(Courtesy of The Bellingham Bulletin) The sign on the street announcing “Raspberries” got my husband’s attention. He turned our car into the driveway. The sign on the garage instructed, “Knock at the door.” I wasn’t so sure, but my husband really loves raspberries and he figured that, if the sign was there, these folks must have meant for people to stop by. He was right.
We knocked, and an older man came to the door, then quietly helped us purchase some freshly picked raspberries, only one of many types of fruits grown on the three acres behind his house.
I didn’t realize then that I had gained more than fresh raspberries. I have stopped by many times in the years since I first pulled into the driveway of Roland (Joe) and Phyllis Bernier’s home on Cross Street, in the Silver Lake area of Bellingham. Sometimes it has been for raspberries, other times for peaches or cherries, and still other times just to say “hello” and listen to stories of how things “used to be.” Their memories of this area are long, since they have lived hereabouts their whole lives. Joe is a life-long resident of Bellingham, while Phyllis says that, while she was born in So.Kingstown, Rhode Island, she lived in Franklin from the time she was two years old until she married Joe and moved to Bellingham. Their stories carry the authority of folks who have stayed in one place and seen a lot.
Weather is an important part of any farmer/gardener’s life, and it has been a regular topic of conversation during our visits. Phyllis and Joe agreed that winters were much more severe in years past. Phyllis exclaimed, “We walked to church in a blizzard to get married! There was so much snow they couldn’t plow—Pulaski Boulevard had to get dug out with snow shovels.” Thinking back, Phyllis laughed and noted, “I got married in snow boots!” Joe then explained, “In winter, we used to cut big chunks of ice from Silver Lake. I built a shack in the back yard to store ice.” Phyllis interjected, “The garage we were living in had no insulation. In the winter, we had ice on the inside as well as the outside of the windows.” Although the sale of their motorcycle left them with no transportation, it enabled them to purchase their property. Phyllis explained, “We didn’t have a car, [but] there was a bus that ran between Franklin and Woonsocket.” Joe added firmly, “We have legs. We used them.” Joe built both the garage and the house by himself, but the garage came first. “We lived for eight years with three kids in three rooms in that garage,” Phyllis said with the firmness of one who has survived and thrived under challenging circumstances. “When we first moved here, we had no electricity and no running water. We cooked outside in a fire pit; then we got a two-burner kerosene stove. I had a contraption that was supposed to allow you to bake on top of the stove. I tried to bake a blueberry pie—it took eight hours!” Joe and Phyllis spoke of changes in the neighborhood over the years. Joe explained‚ “There were no trees and you could see almost to Rt. 126 from our house [a view that is now totally blocked by mature trees].” Joe continued, “The property where the dump is [now the Recycling Center on South Maple Street] was owned by Ellsworth Crooks. He charged 50 cents a day to pick blueberries on his property. You could pick 100 quarts of berries a day. There were no woods back there, and on occasion there would be a fire, which helps blueberries. There were lots of blueberries.” Joe started growing fruit in his back yard in a big way when he retired. When I asked why he took up gardening, his answer mostly implied, “Why not?” What he said was, “I wasn’t about to come home and sit down.” Phyllis interjected, “That was going to be his hobby.” With a half-smile, Joe drily countered, “Turns out it was a full-time job.” As they talked about gardening, Joe explained, “In years past, there was no such thing as not having a farm. Every house had a garden—there were no lawns. You had either a garden or cattle. If you had a little lawn, it was a pasture. Even people in the city had chickens. My dad was in the grain business. We delivered grain to the cities.” “In the beginning we had our hard times, but they were good times,” Phyllis reminisced.
“We had four healthy children. We haven’t really had a bad life.” Joe continued, “We have good kids. My two boys do just about anything we ask them to. From the beginning we fished and hunted together.
We still do.” Phyllis added, “My girls are so far away‚ I’m jealous [of the closeness he has with our sons].” I asked about the placard on their side door, the door everyone uses; it reads, “An Old Fisherman lives here with the catch of his life.” Joe thought for a moment. “I don’t remember who gave it to us…” he paused, “but it’s the truth!” Phyllis shook her head, “It doesn’t seem possible that we’ve been here 63 years.” Joe and Phyllis Bernier have packed many experiences into their years. If you pull in to their driveway, you may be lucky enough to get some of their fresh fruit. And if you’re even luckier, you might hear a story or two as well.
Story & photo by Marjorie Turner Hollman Bulletin Correspondent
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and has completed two guides to Easy Walking trails in Massachusetts, “Easy Walks in Massachusetts 2nd edition,” and “More Easy Walks in Massachusetts.” A native Floridian, she came north for college and snow! New England Regional Chair for the Association of Personal Historians, she is a Certified Legacy Planner with LegacyStories.org, and is the producer of numerous veterans interviews for the Bellingham/Mendon Veteran’s History Project. http://www.marjorieturner.com