Carol Stearns Interview

This ninth interview in our series of prominent letterboxers features CT's Letterboxing Godmother, Carolyn Stearns. Known as Mother Moo and Leader of the Pack, Carol is partially responsible for making CT a true letterboxing mecca

Monday, January 30, 2006

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    Carolyn’s Bio

    I’m a lifelong CT resident and lived nearby all my life. I grew up, as some of my letterboxes reflect, in the small town of Coventry. There I was outdoors as much as possible; often wandering miles a day along the river and through woods. We never got lost and were always home by dark. As a teen, it was me and my horse Cindy that wandered and swam in the river and local ponds. We sure put on some miles. It was Christmas 1974 when I got her and sent her on to Greener Pastures in 2002. As you can see, we were together a very long time. It was she and a few other animals who led me to the University Of CT Ratcliffe Hicks School Of Agriculture, where I took the two year animal science program. Before finishing, I was married. I had met my husband while working on his family’s dairy farm for a summer job. That is how I “Got Milk.” We lived up at the main farm 10 years before moving around the corner so my horse could be in the back yard once more and the kids could play without the worry of all the trucks coming and going. So here we are, so many years later. My husband and 4 kids and I all still live here and our life revolves around the cows and horses. My three daughters are grown and in the working world. One a personal trainer, the middle daughter a horse trainer, and The third is working in research at Uconn. Next came Tim; also known by his trail name Cowboy. He did a lot of boxes with me. Paw Print was his first plant. Tim is 12 (2005) and a big animal lover as well. He keeps me busy with lots of projects going all the time. We have home schooled for 2 ½ years now and that adds to the time we can devote to the things we love. So days begin and end with chores in the barn. The family does their part; while coming and going.

    What year did you start letterboxing and where did you first hear about it?

    The Hartford Courant ran an article in the fall of 2000. There it was a perfect outdoor activity for my busy bunch of 4-H club members. What better than to read, follow directions and get a walk without electronic matter to occupy the mind? I knew at once it was perfect. I think the article ran on a Sunday and the picture showed a letterbox at the base of a tree. How much more intrigue did I need. I pretty quickly assembled what I needed and had my first box out by the end of the week! That would be the box at Wolf Rock in Mansfield, which is a favorite walk of mine and a place where the autumn color shows itself in total glory. Writing the clues to that box was so much fun, it tapped a love of writing I hadn’t exercised in a long while. Playing with words to describe the scene and yet not be boring. To be direct, but offer the reader a little something to ponder or learn. I was hooked. I often raced home to write clues my head bursting with ideas. Some clues wrote themselves nearly.

    Whenever non-CT letterboxers poke fun at the huge amount of letterboxes in a given area, they seem to single out the Mansfield area. Why do you think Mansfield’s concentration of boxes is so disproportionate to other areas of the state and country? What events led to this huge concentration of boxes in this rural part of the state?

    I would guess that it was me! I started planting and was keeping ahead of those who were seeking putting out something new to attract them. Events, historical sites, a new park opening all spurred me on to plant yet another box. Then there were those who were hooked by following my trail. Chuck and Molly along with Chick-a-Birdie, followed my boxes and were soon putting out ones in return. Their boxes take us into a realm of scary and unusual monsters and, places of relevance to them. A third reason for the popularity in Mansfield is our incredibly good park system and available public lands. Our town has aggressively preserved tracts of land for open spaces and public use. Together with the adjacent state lands we are well endowed with public access land of all kinds. Lucky for us and all who travel to this “Mecca” of letterboxing. I hope other towns and villages take a cue from Mansfield and get busy saving property for the future. Remember they don’t tear down malls to make farms - it only works the other way! I am a member of the town agriculture committee and we work to preserve land for the future. We are a sub committee of the town Recreation and Parks committees. Don’t wait for someone else to do it - make it happen yourself. Enough preaching, now back to the interview.

    How many plants do you currently have and which one is your favorite letterbox and why?

    My plant number is at 225. This does not include some I have supervised or one day boxes at schools or boxes set up for learning with kids. It does not include the boxes each year we had them at the county 4-H fair. Even though I checked out the kids work, I never took credit for their effort. I guess 225 is substantial enough. They were all lots of fun. I enjoy the creative edge to this pass time. A favorite, well I have left this question and come back several times and can’t decide. Several come to mind for different reasons. One is the Gazebo Series. After seeing hit after hit on the talk list one snowy winter about how hard to get a new box, I came up with the gazebo series. I never imagined how many people would run all over kingdom come chasing pieces of that Gazebo and how proud folks would be when they successfully built it. So, if it’s dismantled they will come and build it in the snow! I love Champlions as it was fun to carve and such a unique place that hiding and clues were fun. So many great boxes and great spots. Now if my bum foot would get better, I have a whole bag made and ready to plant. Oh how I miss the trails and all my friends I have made in the letterboxing community.

    My favorite finds are Bartlett Brook in Lebanon as it was my first find. Then I just loved finding. Air Mail, I laughed out loud in the middle of nowhere then hurried home to get Cowboy after school and take him to get it. So thanks to all the planters out there for the walks, the laughs and the learning.

    You happened upon Sue and I one day as we were stamping in and planting the Legerdemaine Stalin HH in your Plane Spotter letterbox. That box and others of yours have a historical significance. Is history a primary theme of your letterboxes?

    History….. it is so close we can touch it in so many ways. For so many it comes in a dry textbook and delivery and the school lesson of cram - remembering dates and places still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For me history was a part of growing up. My family was living in, and restoring a 1751 colonial home. My parents were engrossed in the research of the family that lived in the house and was there to witness the revolution. I went through school with a fond love of history, but did more learning on it outside of school than in. By the time I was a teen I was guiding tours through the historic Nathan Hale Homestead. I was sixteen, and telling and teaching the Hale family history to his descendents, college professors and many folks well beyond my tender years. As I made and planted boxes with my 4-H kids in mind, I figured they might as well learn a little something else. Anywhere in New England we are blessed with so many great historical references that it was a gold mine of ideas for boxes.

    Plane Spotter is a good one and one of my stories which easily wrote itself. The most intriguing part of that was the day we opened that box at an event at the historical society, one of the people in the audience was actually a plane spotter in her youth. She was stationed at a spotting tower on the coast of Florida. She was a piece of the living history and I was so moved to meet her and have her tell me. My story, in which I imagined the job of a plane spotter, was so near to the real life experience she had. Another really significant historic box was the Oxen series. As the Town of Mansfield began planning its 300th birthday, I was assigned to organize our neighborhood celebration. Some would have a BBQ, others a picnic or plan a garden at a crossroads. Our neighborhood comprised mostly the farm and family homes. It came to me that Tim, (Cowboy) and his 4-H Oxen project were perfect for a historic recreation event. So I began thinking it out. Well, come the following June we set off from the town of Killingly. Two boys age 8 and 13, two pair of Oxen and a family history to recreate. It was 1772 when the first Stearns moved from Killingly to Mansfield and we traveled in his path. We walked the rail trail for 2/3 of the trip. Carrying large backpacks of supplies, we walked toward Mansfield leaving a few boxes in our wake. To share an experience of a lifetime with those so inclined to follow.

    I had also put the word out on the LBNA talk list that we would carry a special traveler along with us and finding us on the trail was the only way you could get the stamp. Each day I posted the section we expected to be on. In a way this helped me assure that if we did indeed have problems, someone would be out there looking for us. If you put a stamp there, they will come…. and they did. The first and most persistent was Chuck and Molly. I realized how good it was to have friends like Chuck. They found us on our second day out and were first to get the stamp of the Oxen traveler. Then they appeared at regular intervals to help negotiate the road crossings with our oxen and kids. It was such a surprise to near the end of a section and see the familiar blue jeep parked at the end and Chuck smiling a greeting as we clocked in more miles on the way toward home. With 5 days of travel, we saw the most folks on the fourth day when many met our caravan on Bassett’s Bridge Road in Mansfield Center. We stopped for lunch at Mansfield Hollow State Park and folks came from all over to get the stamp. The next stop was the historic cemetery (Chuck has a great box there) here. Tim/Cowboy placed a bouquet of sunflowers on the grave of his great, great…..10 times grandfather. He was the one who made the walk in 1772. So you see, one can live history as well as read or study it, and the lessons are so much more real. So pick a historic letterbox, and touch a little history today.

    Wanda and Pete, in their interview with us, spoke about their first gathering where they met you in Mansfield several years ago. Tell us about that gathering and was it the first in CT?

    It was a first gathering, other than the one pictured on the LBNA site that took place in Vermont. It was January and we met up at the Tolland Agricultural Center, in Vernon. Our county 4-H home was Letterboxing home for the day. We had a foot of snow on the ground, but the weather that day was perfect for winter letterboxing. Jay Drew had sprinted to Mansfield prior to the event to plant a box in my neighborhood for the event (Trout Fishing in America.) I planted KJ’s Best (I) for the event it is a favorite of ice cream lovers. The whole thing was organized on line and none of us had met. We planned, and carried out the event by faith in the letterboxing community. They came from the four winds bringing carving entries, boxes, parts of our delicious meal. Someone drove all the way from Pennsylvania. We had boxes just for the day. Some boxes on the local trails had small surprises hidden in them. We all got talking and sharing trail stories and the real boom in letterboxing was about to explode from that epicenter. 50 strangers came, and 50 friends left the gather that day - we have been meeting up on trails ever since. It was my very first meeting with everyone. Some who come to mind without dragging out the old log book: Jay Drew and a couple of the clan members, Wanda and Pete, Alan from Axetown, and Upside Down Party and her Mom. There were so many others as well that have stayed in the letterboxing community.

    Where did you get the name Mother Moo? Did that predate your Leader of the Pack handle? Explain to our readers the reasoning behind both names, please.

    Mother Moo was tacked on to me by Upside Down Party and since it fit well I used it for my Yahoo group handle. For those that don’t know us, we have a dairy farm with about 1000 head of dairy cattle. The Leader of the Pack name, I chose as a trail name. It comes from my service as the leader of the Cock-A-Doodle-Moo 4-H club. (This year 2005-06 is my 28th year as leader. Our registration this year will be 55 kids) You will know if you ever encountered me letterboxing with my 4-H kids. One, there is no wildlife left in the woods except the kids; two, some kids run ahead, but have to stay in shouting distance; three, there is almost always a couple dogs and a goat or two along, occasional days with a miniature horse too. Four, it is loud - very loud and the kids are having a wonderful time searching for clues, reading and rereading clues, getting ink everywhere, and planning a hundred and one boxes they can imagine. Who leads this very loud and happy bunch but the Leader of the Pack.

    Your daughter, Pink Trotters, planted several series of her Favorites. Were these the largest number of boxes planted in a series in CT at that time? What influenced her decision in creating so many letterboxes in one series?

    The My Favorites came about one by one and soon was a blossoming series of boxes. At the time Pink Trotters was a college student with two part time jobs. One of her jobs was early in the morning on our farm. Time and energy were maxed out most of the year so it became the idea that she would put them all in one place so they can be easily checked on. When the land at Coney Rock opened we knew it was perfect, the climb made the boxes an effort anyway and the correlation between the Sound of Music - Climb Every Mountain and the hill at Coney Rock couldn’t be ignored. Of course Pink Trotters was gone on summer courses abroad two summers and has just graduated this past May. Life hasn’t slowed down much for Pink Trotters - getting out of school then means going to work. She now works full time and still does calves early in the morning before her job. When I have my feet back under me, I hope to get back on the trail with her. It was something we did together to share time and I miss that.

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    The Stearns Dairy Farm is probably as much a part of your life, if not more, than letterboxing. Tell us a little about the farm and its history.

    The Stearns farm is also known as Mountain Dairy. The family arrived here in 1772 from a family farm in Killingly. Before that, the family farmed for subsistence near Dedham MA. Check out the Sister Road Sister Town Letterbox in Mansfield, MA. This farm incorporated in 1871 and we still are delivering fresh milk daily. 10 generations of family have worked and lived here. We have Holstein and Jersey cattle. Tim/ Cowboy raises Dutch Belted cattle - a rare breed originally from Holland, who are making their milking debut now. We have a few and he is working on a breeding up program to increase their numbers in our herd and to help save the breed. They look like Oreo’s and are good dairy producers. (Another belted breed, the Galloway, is more common and is a beef variety of cattle) We recently came across a family photo of Tim’s great, great, great grandfather with some Dutch Belted looking cattle. I guess it is in the blood. So that was the reason for the drive by box – Got Milk because – yes, we do!

    Tell us about your work with the local 4H club. What are some of your proudest moments with this agricultural youth group?

    Cock-A-Doodle-Moo 4-H Club

    Where to begin….. 28 years is a lot of memories when you are working with kids. Some I have had in my club from the time they are 7 until they finish at 19. It is a very large piece of their family I have been blessed to share in. One of the proudest moments was taking Orphan Annie to the fair. Annie had been a headline news case of animal abuse along with her herd mates. Many died in that tragedy. Those in the best condition were auctioned off. 10 remained and I wrote the judge and asked if they could be donated to 4-H members. 2 came to my club. Annie was so sickly when she arrived it was mid winter and a cold spell. She was stunted and malnourished she had an army of lice, she had so much ringworm leaving great bald patches. Her near hairless ears were gray and I worried frost bite would have the ends falling off soon. We tackled her with the regimen of treatments the state had begun and lots of TLC. We gave her medication and good food. She had a cute little barn and loving kids tending her. To try to save her ears they warmed mittens on the wood stove, rolled them in a ball stuffed them in pockets and ran for the barn. There the warm mittens were placed on Annie’s ears to warm them. I don’t know how many trips a day these kids made with the mittens, they beat a path to the barn door. Well by August when fair time was just ahead and all were excited in the anticipation we had a heart to heart. Annie isn’t going to win anything. Annie’s real prize is that she lived and is well and can go to the fair. So I want you to go in the ring and know when you place last because she is so much smaller than all the other calves her age, that she is the real champion because she survived. The fair was its usual hot summer day and the judge scrutinized the Holstein heifers as they paraded all shiny and clean before him. In the end Annie wasn’t last, one little preemie fell in place behind her. We were, and still, all these many years later are ecstatic. Annie came to live on our dairy when she outgrew her little barn and Annie’s descendents are still in the herd. I’m waiting now, Annie’s owner at that fair has a daughter she will be seven in a couple of years, I sure hope she is joining 4-H.

    Besides my wonderful dairy kids and all the wonderful families there were so many shining moments. Dress Revue National Candidates, National Citizenship Conference Attendees, National 4-H Congress Attendees, County and State Achievements galore, So many educational booths that have won distinction awards. There have been hundreds of service projects, holiday cheer, and rid litter days, trail clean up, and Pets to Share at Nursing homes. There are the countless awards in Public Speaking, equine science and, all the kids who were selected to exhibit on the state team at the Big E. There was the year my own daughter was Fair President and when Tim/Cowboy was finally old enough to show. Now Tim is on the Board of Directors for the Fair, and he showed at Big E this year with some other club members. One of my original 5 kids still hangs around, I have some second generation kids in the wings and as always it’s the everyday kids that bring a smile to my face every time I am with them.

    What do you think a youngster learns about themselves and life when they look after an animal like your 4-Hers do?

    The biggest or hardest thing they learn about life is death. In losing a pet or 4-H project, the kids learn how to deal with death and to work through the grief and how a community is a built in support system. When you belong, you don’t have to face the really hard days alone. Some watch, some have had the experience themselves we are none of us immune to loss. Together we can focus on getting through the hard days to the promise of the future ahead together.

    4-H is full of so many great lessons, but I always think when I see them that it is I who reap the greatest reward. The kids have taught me so much. They learn to be good friends, workers, team players, responsible, caring and service oriented. They keep good records, earn and spend money, learn new skills, teach old skills, do public speaking, voice their opinion, prepare for the future. This growth is through projects, camp, trips, contests, and fairs. They may have a cow, a camera, a model rocket or like to fish but they can all find a place in 4-H to be themselves and bloom.

    Do you introduce letterboxing in your classroom as an educational tool? How so? How receptive are your students to this pastime?

    We have had several letterboxing club events. As a group we planted 4-H boxes one near Wolf Rock Mansfield and another in Bicentennial Park, Mansfield. For several years the club ran an event at the county fair with kid made boxes and a lesson in each find. We teach new kids and take them out to experience a sure find. Once they have found one, they are like the rest of us – they are hooked. When I was working part time in the town schools I introduced letterboxing to several classes. As a fun thing after the daunting state testing, we went out and found boxes on a trail behind the school. In the kindergarten at another school, we did an event for two years. Letterboxing was a great activity to teach right and left and counting and colors.

    What lessons have you learned from letterboxing? Have you tried to instill any particular values about boxing with Cowboy, Pink Trotters or your 4H kids?

    I’ve learned so much, where to begin. The basic thing is respect. I think respecting nature and the historic relics left behind in the woods is an important lesson. For those letterboxes not in the forest there is the lesson of each special location and keeping ourselves open to what we can learn often right under our noses. The saying to “leave only footprints” I add “and walk gently.” I hope a few folks have learned a little history and come away realizing history can be fun. I hope that all those I’ve led to letterboxing have spent some wonderful time with people they care about. Another lesson is land preservation and the importance of it. I truly hope some of the children I have worked with will remember these lessons when the land choices fall to their hands.

    I know you have a house box and are always so generous in sharing your time with other letterboxers, as you have with Sue and me. What are the names of some of our letterboxing community that have stopped by your home for your house box and the dairy box over the years?

    The first that come to mind are Melissa and Dan, who on their occasion timed their arrival when the cows got loose! It always helps to have extra hands when you have a round up in progress. Wanda and Pete have been by and Wanda has even convinced me of the importance of seeking a last scary monster late in the evening in the pitch dark by flashlight over the brook. (She got wet) Snowbird flies in fairly regularly and has perched at the box long enough to stamp in. Wanda met up with Chuck and Molly at Got Milk and Wanda couldn’t believe Chuck who lives a few miles away had never met me. So… she brought him right over. We have been crossing paths ever since.

    If you could take a week’s vacation anywhere in the world, where would it be? And, would there have to be some letterboxes there for you to find or could you do without?

    Oh, I would love a vacation of my choice and I would go west. I have always wanted to see Wyoming and Montana, Big Sky Country. Now with Tim (Cowboy) at such a good age for learning, I feel the importance of making that trek even more. Some day we hope to do it. I would love to ride wagons or horses in the ruts of the Oregon Trail. Feel the prairie wind blow hot on my cheeks. Hear the repetitive footfalls of the horses as they work their way west. Watch the waters of rushing rivers and watch an eagle soar overhead in those “lazy circles in the sky.” There never needs to be a letterbox but just thinking of the trip makes me think of all the possibilities for boxes: wagon wheels and famous people, Native American signs and eagles - so many subjects and so much history.

    Here’s the tough part – who would you take with you on this vacation and why?

    Not so tough really. I know I want my son Tim to see this. We have called him Cowboy since he could barely stand on two feet. He has a great interest in cowboy life and work and a true love of all animals. Then I would like my husband to come since he loves driving horses and that would be the place for him - up on one of those prairie schooners, pushing along the trail with a grand view and two or four large draft horses plodding along in front of him. My girls would be welcome but they are at that point in their life where they are so busy I don’t know if they could come but I would like to have them.

    Thanks to everyone in the letterboxing community for the opportunity to share my creative energy with you all. Letterboxing has enriched my life and led me to so many places. I hope that it leads you all to peace in your lives and friendship whose value can’t be measured.

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