Ida Tarbell was already a highly successful writer by the time she happened upon Easton in search of a country home. Tarbell had started writing for Samuel McClure in New York City in 1894. By 1905 she was editor and part owner of McClure’s Magazine, often running the daily operations of the publication during Sam McClure’s frequent long absences. She had written a highly successful biography of Abraham Lincoln and had gained international fame because of her two-year series of articles that exposed the greed and corruption of the Standard Oil Company. Teddy Roosevelt had given her the label of “Muckraker.” By late 1905, the death of her father and the stress of working at McClure’s had Tarbell seeking the solace of a place in the country she could call her own.
One of Tarbell’s New York friends was Noble Foster Hoggson, a noted architect, writer, and the publisher of his own magazine. It was likely Hoggson who first introduced Tarbell to the Aspectuck Valley in the early 1900’s when she visited his estate, Fairfield Manor, at the foot of Church Hill Road in Redding. There would have been no denying the tranquil beauty of that valley with its meandering river, mill ponds, and an occasional waterfall where the sound of rushing water made Manhattan seem like a million miles away.
Tarbell would later describe the purchase of her forty-acre farm on Valley Road in Easton as a purely fortuitous “series of circumstances.”
Ida Tarbell took possession of her Easton farm in January of 1906, purchasing it directly from the bank that had foreclosed on the previously unsuccessful farm during the previous year.
Her initial intention was to simply install a bathroom to make her life in the country a bit more bearable. Unlike the city life she had been accustomed to, there was no electricity in the country, and in 1906, telephone service hadn’t yet reached that far north in town.
But there was something about those fallow fields that sparked her interest.
“And what I had not reckoned with came from all corners of my land: fields calling to be rid of underbrush and weeds and turned to their proper work; a garden spot calling for a chance to show what it could do; apple trees begging to be trimmed and sprayed. I had bought an abandoned farm, and it cried loud to go about its business.
“Why should I not answer the cry? Why should I not be a farmer? Before I knew it, I was at least going through the motions, having fields plowed, putting in crops, planting an orchard, supporting horses, a cow, a pig, a poultry yard – giving up a new evening gown to buy fertilizer!”
What had begun as a lark, soon morphed into a true passion.
In 1915, after nine years of trying her hand at the second oldest profession known to man, Tarbell was quoted in the November edition of Country Life in America: “Artichokes are hard to raise, if nothing gets them the first year, something does the second. I’ve learned that twenty pepper plants are enough to supply four counties and that I can grow tobacco on my own soil.”
“When the first seed catalogue comes in the spring, I give myself up to an orgy of picking and choosing. It is hard to choose between the mammoth and abundant producer. Seeds are the most profitable investment I know about. Why a 5-cent package of lettuce seeds brings in about a 20,000 percent return on the money invested.”
While she had originally intended to have no animals, early on, a neighbor presented her with a hen and several chicks. Enthralled with watching her chicks grow into laying hens, she was soon collecting enough eggs to feed her regular contingency of New York guests as well as having enough left to give to her neighbors.
Tarbell’s friend, Kathleen Norris, named Twin Oaks’ resident pig, “Juicy.” Tarbell’s Jersey cow was named Esther Ann, and her faithful mare bore her own middle name, Minerva. For someone who wasn’t interested in having animals, Tarbell’s little farm appeared to be much like many others in rural Easton.
When journalist Caroline Trambell ventured out from New York to interview Tarbell about her newfound love of farming, after being greeted in the front yard by one of Ida’s faithful Collies, she found her host in the kitchen.
“Roll up your sleeves and try your hand at making jelly,” Tarbell greeted her. “I’ve been at it since seven o’clock this morning. I am going to do the entire job myself, from picking the currants to putting the jelly away. My friends refuse to take me seriously as a farmer, but at Christmas time this jelly will prove to them that I am most practical, and worthy of my farm. Provided the ants don’t get at it first,” she added.
It’s difficult to say how highly Tarbell’s country neighbors thought of her skills as a farmer but they were always more than willing to attend her annual autumn feast when she served up a full roasted pig, along with potatoes and squash followed by pies stuffed with apples that had grown on her farm. She claimed the event attracted upwards to sixty locals. She exhibited the same sense of pride and accomplishment that her literary skills had long provided.
She maintained two barns, and her vegetable garden was a mixture of edibles and flowering plants that made most farm gardens look uninteresting and boring. When asked if she thought her farm could provide her with a profit, she replied. “I’ve never regarded it from the point of view of an income, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t make it yield one if I put myself to it. Others are doing it on land of less promise than mine, less accessible to markets.”
Perhaps her enthusiastic response was more boastful than realistic, but there was no denying that Twin Oaks was likely as good a farm as many others in Easton, and perhaps even better than some. The fact that its owner was wealthy enough to hire the help she needed, and she had the ability to keep the place looking more like a country manor than a rural New England farm gave her an advantage that many of her neighbors lacked, but in truth, Ida Tarbell had become a farmer, however accidental that transformation may have been.
Much of the information and most of the photos for this piece were found in Tarbell’s 1939 autobiography “All in the Day’s Work” and “Ida M. Tarbell and her Farm” as published in Country Life in America in 1915.