As Yale student, Hillary Clinton spent weekends in Pownal, Vt., cabin


Hillary Clinton: The Early Years

POWNAL, VT. >> "George Washington slept here" was once a surefire real estate selling point, but how does "Hillary Rodham stayed here on weekends" sound?

That was very likely the case during 1969-70 at Pownal dairy farmer Henry Strohmaier's converted "corn crib" off Jackson Cross Road in the town.

Not that Strohmaier is looking for an ad ploy to sell his rustic cabin with the interesting history, which he admits having a soft spot for: He cared enough to restore it at a cost well beyond the insurance payment after a smoky fire scorched the interior.

The decades-old legend of Hillary's weekend visits remains strong in this southwestern Vermont town, especially this year. True, no photos have yet surfaced of the current presidential candidate — then 23 and at Yale Law School — that fix her near the wood stove in the post-and-beam cabin with then-boyfriend David Rupert.

But the Strohmaiers and others in the area certainly remember the well-liked Rupert, a recent Georgetown University graduate at the time. He was one of several young people who rented from the farm family, Strohmaier said, all of whom were into the back-to-the-land movement that exploded during the 1970s.

"Now, I never saw her," Strohmaier said. "But I remember him."

Local interest revived

The image of Hillary Rodham driving north from Yale in Connecticut to the area on weekends — in "the little car she had named 'Alphonse' " — stems mostly from Gail Sheehy's 1999 biography of the former first lady, "Hillary's Choice."

Having previously written about the first lady for Vanity Fair, Sheehy talked to friends, a minister, acquaintances, relatives, classmates — including Rupert and Hillary's mother — and put together the first detailed portrait of her early years.

Hillary Rodham had grown up in a conservative Republican family in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, before going east to liberal Wellesley College in Massachusetts during the turbulent late 1960s, eventually meeting and teaming up with Bill Clinton to make history.

Chapter 4 in the biography is titled "First Love," and a chapter section is called "Weekends in the Country." Those several pages are what fueled intense interest and speculation here when the book and articles about it appeared in 1999 — interest that has revived during the current campaign season.

Rupert and a number of other college-age "hippies, I guess," rented from the Strohmaiers back then, Henry said. The young man was one of those who stayed on for a while — living in the area for several years and working with the Head Start program in Bennington, before later moving out of state and going on to graduate school at Yale and a career in management.

Rupert passed away in 2009. Secretary of State Clinton was present at a memorial service for him in Connecticut, according to friends of the family.

A passionate side

As described by friends, who Sheehy said had joined Hillary on weekend trips to Vermont to see Rupert, they stayed in a barn they called the "chicken coop," which was partitioned off and had a wood stove.

Friends also termed the long-distance relationship an intense one, Sheehy wrote, and said the two met as competitive, politically active undergrads and Washington interns for different congressmen during the summer of 1968.

The Sheehy biography describes Rupert as "ruthlessly handsome," and Hillary as unconcerned with dressing to accentuate her good looks. The author says Rupert told her Hillary was never wild or frivolous but had a passionate side, and was more able to relax when away from law school.

She was one of only 40 women in her class of 204 students at Yale.

The book also describes a family history involving a stern, conservative task-master father who often withheld praise for his daughter. And the author delves into possible influences that came into play later during Hillary's complex relationship with Bill Clinton and through their tumultuous White House years.

Hillary Rodham met Bill Clinton when he began at Yale law in the fall of 1970, her second year there.

Of course, within a few more years, she would marry Clinton, move to his home state of Arkansas — where he became governor — then become first lady to his president for eight years, then a New York senator, and most recently secretary of state in the Obama administration.

If 2016 goes according to her hopes, Hillary Rodham Clinton will take the oath of office next January as the 45th president and first woman to hold the office. And Bill Clinton will become first gentleman?

Burned cabin restored

As for the little cabin off Jackson Cross Road, it still sits behind its white clapboard farmhouse, which Strohmaier also owns and rents, at the edge of a sloping pasture bordered by woods and across the road from a corn field.

A small former motel cabin has joined the other buildings over time, and a mobile home was added at the far edge of the parcel.

Strohmaier said a small fire several years ago caused smoke damage and required extensive cleaning and some reconstruction work.

"We didn't have enough insurance on it," he said, "and that cost me $10,000 to $15,000 to fix it up, on top of the insurance."

But rather than raze the cabin and start over, Strohmaier said he restored it in part because of its history. Beyond the Hillary Rodham connection, he said his thoughts about that era remain warm ones.

"People talked about the hippies, but I liked them all," he said. "They were all well-educated people, you know, but they were here and they looked up to us. They were always around, and they would say, what a great lifestyle!"

He laughs and looks around the sprawling Strohmaier farmyard, implements and machines connoting hard labor in the harsh elements scattered around — a snow-dusted gravel road, muddy winter pastures nearby, and the smell of cow manure from a nearby barn.

The farm — really several smaller farms now owned by the family — encompasses about 1,000 acres, several farmhouses, barns and wide pastures, woodlands, sugar bush and fields. It stretches along more than a mile on what was once called Middle Pownal Road but now is known as Strohmaier Road.

"I was 20-21 then," Strohmaier said, "and I had never been anywhere, and didn't think I was anything — and had never met anybody like that before. But they looked up to us and — well, they [the young visitors] wanted to know all about farming."

Helping with chores

The farm was founded by the late William Strohmaier and his brother, Otto, in 1929, and by the 1970s it had grown to become one of the largest in the region. In addition to the main farmlands, Strohmaier owns or leases hundreds of acres in surrounding towns.

Henry's brother, Wilhelm "Sonny" Strohmaier, also remembers and liked David Rupert, who he said later lived in a farmhouse near his own home. "I remember him; he wanted to be a teacher," Sonny said.

He said many students or recent college grads either worked for the farm, hung around, helped with sugaring or other chores. He'd also see them on weekends at the popular bars of the era — the B&R in Bennington and The Villager in North Bennington.

Sonny remembers helping to turn the corn crib into a rental unit. "We did it up rustic," he said. "It was all post and beam," and he called in someone with experience in that construction to help out.

"It was the whole back-to-the-land thing then," Henry said. "And it's strange, you know, how that cycles through."

Today, he said, young people — including most of his many grandchildren — are less interested in raw nature than in video-game experiences, and relish the hard life of a farmer even less.

"When they first arrived," he said of Rupert and the others, "they all had those boots [Dunham's] and the pants." He tugs on his overalls. "And they wouldn't be caught dead in a new car."

Some of the young people, including several from Bennington College, kept in touch with the Strohmaiers and returned every so often to visit.

In total, hundreds of people have worked for the farm and/or rented one of the numerous houses, apartments or other structures the Strohmaiers have acquired over the years. Many were obviously from wealthy families, educated and likely headed for success in the wider world, Sonny said.

In particular he remembers young Princess Yasmin Aga, the daughter of actress Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan and later a Bennington College graduate, working for about three hours one day during sugaring season.

"I remember she came back to get her check," he said. "She said it was the first time she had worked and gotten paid."

His son, Stefan Strohmaier, who was a boy at the time, remembered ruefully that the princess didn't have any boots when she arrived, so his grandfather gave her a pair of his.

As for Hillary Rodham Clinton, she's now engaged in a tough primary battle for the Democratic nomination with Bernie Sanders — a senator from Vermont.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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