Kate Redus spent years combing the countryside for dairy farms all over the northeast with her grandfather Tom Harrison, who owned a whitewashing business.
“North overshoe, two buckles up,” her grandfather would tell her while they were looking for a particular farm.
“I never knew what that was,” Redus said. “I don’t even know, still to this day.”
Redus, who lives in Fort Ann, now runs the whitewashing business her grandfather started 50 years ago. The two worked together for years driving to dairy farms all over the northeast to perform a service that barely exists anymore.
Now that Redus and her sister Kelly Brooking run the show, they struggle most with directions.
“He had every country road in a map in his brain,” Redus said of Harrison, who started whitewashing back in 1969. “We’ve gotten turned around so many times. And Gramp, you’d ask him where any road was, he’d spout out directions. He was a whiz when it came to that.”
Tom Harrison was a driver for a dairy farm in Vermont back in 1969 when a buddy urged him to whitewash his barn for him. He bought an old pickup truck and orchard sprayer for $100 and learned how to mix and spray whitewash. It soon grew into a full-time job, which he ran out of his farm in White Creek.
Stanchion farms — or farms where cows are still milked inside the barn — are required to be whitewashed in order to pass inspection. The combination of lime and water sanitizes the barn, brightens it up and keeps it clean.
The technique has become more popular as of late because people are using it for decorating purposes on their homes.
“People are trying to mimic now,” said Redus, who started working with her grandfather after she graduated from Hudson Falls in 2004. She took some time off to go to massage school and raise a family, but then went back to whitewashing in 2010.
She and her grandfather traversed farmland and back country roads together until his death in November of 2017 at the age of 81.
Redus, who is also an artist, calls her job “magical.”
“Every day you’re on beautiful country roads, seeing beautiful countryside,” she said. “It’s always an adventure. You really don’t know what the day is going to bring.”
The people she meets are from a simpler life, where families worked together and handed down the farm to the next generation.
“He knew everybody, so just watching him communicate with people was the greatest, and share stories,” she said. “He was just the best.”
When she makes her annual trips to whitewash, the farmers share their memories of Harrison, who left an indelible mark on their lives as well. The farmers, too, were devastated when Harrison died.
He built quite a legacy, Redus said, and touched many people.
“Now we get there,” she said, “that’s the first thing they want to do is talk about Gramp.”
But mostly, Redus enjoyed the time she spent with her grandfather in the truck, driving for hours, listening to his stories and many words of wisdom.
Just after he died, she wrote down some of his best words of advice, which she titled, “Lessons from a Legend.”
“Gramps taught me that you should never underestimate the adventures that can come out of a normal, routine day,” she wrote. “That every good story begins in the most unexpected moment. That you never know when you’re making a memory. Whether we were out on the open road, or working together in the barn, or tinkering in the Creek, one thing was always for certain: we were creating stories for our book.”
From May to November, Redus and Brooking hit the roads together to carry on their grandfather’s business. They put on hazmat-type suits and blow dust and cobwebs out of dairy barns before the whitewashing commences.
Although there are fewer family farms, Redus still has enough whitewashing work to turn a profit.
“It’s sad how fast they’ve declined,” she said. “They really are falling off with the big farms.”
When she was 18, they used to whitewash four or five barns a day. Now it’s one or two a day. They may whitewash 100 or more farms in a season.
“People are shocked when we pull up, that’s for sure,” she said. “It’s funny. Because it’s not glorious work. It’s gross, a lot of it.”
Gross, but magical.
“It makes me proud because I know it’s something my Gramp loves to see,” Redus said. “He raised women upon women, so to see this all-girl crew rolling out the driveway and doing the work that he built, it’s an amazing feeling.”
They keep his hat and gloves on the dashboard of the truck as a reminder of the legacy he left behind. Carrying on his business is a sort of gateway into Harrison’s life, a place where they can still connect with him and see the world through his eyes, while he supervises from above, Redus said.
“He always put his hat on when the job was done to go collect the bill,” Redus said. “So the hat, in the meantime, sat on the dashboard.”
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