In 1909 a young Ray Harding proudly purchased a large farm in Lyme called Ashlawn.
They worked long days as all farmers do, until, in their old age, they passed the responsibility of the dairy herd on to their eldest son. In his younger years Ray Harding could be found in the barns as well as on the floor of the Connecticut State Senate. As senator from Connecticut’s 20th district, he served on various agriculture-related committees, and at home in Lyme, he presided over the Hamburg fair for years. People who knew Ray remember him for his conversation, his kindness, his cigar in one hand, and his stout belly. Helen is remembered for her matter-of-factness, her hard work, and her coffee. When the Hardings passed away, it was the end of a generation of farmers who worked entirely by hand, used draft horses to pull heavy loads and cooked meals on a wood- burning kitchen stove.
The son who took over the farm was James Ely, or Sam, the true embodiment of local color. He remembered the old ways of using the outhouse and horse and buggies, but he had automobiles all of his adult life, and eventually, automatic milking equipment decreased the number of man-hours needed in the barn. Sam married a schoolteacher named Margaret and their time at the farm overlapped with his parents by forty-some years, all four of them living, cooperating under the same roof. Sam was famous for his 1963 Ford truck and 64 Cadillac, his passion for the old days, his white beard, his sparkling eyes, and his dairy cows. Sam loved the land he grew up on, and eventually he infinitely preserved it by selling its development rights to the state of Connecticut. When Sam’s wife Peggy died, Sam, then eighty, auctioned off his herd and drew the milking operation to a close. From 1994-1996 he lived as a widower at the farm where he was born, lonely, with no income, only debt, wondering how he could ever sell the beautiful property on which rested the nearly 300 year-old home where he was born.
Sam had no children to take over the farm. But he was one of four children, and of all four siblings, only his sister Daphne had children. Daphne’s eldest son, Chip, a financial planner and investment columnist, who never pictured himself a farmer, wound up solving the problem of what to do with the widowed Sam who was soon to lose the family farm. In 1996, along with his parents and brother, he purchased the farm from Sam, gave him life use, married a schoolteacher and moved in. Once again, the generations co-existed mostly peaceably. For the first time in 75 years, children were born to the farm, and three generations lived there together. Sam continued his lifelong routine of rising early and taking care of animals, haying fields, and making his rounds in Lyme. He lived healthily until 2001 when he contracted pneumonia and an infection that weakened him to the point that he died. No one expected that Lyme would ever be without Sam. They just couldn’t imagine it. He was a fixture, a local hero, and an icon. When he died, it was the end of an era and people wondered what would become of the Harding Farm.
Hardings don’t live there now, Dahlkes do, but it’s Sam’s nephew Chip, his wife Carol and their children, and it’s still the same family. How do a financial portfolio manager and a former schoolteacher make a go of a hundred acre farm, a fifteen-room house, six barns, and miles of stone walls?
With every generation, changes occur. Beef steers have replaced the dairy cattle. A friend who trades use of the land for labor does the farming. Without abandoning tradition, Ashlawn’s most recent generation of farmers has applied innovation to achieve their vision. With the development rights sold to the state, the options for the Dahlkes have been few. No strip malls, neighborhoods, or golf courses can replace this farmland. The original barns are there, in much better condition than they’ve ever been, and the old milk room has become of all things, a coffee roastery—the only roastery between Mystic and Guilford, and the roaster, Carol Adams Dahlke boasts the freshest coffee you’ll ever find anywhere. She’s an awful lot like Helen, with her kids running barefoot around the dooryard, her no nonsense outlook on life, and her hard working nature. How does Farmer Chip, grandson of the renowned Ray Harding fit into the picture? He assembled the grandest farmer’s market in Southeastern Connecticut. Local vendors arrive weekly selling their veggies, beef, lamb, cheese, seafood, perennials, eggs, flowers– you name it. White tents gleam in the sunshine, against a backdrop of red barns, granite walls, white fences and blue skies.
Big changes here. Some things, however, stay the same. You see, Chip looks an awful lot like his grandfather Ray, who came to this farm almost a hundred years ago. He’s got the cigar, the belly, the conversation, and the farm. He loves the legacy that his people have left here in Lyme, and he perpetuates it. People think of these things when they think of Chip. For the next few decades let’s hope that the coffee and the Farmers Market remain. In the words of Lyme’s town historian Hiram Maxim, “The few remaining active farms today…should reflect Lyme’s centuries-old cultural heritage as a farming community.” Let’s hope that Ashlawn Farm can flourish in the hands of this local family that loves this town, these stonewalls, and this version of a farming way of life.
Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life!
If it hadn’t been for the Saybrook Fish House, this family would not have come to be. The summer Carol returned from a two-year teaching job in Thailand, Chip had moved in with his parents in Lyme while he was going through a divorce. Carol passed the time before starting grad school waiting tables at the Fish House. Chip pretty much had a reserved seat at the bar there, where he ate dinner most nights on his way home from work. They met, exchanges stories of life in transition, and four years later they married. They moved into the farm. They worked hard to keep the family farm intact. Here they are today, many years and three (more) kids later. They rejoice in the beautiful life they have, in their friends, neighbors, and in the customers who support them.
In this photograph, missing is the first part of Chip’s family, his two oldest children Travis and Gillian, who never had a chance to live full-time at the farm. Photos of them coming soon.