Tales from a gentleman farmer

John Jeppson recounts life at Brookfield retreat

By Pamela H. Sacks

For decades, John Jeppson 2nd was a business and civic leader in Worcester. He ran Norton Company and headed the boards of Clark University and the American Antiquarian Society. He served in key positions at the Worcester Art Museum, Tower Hill Botanic Garden and a host of community organizations.

Mr. Jeppson fit all of that in around operating Oakholm, a 150-acre commercial farm and family retreat in Brookfield.

Now, at the age of 91, Mr. Jeppson has launched a new career as a published author.His book, “Making Hay,” is a memoir filled with engaging tales about his childhood in Worcester and adventures at Oakholm. Each chapter is a separate story. Taken altogether, “Making Hay” paints a portrait of a time, a place and a person who has weathered life’s trials and embraced its successes with perspective, kindness and humor.

Mr. Jeppson’s father, George Jeppson, bought the farm in 1925, after a long search for just the right country home. Family members soon got a taste of the outdoor life. Mr. Jeppson describes his struggles with his first pony, an ornery creature called Daisy. He relates the discovery of TB in a herd of cattle – thanks to his mother’s insistence on testing the animals – and the sad but necessary destruction of the infected animals. The farm became home to horses and a herd of Guernsey cows that produced rich golden milk that was sold commercially.

The Jeppsons are of Swedish descent, and Mr. Jeppson provides a highly amusing description of a visit to Oakholm by the Crown Prince of Sweden in 1938. The prince was very late appearing at a cocktail party and dinner. He had spent time at the Vanderbilt estate in Newport and gotten a bad sunburn on his back. He was resting.

One of the prince’s aides requested hot coffee and a bun. An Oakholm maid, dressed in a starched uniform, carried a tray upstairs and knocked on the prince’s door. The prince himself called, “Come in.” She entered and found him standing before her without a stitch on; the maid made a beeline for the kitchen.

“From then on she had a story that she never failed to tell any and all,” Mr. Jeppson wrote. “She became the envy of all her friends.”

As the years passed, Mr. Jeppson and his wife, Marianne, took over the operation of Oakholm. They sold the diary herd in 1980 in order to simplify life, but as Mr. Jeppson wrote, “Although Oakholm was no longer a commercial farm, we felt it ought to have the appearance and feel of a farm so that our family – especially our grandchildren and great-grandchildren – would learn to appreciate the land.”

The farm has four houses, four barns and 10 outbuildings. The Jeppsons grow Christmas trees and raspberries; they raise turkeys and Dexter cattle, a small gentle breed. They are restoring the hayfields, and they maintain the gardens. The two of them operate the farm with the help of one full-time employee, Paul Benjamin, who warrants a chapter in “Making Hay,” and a cleaning woman who comes in four hours a week.

The Jeppsons live in a rambling white-clapboard house, where, on a recent morning, they greeted a visitor. The house is filled with art, antique furniture, leather-bound books and Oriental carpets. An expanse of lawn stretches from the front door to Lake Quaboag, offering a calm and peaceful setting. Mr. Jeppson pointed to three towering pines near the edge of the lake; he recalled that as a youngster he and his father planted the trees, then just a few feet high.

Mr. Jeppson retired 24 years ago as the chairman and CEO of Norton, which is now Saint-Gobain. He joked that, despite his degrees from Amherst College and Harvard Business School, his proudest academic achievement was graduating first in his class in the Master Gardner program at the University of Massachusetts Extension. He was 74 at the time.

The Jeppsons settled into a sitting room off the kitchen to chat about “Making Hay.” It was published by Tidepool Press, a small publishing company with offices in Cambridge. Their daughter, Ingrid Mach, is one of the founders, along with Worcester native Jock Herron, who was Mr. Jeppson’s editor. Ms. Mach critiqued her father’s manuscript and designed the book and the jacket.

Mr. Jeppson started work on his memoir three years ago, at the urging of his daughter, who is one of his four children.

He had written several of the stories previously, but most were composed as part of the chronicle of his family’s decades of farm life. Mr. Jeppson had kept no journal and wrote from memory.

“I find when I’m writing, my memory comes back,” he explained. “It was a lot of fun to relive the times in my life.”

“He has a fantastic memory for the past,” Mrs. Jeppson added.

Mr. Jeppson wrote longhand while seated in an armchair; constant interruptions having to do with farm business were his biggest frustration. Mrs. Jeppson assisted him by putting the material on the computer to send to Tidepool.

Mr. Jeppson chuckled as he recalled several of the stories about animals – among them his tale of the foxes and the cats.

A few years back, Oakholm abounded in cats of all sizes, shapes and colors. The felines were fed powered milk and dry food out of one big dish available to them all the time in the main hay barn. One spring day, three baby foxes were discovered gobbling the food, while the wary cats kept their distance. The mother fox had been run over by a car. Soon the cats and the fox cubs were eating together. Then in late summer, things took a turn.

“The foxes were no longer seen at the cat dish, and we noticed that fewer cats were eating there also,” Mr. Jeppson wrote. “The lazy fat cat was missing, and so was the bob-tailed cat. We soon discovered that the dietary habits of the foxes had changed from cat food to cats. Obviously, those foxes were undeterred by the old adage, `Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!’”

Asked his favorite chapter, Mr. Jeppson demurred. Then he quickly brightened and pointed to “Love in Bloom,” a recounting of his romance with his wife.

Noting that “Love in Bloom” was one of the longest chapters, Mr. Jeppson said that the writing was all his, except for the occasional grammatical correction.

“We’ve just been the inspiration,” Mrs. Jeppson said with a warm laugh.

“She was indeed,” Mr. Jeppson said, casting a fond glance at his wife, “and she still is.”