…familiar to us all, I felt the need to learn more

My quest began in June of this year.  I happened to read the obituary printed in The Rangeley Highlander of Desider “Desi” Csonger.

I am not in the habit of reading obituaries unless it is about someone I knew.  However, this one caught my interest because it had a solid border around it, and it was accompanied by an interesting photo of Mr. Csonger standing beside the open trunk of his car.  Not the typical obituary photo.  After a couple of sentences, I realized that the deceased was far from the typical dearly departed chronicled in The Rangeley Highlander.  I kept reading.

I soon learned that Desi was born in 1939 in Hungary.  After the end of WWII, Desi and his father were forced to work in coal mines by the occupying Russian/Soviet army.  As Hungary moved toward revolution against the Russians in 1956, Desi and his father escaped in the dark of night to neighboring Austria, and eventually on to America.  At this point my curiosity was most certainly piqued.

The view east from the cabin on the USA hillside toward the Grasshopper Hill Farm buildings. The view beyond is said to be spectacular. However a snowy, gray day on November 2nd intervened

In New York City, Desi was befriended by a local priest who recognized his unique skills and intelligence and arranged for him to attend Rollins College in Florida.  It was at Rollins where he met his wife-to-be of 61 years, Suzanne Wheeler.  They soon headed to Massachusetts, Suzanne’s home state.  They continued to live and raise their family in Massachusetts until early 2020, the year of his passing at the age of 81.

With just two years of college behind him, Desi soon embarked on a career as an inventor and entrepreneur in the then-burgeoning plastics industry.  Over the years, he amassed 17 patents while impressing engineers at M.I.T. and other academic and manufacturing centers with his intelligence.  Eventually his innovations earned him the “Plastics Industry Man of the Year” along the way.  I kept reading with heightened interest, though I had not yet learned what his connection to the Rangeley area was.

I soon learned that Mr. Csonger (pronounced “Chonger”, I believe) was a man of many interests and passions, from fast cars to sailing to flying his small private plane to many other endeavors.

The last sentence of that obituary stated “As all who have visited Rangeley, Maine would know, every Memorial Day he mowed a 300 ft. USA sign on the flank of Grasshopper Hill in full view of those who traveled along Route 4 and for the F16 fighter pilots overhead”.   That sentence answered my first question “What does the life of Desi Csonger have to do with the Rangeley area?”….and set about my quest to learn more about this fascinating and talented man, and his further relationship with this corner of Maine.

After filing this topic away in my mental list of potential columns for a few weeks, I  asked Stephanie at the Highlander office if she had a contact phone number with  Desi’s family that most likely were the ones who placed that unique obit in the local paper.  She made the contact asking if it would be OK if I contacted them for a possible “North by NorthEast” column.  The answer was affirmative in late August, and I got a phone number.  However, I had a few other topics planned by that time, so I didn’t make the call until late September.

I made two or three calls, left messages, but didn’t get a call back.  Then in late October, Desi’s son-in-law, Greg Campbell, returned my call.  We set up a time for a more detailed phone interview, a couple of days later.  That call turned out to be a lengthy, and fascinating, one.  Mr. Campbell was very willing to spend some time with me.  Clearly, he welcomed the idea about the life of his father-in-law, and their very visible property on Route 16 between Rangeley and Oquossoc in a column in The Rangeley Highlander.

Among other answers to my questions, I learned that Desi and his family settled in the Gloucester/North Shore area of Massachusetts.  He started an engineering/manufacturing business in that area as well.  He and Suzanne at some point in the early ‘60s bought what was then known as the Pillsbury Dairy Farm that they then began to spend more and more time at as their second home.  Desi appreciated the 65+ -acre farm mostly for its “wide open spaces”, having experienced the oppression and confining nature of his early years in Hungary under the thumb of what had evolved into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR).

The farm was re-named Grasshopper Hill Farm.  Its handsome, traditional design with red paint covering the house and large barn, and sporting a green metal roof made the farm an easy to spot landmark on the north side of Rangeley Lake and Routes 4/16 connecting both towns on the east and west ends of the lake.

In the ‘80s, Desi established a subsidiary of his engineering business in Massachusetts on the ground floor of the old barn, as a company known as Tribols Engineering.  Its heavy manufacturing machinery dictated that the ground level of the barn be the working part of the company that employed a number of Rangeley area residents.  The Csongers became a well known and respected family who spent as many weeks in the area as they could.  Desi, of course was a very likable, intelligent, and interesting character.  These are traits that I have found as fairly common in this beautiful corner of Maine.  He was one of the early investors in the establishment of Saddleback Ski Area, and had many friends in the local business community.

Mr. Campbell and I agreed to meet further in early November (the snowy Monday before our National Election Day) in the small cabin at the top of hill above the USA inscription to talk further about iconic inscription below.  I learned that the farmhouse and barn along with a few acres on the east side of the structures were sold this summer to what Mr. Campbell described as a very nice couple from the Brunswick, Maine area, and who will maintain the farm buildings much as they are today.  That was good news to me, and I’m sure to many others reading this account.

The Csonger family retained much of the land of the original 65+ acres, and a few years ago, they moved the small cabin to its location on top of the hill from their land on the lake side of Route 16.   We met in the woodstove-heated, and very cozy cabin to continue our conversation on that Monday.  Greg and one of his sons were up to the cabin for a few days since his son wanted to do some deer hunting on their farmland.  The very timely 3” of snow (see photo) on the weekend helped with the hunting, I’m sure.  However, I never found out how successful his pursuit of a wily whitetail buck turned out.

Monday, November 2nd was a cold, snowy day, so I could not see the expansive view of the mountains from Saddleback all the way to the Bigelows, but I was told that it was one of the family’s favorite places on the farm, and I had no reason to doubt the gorgeous panorama to the east.

From the beginning years of his life as an immigrant to the United States, Desi loved this country and fully appreciated the opportunities that it afforded him, a very talented addition to the diversity that makes up who we are as a nation.  In the early 90s, during the very brief Gulf War, F-16 fighters flew low over the Rangeley area on training flights.  Many of us remember those brief, but noisy, flyovers.  Desi decided to take out his old Ford tractor and hay mower and carve the first USA in the hillside.  He basically did it “free hand”, and it turned out pretty good.  His innate engineer’s ability to visualize a project likely helped a lot.

It was an instant success since travelers on the highway, and apparently fighter pilots as well, soon got in the habit of looking for it whenever they passed.  For the past 30 years, I have certainly noticed it (when not covered by snow half of the year, of course) accompanied by a brief memory from one of America’s most memorable sports moments….the crowd in Lake Placid chanting U-S-A, U-S-A … after the upstart American hockey team beat the powerful Soviet team in the 1980 Winter Olympics.  I’m sorry, but that’s what comes to mind often when I pass Desi’s handiwork.

The Csonger family got many compliments over the years for their steadfast maintenance of what has become a landmark in this area.  Greg and his sons, as you have surely noticed, have maintained those three mowed letters in recent years as it became more difficult for Desi to keep up with the mowing.  They even got a mounted and framed “thank you” message (see photo) from one very appreciative family who summer on Rangeley Lake.  The message, which hangs on the wall of the little cabin on the hill, bears reprinting here:

A colorful painting of the Grasshopper Hill Farm buildings hanging inside the cabin on the hill. Desi Csonger’s son-in-law, Greg Campbell, holds the framed letter (also hanging on the cabin wall). Its text is in the body of this column

Friday, August 15, 2014

Hello,

I want to thank you for taking the time to cut the “USA” in your field.

My grandfather was Leo Taylor that started Taylor’s IGA.  Many of my aunts and uncles lived and worked in this region, and although my father, Robert Taylor, did not work here, we spent at least a month here every summer.  I have continued to come here all my life with my family.  My wife and I now own my parent’s camp on the west shore of Rangeley (lake).

The reason I am writing all this is that 3 of my 4 sons, ages 25, 28, and 32 have been up to Rangeley this summer for several weeks at a time.  What I found interesting is that one of the first things they noticed was that “USA” was still in the field.

Over the years it has engendered many emotions in our car while driving by from chants of “USA, USA” during Olympic years to knowing there really can be some stability in this chaotic world.

Even if you stopped the mowing tomorrow, that would be understood, but I thought you would like to know how such a simple act would accomplish so much.

Marc Taylor

XXX Rumford Road

(NOTE:  I believe that Leo Taylor of the original Taylor IGA was also the grandfather of Capt. Neil Taylor, the pilot from Rangeley who was lost over Vietnam in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War.)

One of the last points that Greg Campbell made during our discussion on November 2nd in that little cabin, was that he was amazed that, with the proliferation of political signs all over the Rangeley area these past 3 or 4 months, nobody chose to politicize their USA in the field with any signs on, or in front of it.  I agreed completely and said I think that says something about who we really are as Americans in some small way.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are.

                                                                       Garrison Keillor

Respect Science, Respect Nature,
Respect Each Other, and Respect the Truth.
….and Thank You for Voting!

Per usual, your comments and thoughts are more than welcome.  Simply fire off an email to [email protected]

 

 

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