Note: This transcript is from a series of interviews conducted by Harold Anderson of Valley Eye Radio during Worthington’s 250th anniversary celebrations, which took place from June 29 to July 3, 2018. Valley Eye Radio, based in the Pioneer Valley, provides local news, interviews and other content to those with vision loss or other disabilities.
Harold Anderson: Paul, are you a lifelong resident of Worthington, or did you move here?
Paul Strasburg: I was probably in my late thirties when I moved here.
HA: What attracted you to Worthington? Had you heard about Worthington before coming here?
PS: I had not in any particular way, except that in 1981, I believe, some very good friends of mine, the Lakes, moved to Worthington from Washington, DC. I was living in Brooklyn at the time with my wife and two young children, and we came up to visit. And I knew the first day that I set foot in Worthington that this place had a special appeal for me. I’d grown up in the desert in Tucson, Arizona, and really, I think, had a longing for the green. Also I’d been moving around a lot. I had a longing for a community, and I could feel right away that those were two deep characteristics of Worthington.
My wife and I rented a house not long after that first visit, down the road from the Lakes. The house was at that time owned by Walter Metzger, who just died recently. He had rented it for several years while his kids were in college. We rented it year-round. We’d come up from Brooklyn for holidays and as much of the summers as we could spend. We were really summer residents. Then in 1984 I changed jobs and went to California.
PS: But for the next couple of summers we would come back to Worthington and rent a house. One we rented from Walter Korzec down in the other end of Worthington. It was paradise for my kids. When we were living in the Metzger house, right next door was a family by the name of Fisk – Pete and Sue Fisk. Had a number of ponds that they had built and meticulously maintained with stone walls around their house. My daughter literally spent all day long catching frogs who were swimming in those ponds – just loved it. Anyway, we couldn’t stay away during the summers.
Then I believe it was 1988, the Lakes told us that a farm that adjoined their farm was up for sale. They were baling hay on that farm, and there was some concern that it was going to be bought up by developers. I was very reluctant to get involved because we were living in California. I did not want a bicoastal life, but the pull to Worthington was really very strong. So we bought it.
The house needed a lot of work. In fact, we stripped it all the way down to the framing, basically, and had to rebuild it. But we rebuilt it the way it had been originally, and we moved in. That became our summer home until probably the early 2000s. I eventually more or less retired and started spending a full summer here. I’m here now with my current wife. I’m here six months of the year. She travels to teach some of that time in the summer, but I bale hay. I have a big garden, and I enjoy life in Worthington.
HA: When you were talking to other Californians, how would you explain Worthington? And did they really understand?
PS: Not really. Everybody in California has an idea of what New England is like. I think Worthington is actually a fairly typical New England small community, so that wasn’t too hard to imagine. What they had the hard time figuring out was how I could own a farm in New England and live in California, and why I would want to do that. Californians think that’s the best place in the world to live, but for me what was missing was that sense of real connection to the earth, and to a community. It’s amazing how open a community Worthington really is. A stranger that once lived in Brooklyn and then California could come back and feel part of this community. It started with neighbors and friends, and the network just keeps expanding. It was just a powerful magnetic draw. Something about it, as soon as I landed here, said, “This is the place you need to have some roots in.”
HA: Have you had any friends or family from the outside come and visit you? And what’s their reaction?
PS: They love it. The house we had up on the hill had three small bedrooms and living room, dining room. Before long we were sleeping friends and visitors on the floor and hallways on futons. We’d actually built a little guest house attached to the main house. We’ve had family weddings there. We’ve had neighbors’ weddings there. I did a barn-raising in 2001. I had friends from Europe and Germany and Seattle come and stay to help with the barn-raising. People love it. It’s out of the way, so they don’t tend to get back too often, but they really love it when they’re here.
HA: So what do you like to do here in your spare time?
PS: I have 25 acres of my own hay fields, and I’ve developed a cooperative haying relationship with Bart Niswonger, the son-in-law of my friends, the Lakes. Bart and his wife, Eliza Lake, still live in the adjoining farm. They raise cattle there. Then a neighbor down the road, Kip Porter, and his wife, Mary Beth – Kip’s a fifth-generation local who’s a horse logger. He and I developed a good friendship. So the three of us combine labor and farm equipment, and we bale about 80 acres of hay, about half of which goes to Bart to feed his cows, and the other half we sell. Some goes to Kip to feed his logging horses. So that takes up a lot of my time when the weather’s right. I have a big garden. I entertain visitors who like to come.
That’s the strongest thing for me, the beauty of the place. There are so many places to go, and sit by a stream and a waterfall or an open field or a pond, and take your canoe. I feel so connected to the earth here – that’s really a major draw for me.
HA: So what kind of festivals or celebrations occur in town? Do you get involved in any of the town activities?
PS: I’m a fairly active member when I’m here of the small church in West Cummington, just up the road. My good friend Steve Philbrick is the minister there. We go to the craft shows, the art shows, the pottery tours. My wife loves the artwork here. We go to concerts. When she’s not here I’ll go over to Tanglewood to music. Poetry readings. The place is just rich with cultural life, so any time you want to entertain yourself you can.
HA: What would you say is Worthington’s best feature?
PS: I think what’s especially important for me is the community bonds that are here. People really step up for other people when they need them and they’re there to support them. They celebrate with them, and they share with them. Our guest house has been occupied four or maybe five times, for lengths of time from three months to a couple of years, by neighbors. One neighbor’s house burned to the ground. He and his family moved in for almost two years. Another neighbor moved here and his house was not ready, so they moved in and stayed. That’s what’s happened on my own little place. I see it all the time when somebody’s sick or needs help.
I’ll never forget the night that out neighbors JP and Marian Welch’s house burned down. We told them they could come stay with us as long as they wanted to. They ended up staying, thank God. But we live on top of a hill. We have a quarter-of-a-mile dirt drive to get up from the dirt road at the bottom of the hill. All evening long, people were walking up that road bringing food, bringing clothes, bringing themselves, just to support the Welches, knowing they’d lost everything in the fire. I’ll never forget that. That’s the soul of a community that beats pretty strongly.
HA: Have you noticed much of a change in Worthington in the years that you’ve been here?
PS: Yeah, sure. I don’t know so much in the fabric of the community. The social structure to me seems like it hasn’t changed much at all. I have friends here that I’ve had now for thirty-some years – we’ve just kind of grown old together.
One thing that’s changed is the technology of everything. I have great memories of the very early years, walking the maple syrup routes with Bob Mason. He was getting older then, but with a pail in each hand, emptying them into a five-gallon bucket and carrying the five-gallon buckets down the hill in the snow and emptying them into a larger tank, and back up the hill again to the next tree. Now of course I have a lot of maple trees on my land. JP Welch taps most of them. It’s all tubing and high-tech and reverse osmosis machines. It’s fun to see that change, but there’s still that romantic idea of grabbing a pail and getting the sap, and that doesn’t happen anymore.
I’m in a fairly remote part of Worthington. We still don’t get very good phone service or internet service, so Comcast is about to come and wire the town. That’s a huge change.
HA: What do you think’s going to happen?
PS: That’s a really good question. This 250th celebration has made me read the history a bit more, and I marvel that there are 1,100 and some-odd people here now, when at the peak it was 1,400 back in the late 1700s, and it dropped off to as few as 375. But I think it’s going to continue pretty much the way it is. I think people who live here like it for what it is, and with the way the community operates and decisions are made, I think it’s going to be preserved as the kind of sweet rural community that it is. One thing that could threaten it, I think, is if they ever put an interchange on the turnpike between Westfield and Lee. Then we’ll see a lot of land price increase and suburbanization.
HA: Any last comments or memories you’d like to add?
PS: Golly, memories. My son riding in a backpack on my back while I mowed the lawn. His first word that we could discern was “blue,” which was his word for blueberry. When we’d go picking, he’d be in the backpack on my back, and I’d pop a blueberry in his mouth every time he said “blue.”
My son grew up riding around on the fender of Bob Mason’s big old tractor while he hayed. My son now owns a hay farm of his own in Montana, and went out of his way to go online and find a remodeled version of the same tractor that Bob Mason had back in the 1980s. That’s what he drives out there.
Posted September 17, 2020.