By KATHLEEN SWANSON, Islander Contributor
SOUTH HERO - Pam Allen said she was in the market in the early 1990s for a gentle, older horse she could ride around Allenholm Farm in South Hero for pleasure.
She and Ray Allen, who own Allenholm, found a 4-H horse for sale in Derby Line that fit the bill and on October 30, 1993 the two traveled up to the Northeast Kingdom with their trailer to check out the horse named Buck.
“When we got there the guy said if you buy this horse you can have this donkey,” said Ray Allen, whose family has run Allenholm Farm on South Street for seven generations.
Ray and Pam thought maybe a 10-month-old donkey might be a good addition to Allenholm’s Petting Paddock and said O.K. And by the way, the Derby Line guy said, his name is Willy.
The name fit and the two loaded Buck and Willy into the trailer and brought them home to South Hero.
Willy never entered a trailer again - living his life happily as the ambassador and donkey destination icon of Allenholm until his death on February 10 at the age of 27.
In those 27 years, his bray could be heard around the island and hundreds of people would come to get the signature Willy peppermint candy kiss - which involved putting a peppermint candy between your lips and letting Willy gently extract it. Scout troops, apple pickers, campers and even a U.S. Congressman came to visit Willy.
“He was a gentle soul,” Ray said. “Little kids could hug his hind leg or get a ride on his back. Willy was always the star at the paddock.” Among other animals, the paddock over the years had a miniature donkey named Sassafras, a Scottish Highland cow named Fergie, goats, sheep, chickens, miniature horses and ponies.
“We have a lot of people who visit the Islands and come from big cities,” Ray said. “Many of these kids have never been able to touch an animal, let alone a farm animal.”
Willy was a regular “guest” on WOKO 98.9 Burlington’s country station, which gave him a memorial send off last week.
Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a summer camp for children with cancer, was interested in having Willy visit the South Hero camp a few years back. The problem was that Willy refused to get into the trailer no matter what Ray and Pam did to cajole him.
Instead, Ray walked Willy from Allenholm, up South Street, down U.S. Route 2 and then up Sunset View Road to the camp. It took an hour and a half each way. The campers loved it, including a blind girl who was brave enough to put the peppermint in her mouth and receive the gentle Willy smooch.
“He was extremely smart,” Pam said. In the area around the farm stand Willy would often run free. “He could open any door, undo any latch especially if there was food on the other side,” she said.
Every attempt to make the grain shed impenetrable was thwarted. “He would figure out every latch and get in. One time he picked up a 25 pound grain bag and dropped it so it broke open and he could get at it.”
Amazingly he was never overweight.
Allenholm, which is celebrating its 150 years of continuous operation as an orchard this year, is planning a memorial celebration to honor Willy the weekend of May 22.
People are encouraged to bring photos of their visit with Willy and share memories. More information will be on the Allenholm website: https://www.allenholm.com.
The 150 year anniversary celebration will happen later this summer, said Ray. Stay tuned for plans to be announced in the coming months.