1934, and the streets of Burlington, Vermont were clogged with a chaotic, tangled multitude of carriages, automobiles, bicycles,
people, and the occasional horse and cart. At every intersection, people and vehicles vied for movement
onward. The people wove their way through the mass of carriages and rumbling autos, which in turn competed
for just the next foot forward.
At this particular intersection, the Farmer sat in his truck, thinking on the problem that plagued him. His family's
land and all its bounty had been theirs for generations, worked by so many of his line for so long, he'd not be surprised
if he'd been born with its dirt under his fingernails. If his beloved wife had lived, if he'd
had children of his own, then maybe things would be different. No doubt Sylvia would have known how
to solve the current crisis, he thought. Brilliant, she was. But things were changing, and
he found he didn't like it. He had a problem, but not the hands or the resources to solve it.
While he pondered his dilemma, the forgotten orphans of Burlington roamed its streets, seemingly appearing from within
the traffic itself, begging or selling whatever meager goods they could find. The Farmer watched with
growing interest a team of young boys working the melee, the oldest no more than nine or ten. One of their
number, a sandy-haired boy of medium build, seemed to be directing the others. Rather than beg or attempt
to sell cast-off trash, these boys had taken the unusual approach of actually working. Ragged and barefoot,
they swarmed over the vehicles, offering windshield cleaning and body shine for tips. Their agility amazed
him as they narrowly avoided lurching bumpers, dodged swerving bicycles, and conducted business. An idea began to take shape
in the Farmer's mind.
"Clean your windshield, two cents!" The sandy-haired boy approached his window, holding
up a grimy bit of cloth.
The Farmer considered the boy, guessing him to be no more than 8 years old. "Is this your crew?"
he asked, pointing at several of the boys industriously clambering amongst the press.
The boy paused, frowning. "Yeah."
"How much do you and your crew make in a day out here?"
The boy puffed out his skinny chest, managing to look suspicious and prideful even in his rags. "We
make enough. Sometimes even a whole dollar." He wrinkled his brow.
"When everyone chips in, anyway."
The boy seemed to be telling the truth, though it obviously pained him. Intriguing. The Farmer's eyes took in
the rest of the urchins, still scampering over cars and seeming to trickle through the traffic. "How'd
you like to earn a quarter each today?"
eyes narrowed. "Doing what?"
The boy's quick eyes glanced at his truck, taking in the flat bed and wooden rails. "From
a tree, you mean?"
kids. The Farmer nodded.
The boy looked around at his crew, his eyes flicking from the Farmer to the bed of the truck, then back to his crew.
He turned back to the Farmer. "Just apple picking, no funny stuff, promise?"
The Farmer nodded solemnly, surprised the street-hardened boy still believed in promises. "My
word on it."
stared at him a moment, his gaze intense and unusually comprehensive for one so young. He nodded. "A
quarter each, then."
The Farmer nodded back and held out his hand. The boy eyed it a moment, then shook it, his smaller
hand dirty and calloused inside the Farmer's equally rough grip. He turned to shout over his shoulder.
"Oi! Tom! Charlie! Grab the others and come on!
We've got a job today!"
The boys, seven of them in all, boiled up out of the press of traffic and climbed nimbly over the sides of the truck
and into its bed.
The boy watched them come and turned back to the Farmer, his eyes still guarded but certain. "We'll
do a good job. You'll see."
The Farmer nodded gravely. "I expect you will. What's your name, boy?"
The Farmer inclined his head. "Hop in, Kenny. We've got work to do."
Once at the orchard, the Farmer tossed each of the boys an apple. A small smile played about his lips as he watched
the boys devour the fruit, barely pausing to breathe between bites. He took in their general scrawniness,
the sharp edges of their elbows and wrists, the thinness of their chests, and his smile faded as his lips compressed into
a thin line. He took another apple out of the barrel and held it up in his large hand.
"So this is what needs picking," he said. "When I use the shaker, there," he
nodded toward the machine, a tractor-like device with a long arm ending in a pincer, "it picks 'em
well enough, but it bruises 'em, too, when they drop. This orchard's been producing the best apples
in the region for generations, and I don't want that to change on my watch. That's where you boys
come in." He looked over each of them in turn, making eye contact with the ones he could.
him soberly, intently reducing his apple to only seeds and stem.
"Climb the trees, pick the apples, and put them in those baskets, there." He nodded toward
the corner, where towers of neatly stacked baskets waited. "When a basket is full," he turned
and pointed to another section of the large barn, "bring it over there for weighing. Any questions?"
A tall boy spoke up, his voice as thin as the rest of him. "Can we eat any of the apples we
smiled faintly, noticing that each of them had reduced their apples to only seeds and stems. "Only
if it has a worm."
smaller boy elbowed the one who had spoken. "Then we can eat that, too," he said in a not too
subtle whisper. By the grins shared amongst the group, the Farmer couldn't decide if the boy was joking.
there's no other questions, it's time to get to work."
He watched as the boys swarmed out amongst the trees, scampering up them like squirrels. He thought
of their general gauntness and made a decision. Intent on asking Cook to prepare a stew for the boys' supper, he headed
inside the main house.
It was evening, the shadows stretching long and thin across the yard and creeping toward the windows of the main house.
The space within glowed with warm lamplight, rang with the exuberance of boyhood chatter. At first,
the boys had been apprehensive at coming inside, but their reticence evaporated at the sight of the bowls of stew laid out
for them. They descended on the food like locusts.
In stark contrast to his companions, Kenny stared at the bowl of food in front of him. The Farmer
wrinkled his brow, noticing how the others had attacked their stew with the predictable rapacity of the starving.
"Something you don't like about the stew?"
Kenny slowly shook his head. "I've never had such a meal. I want to remember it."
The Farmer stared at the boy, swallowing past a sudden lump in his throat. How had this boy come
to be an orphan? Kenny couldn't have been more than eight years old, yet he had the bearing of someone
twice that. He was clearly smart, and driven. The Farmer flicked a glance out the window toward the many
bushels of apples the boys had harvested, piled in the barn. It was an impressive haul.
"You did a good job here today."
Kenny nodded and began eating, his movements deliberate.
"Do you think you boys could do this every day?" He gestured at the day's harvest.
Kenny looked at him, his dark eyes intense with barely suppressed hope. "We could do better
than this, sir, give us a whole day."
The Farmer nodded slowly. "I've a building with plenty of space, only use it for some storage.
With a bit of cleaning out, we could put some beds in there, give you boys a place to sleep..."
Silence fell abruptly, every pair of eyes trained on him, some with spoons nearly to their mouths.
The Farmer continued, addressing all of them now. "I can't offer much, but you'll get
a bed and three meals a day. A quarter each, every day you work."
"For doing what we did today?" asked a boy of medium build and dark complexion, sounding choked.
The Farmer nodded. "There'll be rules, of course."
Kenny was nodding, as were several of the other boys, various expressions of eagerness, hope, & desperation on
won't tolerate stealing, and you'll accompany me each Sunday to church. You'll work hard, but
you'll have Sundays off..." He trailed off, realizing the youngest of them, a boy who could not
have been more than four or five years old, was openly crying. His dearest Sylvia, had she not died young and them childless,
would have been moved to tears herself and gathered him into her embrace.
He cleared his throat. "So, do we have a deal?"
Kenny stood, sticking out his thin, rough hand. He met the Farmer's gaze steadily, his dark eyes shining with emotion.
"You'll not regret this, sir."
"The Apple Tree Orphans", they had called themselves. A proper moniker gave their band legitimacy and fitting
recognition on the streets of Burlington. Choosing the name for themselves had also marked the apple orchards as their territory,
promising more than a stern tongue-lashing to any who would break its peace.
In the early days, fights were common. Sudden, surprisingly quiet scuffles in the dark of a secluded hallway or behind
the outlying buildings as the boys meted out the justice familiar to them from the streets of Burlington.
Life here was good, and none would jeopardize it. It was honest work and a real wage.
The Farmer even gave them food to eat, every day. An actual bed of their own. Every boy there had
known the angry pinch of long hunger, the cowering and shivering in the cold when the rain came. The various victimizations,
in one ugly form or another, which was the reality of an orphan's life on the streets of Burlington were a thing of
the past. The Farmer changed all that, giving them shelter, safety, and purpose.
the orchard prospered and more were added to their number, he hired a tutor for them, insistent they be able to read and
add their numbers. He taught them the importance of saving their money, and for the first time in many
of their lives, they had good shoes and decent clothes. The Farmer was stern in his discipline, but extravagant in his patience.
He cared deeply for them all, even providing letters of reference for further employment as the boys grew into young
men and sought their fortunes elsewhere.
Eventually, the number of young boys who had left the city streets for the orchard grew large enough to attract the
notice of a local reporter, who wrote an article for Burlington's local newspaper. This in turn caught
the eye of the local government, which was feeling the weight of the new child labor reforms. Then the
government sent an official to investigate who changed everything.
The Farmer looked out across the orchard, sighing deeply. His eyes took in the expanses of well-ordered
trees, stretching farther than he could see from this vantage on the hillside.
The changing of an era, I suppose, he thought to himself. He fought down a wave of emotion at that thought.
Wouldn't do, not today. One of the downsides of age, he reflected. Getting
more emotional. Weepy, even. Age took so much, he shouldn't have been surprised
to find it wanted his dignity, as well.
What would Sylvia have thought? It had been so many years since her death, but he still missed her every bit as
much now as then. She would have handled aging as well as she had handled everything else, and no doubt
better than he. What would she think, of what it had all become?
He gazed out across the land, drinking in the sight of it. He loved the way the sunlight poured
its way across the orchards, the land responding with exuberant bounty. Movement at the corner of his
eye caused him to turn and watch the young man of twenty-five making his way toward him across the sloping lawn.
Kenny- Kenneth, now, the Farmer corrected himself; Kenneth insisted it was more befitting of a man his age- had no
doubt come to collect him. He turned back to the splendor of the sight before him and sighed as Kenneth
a shame Sylvia couldn't be here. She would have wanted to be here, I think." He
turned his head to look at the sandy-haired young man at his side, who nodded. "Is everyone here then?"
"Everyone but us." Kenneth's dark eyes crinkled at the corners. "Government lady's
waiting. Don't want to make her angry."
The Farmer shook his head. "No, it wouldn't do to upset the lady, especially on her wedding
day." He chuckled. "It might interfere with your wedding night, eh?"
Kenneth blushed. "As the Headmistress of The Apple Tree Orphanage and your soon to be daughter-in-law,
Maria would be horrified at such talk, Father." He paused. "But yes."
The Farmer smiled, feeling genuine mirth at Kenneth's expense. "How else am I to have grandchildren
to inherit all this?"
Kenneth just shook his head good-naturedly and changed the subject. "Tom and Charlie arrived
early last night with good news- we've acquired new markets in Montgomery and Richford. The applesauce and cider sales
are continuing to rise, too. I think this winter we should try out some of the apple butter recipes..." He trailed
off at the bemused smile on his father's face. "What?"
"You were right, adding product was a good idea." He smile broadened, until his entire
face shone with pride. "It seems making you Manager was a good idea."
Kenneth smiled back, his teeth showing white against his tan face. "Thank you, Father.
I said you wouldn't regret it."
The Farmer clapped a hand on his shoulder as they turned toward the house.