by Richard Creaser
copyright the Chronicle 10-24-12
WEST CHARLESTON — Even before Pauline Broe picked up her bullhorn to address the crowd on Sunday it was apparent that this wasn’t your typical family gathering. With sun and rain appearing in equal measure, members of Ms. Broe’s extended family enjoyed brunch under the tent, stood around the fire pit or roamed the grounds of the Vermont Reindeer Farm.
The gathering is an annual event for Ms. Broe’s family and, in particular, her branch of the Westmore Lantagnes. All seven Lantagne siblings still reside within an hour’s drive of the town where they grew up.
But it is far more than a gathering of the clan. To Ms. Broe it is an opportunity to remember who she is, where she came from, and exactly what kind of legacy she wants to leave behind for the next generation.
“We were probably the poorest family in Westmore when we were kids,” Ms. Broe said. “Someone else was always giving us clothes and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. There wasn’t any expectation that we were going to go to college. Our parents expected that we would finish high school.”
Being on the receiving end of charity left a deep impression on the Lantagne children. It instilled in them a recognition of the power of one person to make a tremendous difference in the life of another. It fostered in them a strong sense of family and a willingness to pool their resources for the benefit of all.
The annual family gathering turned into a fund-raising effort to help support members of the family, Ms. Broe said. Whether by explicit donation or through silent auctions and walkathons, the family gathered money to form a Lantagne family scholarship fund.
“Our expectation is that if a child in this family wants to go to college, they will go to college,” Ms. Broe said. “Those of us in a position to help will help. That’s just the way we are.”
The gathering has also helped provide funds for ailing family members including, most recently, a sister-in-law and a nephew who battled cancer. Their struggle highlighted the prevalence of cancer in the community and inspired the family to also donate a portion of their fund raising money to support cancer charities.
All this focus on good deeds would seem to suggest that a Lantagne family gathering is a dry, joyless affair. Nothing could be further from the truth. Adjacent to the food tent an inflatable bounce house keeps the younger ones dry and entertained. As Ms. Broe speaks with the Chronicle she is constantly jostled by a kaleidoscope of animals that includes three goats, a donkey and a pig who thinks he’s a dog.
A more varied menagerie of animals probably hasn’t existed outside a zoo or a pretty famous ark. And that brings us back around to the name of Ms. Broe’s farm — Vermont Reindeer Farm. To the average American, reindeer are something you see in nature shows, on Christmas cards or in claymation television specials. Visitors to Ms. Broe’s farm, however, get to lay their eyes — and sometimes hands — on the real McCoy.
Comet and Prancer are the star attractions at the Broe farm, though Comet is, at present, off in New York State awaiting permission to enter Vermont. In truth, he would be Comet II, but in order to avoid giving children nightmares about the mortality of Santa’s faithful sled team Ms. Broe is content to present the illusion that the original Comet is simply away on business.
“This is the only reindeer farm in all of Vermont,” Ms. Broe said. “So how did it all get started? It’s not like we sat around dreaming of reindeer.”
Like most of the stories Ms. Broe told on Sunday afternoon, this one found its origins somewhere else. The land on which we stood has been in John Broe Senior’s family stretching back five generations.
Before that parcel became a farm it had played host to a modest but lovingly crafted camp. The Broe’s decided to build a more permanent dwelling using wood harvested from the land. Naturally, it seemed a shame to tear down a perfectly good cabin to make room for the house, so they just conjoined the two in a style that is both rustic and more than a little bit storybook.
“Some people have a back lawn,” Ms. Broe said, looking out the north window. “We have a back forest.”
She neglected to mention that the forest was a strange, magical place inhabited by brightly colored ceramic frogs, fairies and bridges complete with shaggy-headed trolls. Did we neglect to mention the dinosaur bones?
“I really like coming out here and walking on the trail,” niece Gwen Lantagne said. “I like seeing the frogs, the little bridges and the dinosaur bones.”
“I think they’re just cow bones,” Tyler Choquette said with almost convincing certainty.
The fact that the younger generations take happily to field and forest, eagerly sharing the magic of that place with a complete stranger, proves that what the Broe’s have built lives up to their ideal. This is a place where memories are made.
“When they grow up I want them to be able to remember Aunt Pauline’s and all the wonderful animals and the things to see and do,” Ms. Broe said. “I want them to remember where they came from and how that made them who they are.”
Which somehow brings us back around to the reindeer. The farm grew as a place where rescued animals could find respite and a loving home. It started with a pony and soon expanded to the various furry and feathered critters that snorted, brayed, bleated and squawked around the pastures and pens.
“One day I was looking at Country Woman magazine and saw a picture of a blond woman in a red outfit with a reindeer,” Ms. Broe recalls. “I thought, ‘That could be me!'”
Transforming that vision from idea to reality proved to be complicated. The threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among captive herds of deer severely limits the transport of animals like reindeer. To import the animals to Vermont, the Broe’s first had to find a clean herd from a state certified to ship animals to this state.
Tedious though the process may have been, Ms. Broe expressed no qualms about following that reindeer dream. The reindeer have proven popular with folks booking Christmas celebrations, as well as with the dozens of schoolchildren that have visited her farm.
Sharing her animals and her property with family and friends and schoolchildren is something that Ms. Broe treasures immensely.
“I love the opportunity to make kids happy,” Ms. Broe said. “When you see a child that has had problems bonding with other people and you see them hugging an animal, that’s amazing. People can connect to animals in a way they might never connect to other people, so giving them that opportunity means a lot to me.”
If one were to ask what precisely a farm with two reindeer, a bunch of goats, a confused pig, a donkey and a collection of chickens and ponies produces the simple answer is probably the right one — fond memories of a special place from their childhood.
contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]