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Sue Bush
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Berkshire Profile: David Larabee:"Deep Roots Can't Be Broken"

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Sunday, August 06, 2006

David Larabee with horses "Babe" and "Bob."
Welcome to Berkshire Profile, an iberkshires weekly feature appearing on Sunday. Each week, iberkshires will highlight a Berkshires resident or entity making a contribution to the Berkshires way of life.

Williamstown - With his hands and his heart he built his home and his hearth and during an Aug. 5 interview, David Larabee of Henderson Road said he wouldn't have it any other way in any other place.

"This is home," said Larabee, 53. "I have deep roots here that can't be broken."

Strong Town Heritage


Nikki Larabee with Belgian draft horse "Karen."
Larabee's home is built on land once owned by his father and grandfather. His great-grandfather William Larabee owned a homestead on North Hoosac Road and his great grandfather William Godfrey operated a farm on Henderson Road.

Both great-grandfathers lived to be 100 years old, Larabee said.

"Of course, neither one of them smoked or drank," he said.

The former Godfrey property is now the Gross farm. Larabee shared the story of Godfrey's death.

"He'd worked all morning, splitting wood," Larabee said. "He was feeling good. Then, like people that age would, he took a nap after lunch. He just never woke up."

Godfrey frequently whittled wooden spikes for use on a spike-tooth harrow, a tool commonly used on past-day farms. At the time of his death, "there were barrels filled with hundreds of these spikes," Larabee said.

"Back then, you never knew when you might need one," he said.

Army Veteran

Larabee attended the former Broad Brook elementary school and spent fifth and sixth grades at the the former Southworth School. He then enrolled at Mount Greylock Regional High School, and spent one year at the Charles H. McCann Technical School.

He ultimately entered the U.S. Army in 1971 and spent three years, one month and 22 days as a member of the military, he said.

While in the Army, he completed his high school education at the Kaiserslautern High School, an American school located in Germany. Larabee's daughter Frances, named for his mother, was born in Germany after Larabee and his wife Nikki were married in 1973.

Daughters Melissa and Sandra and son David were born in the United States, after Larabee was honorably discharged from the Army.

Board By Board, Blister By Blister

Larabee built the family home bit by bit and never took a mortgage on the house, he said.

"We moved in with my father in 1974 and we went hunting for a piece of property to buy," he said. "I wanted a farm, I wanted horses."

After an exhaustive local search that resulted in "nothing I could afford to buy," Larabee's father offered to give him a piece of land. Larabee accepted the offer and during the mid-1970s began construction on a new home.

The cellar hole was dug partly by a small tractor "and a lot of it was dug by hand," Larabee said. Once the foundation was poured, Larabee capped it with logs and lumber for the winter and started building again in the spring.

The result is truly "the house that Dave built."

Larabee said that during the building process, he sought the services of family friend and carpenter Wes Pecor. Pecor offered to teach Larabee how to do most of the work himself, and Larabee agreed to tackle the job.

"I was working one of the odd shifts, second or third, I think third, at General Cable, and Wes would come up to see how I was doing," Larabee said. "He'd get me started on the next thing. I had never swung a hammer and I was soft; I got water blisters and they popped and then I got blood blisters and they popped. So one day here I am, blood dripping down and Wes says 'Don't worry, you'll toughen up by the time this house is built.' And I did."

When the basement was completed, the family moved in and lived there while the rest of the house was built. "Moving in day" was a Thanksgiving Day, Larabee recalled.

"I never took a mortgage [on the house]," Larabee said. "If I could afford three sheets of plywood or a bag of nails that week, that's what I bought."

Friends and family members helped with the building and the process delivered much more than construction skills to Larabee and his wife, he said.

"It's like 'don't touch it, it's mine,'" he said. "There's pride of ownership in something that has so much of you in it."

"Building a home this way makes you appreciate things," Nikki Larabee said.

Nikki Larabee completed a post-secondary medical assistant curriculum at the Charles H. McCann Technical High School and is currently employed at the Williamstown Medical Associates.

David Larabee worked at General Cable for 15 years and left the company when it ceased operations at a Water Street mill. After a brief stint as a truck driver, he was hired to work at the town Department of Public Utilities. He is a Faith Scarborough Award honoree and earned the recognition largely because of his efforts to launch the Turner House, a residence for military veterans who are working toward self-improvement.

Turner House Project

The Turner House was first the home of World War II veteran Furman Turner. Turner was living at the home and needed some assistance getting the house "buttoned up" for an upcoming winter, Larabee said. Larabee was the commander of the Richard R. Ruether American Legion Post 152 at the time and Legion members decided to help Turner and fund the necessary repairs.

When a group of volunteers assessed the project, it became apparent that extensive repairs were required. The Post 152 Legionnaires opted to fund Turner's stay at an area motel for six months, beginning in October, and about three months later, Turner offered to donate the house to Post 152, Larabee said.

Discussions with the town's veteran's agent, social services groups, the town building inspector, and others led to a decision to create a home for veterans who were homeless and needed a chance to get back on their feet. No one wanted a "flophouse," Larabee said; what was desired was a place that could provide genuine opportunities for veterans willing to "stay and work on getting their lives together."

"We looked into grants and it happened to be at that time when the federal government was actually aware of the homeless problem," Larabee said.

To convert the house into a nine bedroom residence would take about $318,000, it was discovered, and the proposal earned $207,000 in federal funds, Larabee said. Much of the remaining funds were raised locally and in 2001, the Turner House was completed. Numerous veterans have found a haven at the property over the past five years.

Horses, Sleigh Rides and Hay Rides

Larabee and his golden-colored Belgian draft horses are a familiar sight to those who visit the Hancock Shaker Village or attend community events such as the town's Holiday Walk.

Larabee currently owns three horse, Karen, Bob, and Babe, and has bought and built a collection of wagons, sleighs, and carriages - all horse-drawn- for his "Specialty Carriage and Wagons" business.

The business provides sleigh, carriage, wagon and hay rides to groups and Larabee's horse-drawn services have been hired for weddings, marriage proposals, proms, anniversaries, retirements, and birthdays.

Among the memorable junkets was a hay ride given as part of a wedding celebration to family members from Beijing, China.

"One of the ladies had never seen a horse," Larabee said. "She enjoyed it."

His claim is substantiated by a photograph of the woman sitting on the driver's seat alongside Larabee, holding the reins and smiling.

Next Up: A Trolley?

His building skills have come a long way from the days of having never swung a hammer; he's built sleighs from scrap lumber, including wood that was left over from the construction of daughter Sandy and son-in-law Dan Racine's home. He built a black box meant for use in a funeral procession and the horse-drawn box, which can hold a casket, has been used during a local funeral.

He has renovated numerous wagons, and he has an idea taking shape.

"I'm thinking about building a trolley," he said. "I've always got two projects going on at the same time. I enjoy myself tinkering with stuff around here. In the winter, I'm out in the garage [ known by Larabee and family members as 'manland'] for hours."

Promise Made, Promise Kept

Larabee is keeping a promise made to his father, he said.

"I promised my father that this land would never be sold," he said, and added that each of his children will have a piece of the property for a home of their own. The Racine home has already been built and another daughter is planning to live in a home to be erected on the property, he said.

The concept of keeping property in the family is a good one, said Dan Racine, whose family also operates a farm.

"It's nice being around family," he said.

Sandy Racine echoed her husband's sentiments. Her sons are able to visit their maternal grandparents without traveling roads or sidewalks, and are able to live surrounded with rich family heritage, she said.

"I know that I wouldn't change living next to my mom and dad for the world and I can't think of a better place for my husband and I to raise our boys," she said.

A Working Man's Voice

A working family man, property owner and taxpayer, Larabee has opinions and is willing to share them.

He does not support the ability of Williams College students to vote during town elections, he said. The students should be able to vote on issues that affect their hometowns through absentee ballots, Larabee said.

"I don't agree with the college kids voting in the town elections here because they don't have to finance any of it," he said.

Property taxes in town are a major concern for Larabee, who loves the town and his connection to it.

"[Rising property taxes] hurts those of us who intend to live here for our entire lives," he said.

Firmly Planted Here

Years of doing it his way are deeply etched into Larabee's spirit and when one surveys the home he built, the family he and his wife raised, the horses and farm he wanted and acquired, and his old-time tough ancestry, it is easy to understand his thoughts and the sincerity of his words

"I was born and raised here," Larabee said. "This is what I know. I'm going to be right here 'til I drop."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.

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