Dave Trachte first suspected that a painting thought to be Norman Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties was a forgery when, a few years ago, he looked closely at the face: The young boy in the painting was clearly different from the one in the original Saturday Evening Post cover from the 1960s. The fake would soon be revealed, the authentic painting discovered behind a secret wall in a Vermont cabin and subsequently sold for a small fortune.
The story began in 1949, when Dave’s parents, Don and Betty Trachte, moved to our small town from the Midwest after a brief visit during which Don found that Norman Rockwell and a half-dozen other artists were living in the area. They purchased a charming white farmhouse that still sits by the banks of an S turn in the Green River, the perfect spot for their three sons, Don, John, and Dave, and their daughter, Marge, to grow up. Their house was literally a stone’s throw from the Yellow Farmhouse, where I spent most of my childhood summers, Dave and I haying and making trouble together during the late ’50s and ’60s. Since we were both too small to throw heavy bales, we would take turns driving the “off-road” Chevy pickup in the fields. When it was his turn to drive, Dave could reach the clutch but didn’t know how to shift. One day, he ran over a bale, and one of the farmworkers, Herbie, yelled out, “Back it up, dammit, back it up!” Dave had to just keep on going in the only direction he knew: forward.
Dave remembers Marie Briggs, the cook at the Yellow Farmhouse, who could feed any last-minute crowd: a noon dinner of pot roast, mashed potatoes, biscuits, beans, carrots, anadama bread, and molasses cookies for dessert. Things didn’t always go as planned, however. One winter day, Dave noticed a pile of burning logs in the driveway. He discovered that Herbie had stacked wet wood in the Kalamazoo woodstove in order to dry it out; it had burst into flames and had to be rushed outside.
The best storyteller in the small farmhouse, someone I worked for in the 1960s, was Floyd Bentley, portrayed as the father in Breaking Home Ties, who spent winters entertaining visitors from his rocking chair. Dave stopped by one day when Chet Hayes was visiting, and Floyd said to Chet about a local family, “Boy, those Moffitts were tough.” Chet replied, “Had to shoot ’em all to start a cemetery.” Dave’s father once asked Floyd how many horses he owned. Floyd didn’t answer right away; Don thought that he hadn’t heard the question. After a minute or so, Floyd looked up, having finished counting, and said, “Forty-two.” Another time, Floyd told about Charlie Bentley Sr., who was driving toward Beartown when he hit a large bump in the road. One of the guys in the back seat called out, “Charlie, you must’a hit a calf!” They had run over a tipsy George Thomas, who seemed, oddly enough, no worse for wear.
Don Trachte drew the Henry comic strip, which began in 1932 with a sketch that its creator, the cartoonist and illustrator Carl Anderson, had thrown into a wastebasket. Don retrieved it and sent it to the Saturday Evening Post, which immediately printed it, later attracting the interest of King Features, which syndicated Henry in 1934. A dozen years later, when Anderson died, Don drew the strip on Sundays, and even today it is printed in 75 newspapers nationwide.
Henry was always a bit of a throwback, a mute child trying to find solutions to life’s problems with nothing more than street smarts. Horse-drawn delivery carts and 5-cent ice cream cones were not uncommon; perhaps it was no coincidence that Don moved to a Vermont town that hadn’t changed much in almost 200 years. Neither had Henry. But that, of course, was the joy of it, a smart, stripped-down approach to the funnies: Henry hangs a portrait of his dog at ground level, so his pet can admire it; a man asks how Henry got a black eye and Henry hauls off and gives him one by way of explanation; Henry uses a popgun (it has a cork on a string) to remove a neighbor’s aching tooth.
Meanwhile, Don’s life was much like Henry’s: building a pinewood derby car that won first place for his son John, or drawing strips based on what his kids were up to. One comic showed Henry hitting a rock in a shallow pond with a kayak. (His son Don was fond of the sport.) He stood up, legs sticking through the bottom, and then simply walked toward shore. He drew a strip featuring Dave’s garage; Henry uses an air hose to play a trumpet. You can see the mechanic, Dave himself, in the background, holding his ears.
Dave hadn’t thought much about his father’s skill as an artist until he showed up at Dave’s school to give drawing lessons. A half-circle on the blackboard was magically transformed into a face, a hat, or a dog. Rockwell, of course, who had lived in our town until 1953, was more of a public persona since he used many locals in his illustrations, including Carl Hess, who ran the gas station (Carl was the upstanding figure in Town Meeting), Cliff McKee (the smiling guy with the blue cap in The Gossip), and Cliff’s mother, who appeared in The Charwomen.
In 2003, Don moved into assisted living, and Breaking Home Ties was moved down to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. After it was hung for display, questions arose about its authenticity. The plot thickened when Dave examined his dad’s photographs. On the same roll, he found both paintings: the original, and what was clearly a fake. Tellingly, the original oil painting was the last shot on the negatives, so it was clear that it was not a case of altering the original.
Dave drove down to his father’s house to solve the mystery once and for all. One mirrored wall looked suspicious. He pulled back a small piece of paneling that had sprung loose. Grabbing a flashlight, he peered inside and spied a canvas. After more fiddling, he realized that when a lower shelf of a bookcase was pulled out, the entire wall slid out along an ingenious track, revealing a secret compartment. Finally, sitting where it had been hidden for over 30 years, along with seven original Don Trachte works, was the real Breaking Home Ties. It turned out that Don had purchased it from Rockwell himself in the early 1960s, painted a near-perfect copy for display, and then stashed the Rockwell masterpiece for safekeeping.
Don Trachte and Henry remind us that the world can still be a simple place; all we have to do is draw it that way. A half-circle quickly becomes a face, then an idea, and then a way of looking at life. Dave still lives just up the road from the old homestead. He hunts in the fall, fishes in summer, and speaks slowly and deliberately like a steam engine warming up. If you stop by our small mountain town, you’ll find that the world of Henry is alive and well in our hills and hollows, just as Henry himself is still a young, inquisitive boy in the timeless world of cartoon syndication.
To view samples of the Henry comic strip, click the two links below: