LINCOLN — Last Sunday, the driver of a car with a Massachusetts license plate stopped his car abruptly on Isham Hollow Road in Lincoln. He didn’t quite know what to do.
A team of six draft horses trotted ahead of him, pulling a wagon up a hill. Apparently, the driver didn’t know the proper etiquette for sharing the road with the old-fashioned six-horsepower vehicles.
On the wagon, Trent Roleau, 21, had three reins in either hand, so his father, Bill, waved the car by. Many out-of-towners don’t know it, but it’s OK to slowly pass the Roleaus’ wagon when it is out on Lincoln roads every Sunday.
In all, the Roleaus own 12 draft horses, and they try to take a team out at least once a week. They compete in world-class draft horse competitions all around New England, sometimes facing teams from as far away as New Mexico.
Bill Roleau is a fifth-generation Vermonter and his memories of draft horses on his father’s Waltham dairy farm played a large role in inspiring him and his wife, Bonnie, to begin working draft horses.
Although Bill and Bonnie Roleau both have full-time jobs during the day, they also put a massive amount of effort into their farm, Isham Brook Farm. In addition to the horses, the family also owns nine pigs and five beef cows, they grow oats and hay for their animals, and they produce maple syrup every spring.
Despite the changing times, the family remains committed to life on a Vermont homestead. And now Trent, the Roleaus’ youngest son, wants to continue working on the family farm after he graduates from Vermont Technical College next year.
He eventually hopes to develop a 20-acre property the family owns on Atkins Road in Lincoln into a diversified farm that will support him, and hopefully also his girlfriend, Abigail Scholten of Weybridge.
“Hopefully I’ll not have to do a desk job for a day job,” said the youngest Roleau. “I’ve pretty much always known I’ve wanted to work on a farm — I think you’re kind of born with it,”
LIFE ON A HOMESTEAD
Bill Roleau also doesn’t like work behind a desk. After graduating from high school, though, he did study architecture at Vermont Tech.
“I was in that generation where you had to go to college and you had to learn a vocation that kept you inside,” he said. “I went to Vermont Tech for awhile and got out … I decided I wasn’t interested in standing under fluorescent lights forever.”
So Roleau returned to work at Packard of Vermont Auto Shop in New Haven, which his father, Amos, had opened in 1963 after closing down the family farm because dairy in Vermont was becoming a more large-scale business.
“It was going to cost so much to get a bulk tank and my father only owned 17 milk cows, that they got out of the business,” Bill Roleau said. “He converted what used to be a farm into a body shop.”
While working at the shop, Bill Roleau was still interested in life on a farm, and in 1974, he bought the land the family now lives on in Lincoln.
They now call the land Isham Brook Farm, but when Roleau bought it, the land wasn’t much of a farm — it was completely wooded, and inexpensive.
A few years later, he married Bonnie, who is originally from New Jersey, and they moved onto their Lincoln property.
Bonnie Roleau’s family in New Jersey had raised Arabian horses, and the Roleaus kept a few horses at Isham Brook Farm.
Because of this, one of the Roleaus’ neighbors asked to keep a draft horse in their stable. Draft horses are large horses that are bred for heavy work, not riding, and this suited Bill just fine.
“Riding horses is the most uncomfortable thing you can imagine,” he said, only half joking.
Roleau soon bought a few of his own draft horses, and he began using them to log his densely wooded property every winter.
“All the stuff you see here was built with lumber from the land here,” he said motioning around his property. “The house, the shop, the sugarhouse, the barn — all of it.”
The Roleaus soon found that they loved working with draft horses, and in 1986, they entered a team into their first draft horse competition.
Their hobby took off from there, and they now take part in seven competitions a year, often doing quite well. Two years ago, for example, Trent Roleau won the team class (meaning a cart with two horses) at a big fair in Freyburg, Maine.
At the same fair, Trent also became a bit of a hero. When a team of four horses got spooked and bolted, he managed to corral them as they headed for an open gate.
Roy Andrews, president of the fair wrote in a press release that, “Trent saved the day. His quick thinking and decisive actions prevented what could have been a terrible situation. These horses had already shown that fences weren’t going to stop them.”
Click here for footage of the incident.
At the Freyburg fair and others, the Roleaus generally enter their horses into a wide variety of classes. There’s the unicorn class (two horses close to a wagon led by one out in front), the team class (a pair of horses), a six-horse class, four abreast, and various cart classes.
Although companies sponsor many of the teams the Roleaus compete against, the Roleaus are proudly a family operation — they raise draft horses because they love working with the animals.
“The animals are neat,” said Bill Roleau. “To be able to get into the heads of those six horses … it’s like getting six people to all do the same thing at the same time.”
In addition to entering their horses into competitions and using them for logging, the Roleaus also use their draft horses to collect sap during sugaring season.
The Roleaus bottle around 100 gallons of maple syrup every year. Last year, they also began selling packaged pork in the Lincoln General Store, and they’ve sold larger quantities of beef and pork to their neighbors for years.
Trent Roleau is hoping to continue his parents’ practice of small-scale diversified farming, but hopes to take the endeavor one step further and support himself exclusively through farming — in a return to the type of farm his grandfather and great-grandfather owned.
He plans on raising beef and milk cows, pigs, chickens and also growing hay and oats.
“A local market needs local farms, so why not start up more local farms?” he said. “I think every town should have a couple little farms.”
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].