Hazel and Helen Thony were born several minutes apart in 1919, together weighing scarcely nine pounds. They were a surprise to their parents, first-generation Swiss immigrants, whose dairy farm sat at the top of Swiss Hill Road, just outside Jeffersonville, NY. At the time, the town was little more than a small constellation of businesses: a pharmacy, a few restaurants, a butcher shop and a blacksmith’s forge. The Thony Twins, as they became known, attracted quite a bit of attention since multiple births were then relatively unusual and many people would stop by to catch a glimpse of the young girls. “We were very bashful,” remembers Helen, “so we would run and hide until they went away.”
Nearly a century later, the twins are decidedly less reserved. Petite and bird-like, they are both very warm and friendly, with a pronounced twinkle and a touch of mischief. Helen now lives just across the road from the original dairy—their younger brother’s family still runs the farm—and she’s a familiar and welcome face in the area. One neighbor, Forbes March, tells the story of stepping outside his house one evening to find Helen weeding his carrot patch in the waning light. “She’d noticed that I wasn’t doing it right,” he laughs in amazement, “so she came by to take care of it herself!” It’s clear that being of service to others is deeply ingrained in the twins’ way of life.
Despite their advanced age, these are not idle women. Quilters, cooks and gardeners in their day—including tending plots for the town and the church—they are still intent on being useful and remaining engaged with the world. Both regularly inquire how they can help, regardless of the circumstance. They are active and beloved members of Jeffersonville’s First Presbyterian Church and are quick to reminisce about the long-ago days when they walked the two miles to Sunday school. During the week, a bus came to take them to the local school.Life on the farm was all-consuming. Their grandfather made Swiss cheese in a big wooden mold and their mother made dandelion wine and apple cider. They grew all their own vegetables and sold milk from their cows. For fun they went fishing for bullheads, a type of local catfish, in Thony’s pond, which, despite its name, was located on a neighbor’s property. “We each had our own little garden,” says Hazel, “and we didn’t go anywhere unless we walked,” though Helen remembers riding on a wagon to the strawberry fields and picking berries the likes of which she rarely finds these days. Recently, she came close at the Callicoon Farmers Market—“It’s the best farmers market, they have everything and anything.” Getting up to rinse some cherries for a visitor, she offers them with the caveat that they could be sweeter. Modern fruit, never allowed to fully ripen, cannot compare to what once was.
“If you live here, you’re a local.”
Growing up on Swiss Hill, there was a black cherry tree that is recalled fondly and with a hint of sadness. “It got very old and died,” says Helen. When asked if she herself feels ready to go, she doesn’t take long to answer with quiet conviction, “As long as I can take care of myself and do what I’m supposed to do, I don’t mind it.” There was no shortage of enthusiasm at even the simple prospect of a lunch outing. The twins dine out regularly with a local chapter of the Red Hat Society, a global organization of women who wear red hats and celebrate life at every age. In the company of a reporter and friend, they were greeted as regulars at the White Sulphur Springs Inn, a favorite destination. Hazel ordered a delightfully decadent meal—onion rings, rice pudding and a glass of red wine—but ate modestly. Helen tucked into her favorite chicken wings with relish. “They’re tender and you can have a little sauce to dip them.”
With heads that incline in opposite directions, Helen and Hazel sometimes appear like a mirror image of one another but in spite of being twins, they are easily distinguished. They have no private language and don’t finish each other’s sentences, but the connection between them—beyond the merely physical—is clearly profound. “We think the same,” says Helen. “We never fight or argue,” adds Hazel. For decades, they lived in separate towns after Hazel married and moved to Tyler Hill, PA, where she and her husband raised their four children. During World War II, she went to work in a Newark factory, “making little formica things” for the war effort. Helen married a man who grew up down the road from the farm and they had three children. The sisters would travel the 50 miles that separated them by horse and wagon to visit each other whenever they could.
Now they are together almost daily, though each one has her own home. Hazel still grows tomatoes and beans in back, and Helen tends lovely flowerbeds. Pressed for details about their past, the twins can seem a little hazy, but grounded in the moment, they are informed and focused. They’re also pretty clear on their definition of what it means to be local. “Our parents came here from Switzerland and bought land,” says Helen, “and I guess that made them local.” She ponders that for a moment. “If you live here, you’re a local.” And if you’ve lived here for a century, you become something of an authority on that.