Tales from the Trail

Notes from Unity, New Hampshire

July 7, 2011

(View an in-depth look at scenes from Iowa and New Hampshire in a downloadable pdf format here and a look ahead to the primaries here)

Unity, New Hampshire, is not known for much. The town of 1,671 sits in the western fringe of Sullivan County, a few miles from the Vermont border.

At the one general store are T-shirts that riff off the famous Las Vegas motto. “What happens in Unity stays in Unity — But nothing really happens here.”

In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton put Unity on the map, briefly. The pair held a joint rally there in June 2008, days after Clinton had conceded the Democratic primary nomination following a long, often bitter fight. Each candidate received 107 votes in the town during the state’s Democratic primary in January 2008. New Hampshire primary, at 107 a piece. Sullivan County went on to lean heavily to Obama in the general election, giving him 59 percent to Republican John McCain’s 41 percent.

The first in the nation New Hampshire primary for 2012 — to see which Republican will go up against Obama — is still a long seven months away, and most residents of Unity are not yet focused on politics. But as they go about their daily lives they face issues that could inform their votes next year.

CUTTING BACK ON LITTLE LUXURIES

Going out for ice-cream on a warm summer evening is one of life’s little pleasures.

But Tracy Bragdon, owner/operator of Brick Farm Ice Cream in Unity for the past ten years, says that many local residents are cutting back — at a time costs are also rising. “We are feeling the effects of the weak economy. We’re definitely behind where we would expect to be at this time of the season,” said Bragdon, 49, who sells her home-made ice-cream from early May through Labor Day.

A slowdown in the logging and construction industries have hurt many local residents, Bragdon said. “It’s gone on for so long…people are cutting back on the little luxuries.”

Some customers who used to show up on a weekly basis for Brick Farm’s delights might be paring back to once every two weeks or once a month, she said. Bragdon makes the ice-cream at the family’s 1841 dairy barn, and sells it mostly through in a little storefront on a country road east of town, as well as at local farmers’ markets.

The most popular of the 80 revolving flavors is black raspberry. Brown sugar oatmeal has been a surprising hit, and Bragdon produced a patriotic “red, white and blueberry” flavor around Independence Day. Bragdon, a former software engineer, also works as an X-ray technician in nearby Keene and has taken on a third job this year to help keep her ice-cream dream afloat.

The concept of a “rainy day fund” is all too real for a seasonal ice-cream business. Bragdon says one of her freezers probably needs replacing. “But if we have a rainy week, I don’t have the cushion to buy a new freezer. I might need that money to make payroll.” Costs are also on the rise, which forced Bragdon to raise prices this spring. A small ice-cream cone or cup is now $3.80; a two-scoop sundae is $6.75. The base of the ice cream a mix of fresh milk, cream and sugar bought from dairy company Hood LLC. The price of the mix changes from month to month. Other ingredients, such as chocolate, vanilla and maple syrup, are sourced from a range of suppliers, where Bragdon sits downstream from high energy costs.

“A lot of companies want fuel surcharges, or have minimum orders. For a small company, there are are lot of issues.” Worried that the economy will get worse before it gets better, Bragdon said she wishes politicians could find common ground to address the nation’s problems. “Sometimes we have to do what’s right, not what’s easy. We need to work together to solve problems.”

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner recently golfed together as a show of bipartisanship. Is it too much to suggest a banana split summit in Unity, New Hampshire?

SCRAPING BY
Up a long driveway off the 2nd New Hampshire Turnpike, Unity’s main drag, sits the workshop of Steve and Cathy Morse, second-generation coppersmiths.

The couple make whimsical weather vanes in the shape of Labrador retrievers, pigs, horses, dragons or anything else a home-owner could desire to crown his house. Or they did, until the 2008 recession and slump in new home construction. The ripple effect of the housing bust became a wave that swamped the small-scale craftspeople.

“Business has been really slow. Three years ago I was very busy, and then it just dropped of the edge,” said Steve Morse, 58. With his long dark hair — soon to be chopped for Locks of Love, a support group for sick children — and full grey beard, Morse has the look of a mountain man. He stays busy now picking up odd jobs such as lawn-mowing. Cathy Morse, 55, works at a bakery/cafe in nearby Claremont, N.H. “We scrimp and save as much as we can,” said Cathy, who termed their work “almost a lost art.”

The family copper business was founded by Martha Morse, now 86, and her husband Don, who moved to Unity full-time in the 1980s. The pair started to make decorative copper planters and trays that were sold by some major gardening supply stores. Business for many years was booming. Another huge problem is materials prices. Copper costs are now four times more than in the early 2000s. The price shot up around 2005, collapsed with the recession and is now back at record highs.

With orders slow, that has made it hard for the pair, who typically buy copper sheets from a supplier in Boston, to keep inventory on hand. Lower-priced competition from overseas, including China and Mexico, has almost driven the nail in the Morse’s copper-making coffin. That has created demand for repairs of what Steve Morse calls “not half bad” foreign vanes that sometimes start to fall apart after a couple of harsh New England winters.

“When I sell my vanes, I don’t want to see them again when they leave here,” he said.

MULLING EPHESIANS 5:5

New Hampshire was ranked the second least religious state overall in a 2009 Gallup survey, behind neighboring Vermont. Still, 46 percent of Granite State residents responded that faith was an important part of daily life. Faith is definitely alive and well at the West Unity Community United Methodist Church, where members pitch in to keep the small church, white clapboard with black shutters, clean and tidy. The ham and baked bean suppers are the stuff of local legend.

Parishioners meet each Tuesday night for a study group, sharing companionship, coffee and donuts, and a few good laughs as they read the Bible and talk about some of the problems they are facing in their own lives.

On a recent night, seven members gathered in the church basement on a warm night. They sat at a long table with red plastic tablecloth, to read aloud from Ephesians, chapter five. In some versions of the Bible, Ephesians 5:5 suggests that greedy people, or idolators, who worship worldly goods too much, will not inherit the Kingdom of Christ; perhaps a timely passage to mull while the debate over taxes, spending and the debt limit raged on in Washington, 500 miles away.

Parishioner Robin Fontaine has seen close-up how an industry often seen as a litmus test for the economy and the impact of high gasoline prices — boat-building — has fared in recent years. Fontaine, 54, works for a nearby company that makes deck hatches, portlights and other parts for yachts, speedboats, fishing boats and other craft. The segment of yachts and pleasure boats that sell for $50,000 up to about $500,000 has definitely taken a hit during the recession, Fontaine said.

“From a half-million up, you wouldn’t even know the economy had been affected. You would think the high end would have slowed down, but no.”

LIVING OFF THE LAND

Partners, farmers and caregivers Clint Taber and George McLellan live off the land as much as possible at Black Locust Farm in Unity, New Hampshire.

The industrious couple weave several strands together to support their dream of being financially independent in a bucolic, low-key community. The two raise a variety of poultry as well as goats and miniature horses. They sell some 30 dozen eggs a week out of a cooler in their driveway, provide parakeets to local pet shops, and farm a variety of fruits and vegetables that can be canned and eaten all year.

Another income source is the group of developmentally disabled adults that live with Taber and McLellan on the farm; some have been under Taber’s care for more than 25 years.

Costs on the farm have been rising and are hard to pass along. Chicken feed has doubled in the last four to five years, said Taber, 53, to where they are no longer, well, chicken feed. Higher gas prices, in turn, translate to higher hay prices. And the price of wood shavings, used in the henhouse, have risen because less sawmills operate in the state than did several years ago. The paper mill and timber industry in northern New Hampshire has been in a deep decline.

The two feel the impact of a weak national economy is amplified in places like Unity, where job opportunities can be slim at the best of times and many young people move away. For more steady work, many residents drive to Keene, almost an hour’s drive away on country roads. “For a $10 an hour job, with $4 a gallon gas, that’s tough,” said McLellan, 50. “The economy seems to have bottomed out, and kind of stayed there.”

Taber said times are hard for the Turning Points Network, an agency based in Sullivan County that provides counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking that the two work with regularly. “It’s been really hard seeking funding — people don’t have the money to give. So the organization has cut positions, which is counter-intuitive because domestic violence has gone up with the weak economy,” he said.

McLellan and Taber have been together for five years. Same-sex marriage became legal in New Hampshire on January 1, 2010, but Taber said the couple have no current plans to marry. Anti-gay prejudice has not been a problem since moving to Unity. “We worry more about complaints about the animals,” said McLellan. “We have good neighbors.”

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