came out of the pans, Eleanor, as a Ma understudy, would arrive with fresh donuts, and great gatherings ensued.
Let’s not forget the chords of wood that had to be brought in, that Pop would oversee. That training has stayed with me through the decades. Of course there was the ski tow run by the Ford Model “B” engine and the Fran-operated tennis court.
We also had in the schedule weekly garbage detail to keep the nine camps pure. Now for chickens — Pop would have new chicks, and in his efforts to get them organized out back try not to step on too many. When he did, it was just a matter of “Oh, Godfry!!” Gathering eggs was another event, as was attending the headless hen run, as they were readied for another Ma dinner. Then, the competition among us to bang on the RR Rail dinner gong that hung on the SW corner of the barn began — initiated of course by Ma.
And, reading the Sears catalog in the barn outhouse — well, ok!!
Is there more you ask? You bet — and all because of Ma and Pop along with their descendants made it happen.
From Bronson Shonk:
Here’s what I was told (from Grandson Barry). With the confession that this bit of Tolmanpondiana was before my time.
A vehicle goes by the Farm.
Ma — to Mable Curtis:
“Goin’ up or down?”
“Goin’ too fast.”
And another from Bronson:
My other source on Sadie — known, I guess to one and all as Ma — is from Mary (my wife) as follows:
“Ma sat on the sofa, and hence didn’t have a good view of of the road in front of the Farm. Mable sat in the armchair by the window with a good look up towards the tennis court and could keep an eye on all comings and goings. “
Mary — as a little girl — walked to the Farm after school. Ma had a warm cookie for her, and they’d sit together to watch “Queen For A Day.”