BRADFORD, Me. — A year ago, Troy Kilby and her three children were living hand to mouth in a shack she had hammered together and covered with sheets of plastic. It stood on land she had bought with a $500 down payment squeezed from a welfare check.
Seeing how she was trying to make it on her own with the Maine winter coming on, neighbors and strangers got together to build her a new home and a barn. Business people and ministers joined in. Passamaquoddy Indians donated cement for the foundation.
It was a fairy tale come true, except that the heroine didn't live happily ever after.
The reality is that this year has been bittersweet for Troy Kilby, with the loss of her job and rifts, which she calls misunderstandings, between her and some neighbors.
Still, the setbacks don't change one fact. "We got something now," she says.
Plastic, Nylon Walls
She bought the 11 acres in July, 1986, for $11,500, with $500 down and a monthly payment of $137. She built the shack in half a day by stretching plastic sheets and white parachute nylon over a frame of cedar poles. One wall of the shack, its tattered plastic flapping in the wind, still stands next to her new home.
The shack was to be temporary. She had already dug the foundation for a two-story frame house she had planned to build pretty much by herself, since she has construction experience. Then summer rains pushed her schedule back, and cold weather came early last year.
When a story about her plight appeared in the Bangor Daily News, volunteers, many of them people from miles away whom she had never met before, built her the place of her own that she had always wanted but never could afford.
On Nov. 12, 1986, about a month after the volunteers went to work, she moved in with her son, Benet, 9, and daughters Jaimi, 7, and Shauna, 4.
Yet even while this town of 1,000 people was opening its heart, a chill was setting in.
Accused of Ingratitude
Some neighbors complained that the 26-year-old divorcee was ungrateful. Some called her haughty. Some said she neglected her children and the cows and pigs she had been given.
"I don't have one good word for her or the whole thing," said Curtis Goodridge, a neighbor who took her to court on complaints that she let her cows run loose, and into his garden.
"All stories aren't 'Fairy Princess,' " said Anne Bossi, a consultant to Heifer Project International, a nonprofit organization that supplies livestock to the poor. The project gave Kilby three cows, but one died and the project demanded the other two back because of improper feeding. "This happens to be a story that is turning sour at the moment."
"I got into an awful lot of trouble over this place," said Kilby, who offered a reply to virtually every complaint, starting with the stress that led to what she called a mini-breakdown on the day the volunteers finished her house.
She was not used to having people around, she said, and she collapsed in tears, and some people may have mistaken her withdrawal for ingratitude.
As for her children, she said, they are well cared for, bathed every other day, sometimes every day, even though she doesn't have running water.
"They're well fed," she said. "They get all the milk they can drink. They get balanced meals."
In mid-October, after working only four months, Kilby lost her $7-an-hour job installing reinforcement rods on construction projects, for absenteeism. She said she had to go to court half a dozen times to answer Goodridge's three complaints. Two were dismissed, and she paid a $35 fine in the third.
She said she had installed an electric fence to confine the cows and pigs, but heavy snows pulled it loose and grounded the low-voltage current. It was repaired this summer.
Recently, she started working on a farm 20 miles away, milking cows at $25 for a six-hour shift. She hopes to obtain a permit to drill a well and install indoor plumbing. The house still needs interior wallboards, light fixtures and additional insulation. The outside, shingled walls need paint and the barn has no roof.
Divorced at age 22 with three children, Kilby has struggled, but she had a goal.
On and Off Welfare
"I did my best to get off of welfare. Before I worked, they (neighbors) complained because I was doing all this on welfare," she said. "And then when I did work and earned my own money and did what I could do with the money and the time that I had, they don't seem satisfied with that either. . . . I wanted a place of my own, and this is the only way I could afford it."
Kilby, who studied veterinary science at the University of Maine at Orono in the 1981-82 school year, denied mistreating the Heifer Project cows. One animal died of natural causes, the Heifer Project took another one back and asked her to return the third.
"I think it's Troy-against-the-world in a lot of situations," said Marjorie Hoffman, who helped Kilby but became disillusioned with her. After state officials declared the shack unfit for habitation, Hoffman loaned the family a trailer to live in while the house was being built.
Picky About House
"She made remarks that she wasn't accepting a gift of vinyl siding because she did not want to live in a house with vinyl siding," said Hoffman. "She was rather specific about what she would accept."
Kilby said she was very grateful for all the assistance and sent everyone homemade thank-you cards with a drawing of the house.
Despite the rift with neighbors, Kilby said, she faces the winter better off than she was a year ago and hopes eventually to farm her land.
"My family has the security now that they hadn't had since we moved out of my mother's," she said. "I'll probably be here for the rest of my life."