Book Marks: Vermont's vanishing legacy, in words and pictures
Vermont may be the most self-conscious state in the union. The annual outpouring of books with photographs of fall foliage, winter wonderlands, spring flowers, and summer recreation on our lakes, ponds, and rivers is prodigious. Our many poets wax eloquent about that beauty, and a plethora of novelists set their characters and story lines among the mountains, valleys, and towns that run the north-south axis of the Green Mountains or along Lake Champlain in the west and the Connecticut River to the east. And there are the two high quality magazines focused on Vermont.
But not all the news is good in the Green Mountain State, and Peter Miller's photo-essay book `Vanishing Vermonters: Loss of a Rural Culture' (Silver Print Press, 2017) delves into the angst in paradise. Miller, an accomplished and much-awarded photographer, has published five previous photography books about his adopted state of Vermont. Those books focused on individuals and couples who made their living in farming and other manual jobs. The theme was work as the primary value and the bedrock upon which Vermont was built.
In his latest book, Miller combines photographs with transcripts of interviews with 23 Vermonters who discuss how the state has changed and express their opinions about the past, present, and future for Vermont. Each interview is preceded by a fine photographic portrait and a brief biography of the subject, and each interview is followed by several beautiful black and white photographs of barns, cows, and other iconic Vermont subjects. Those interviewed range from the easily recognized and well-known (former governor, Howard Dean, author and commentator Bill Schubart, Executive Director of the Vermont Preservation Society, Paul Bruhn, and conservative commentators and authors of The Vermont Papers, John McClaughry and Frank Bryan) to everyday Vermonters — retirees, farmers, craft beer brewers, auto mechanics, saw mill operators, and even a pickle producer and distributor.
Miller doesn't offer these opinions as a representative sample, nor does he strive for balance in the views that are expressed. Rather, there is a consistent theme in these interviews: the rural Vermont that has been the state's heritage and identity for two hundred years has disappeared and what remains is a poor substitute. The independence and self-sufficiency that enabled Vermonters to live by the rewards of their own hard work, creativity, and skill whether on the farm or in the village in the past are not enough to ensure survival in the face of high taxes, expensive housing, and low wages in today's world.
The story that emerges from Miller's interviews would place the beginning of the decline and disappearance of that world with the building of the Interstate highway system in the 1960's. Before that, the relative isolation of Vermont and its communities both required and ensured that independence and self-sufficiency would endure. With the new highway system, `folks from away' began to flood the state. Residents of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey began to buy up farms, tear down old barns, and build large, expensive new homes. According to Miller's interviewees, the invaders from the south demanded paved roads, better schools, and other services. When those were not forthcoming, they became active in town politics, getting elected to selectboards and eventually running for the State legislature in Montpelier. There, they have accelerated the decline of the state with high taxes, onerous regulations, and laws which moved authority and power from local control to the state capitol.
The result has been a marked increase in the cost of living in Vermont, marginalizing those whose livelihoods depend on manual labor and whose lifestyle embraced a close relationship with the land and the local economy with its traditionally low property taxes and affordable housing. McClaughry in his interview goes so far as to identify `the inflection point in Vermont's modern history' as the election of Philip Hoff in 1962 as the first Democratic governor since the 1850's and the subsequent reapportionment of the state legislature from `one town, one vote' to `one man, one vote' (a change, he neglects to mention, that was required by the U.S. Supreme Court). From farmer to auto mechanic, from saw mill operator to general store owner, the stories in Miller's interviews are the same — gone are the days when Vermonters can live independently and comfortably without the intrusion of the government and the world.
While this theme has major elements of truth, it is not the whole story. Yes, Vermont has changed, but this is not solely or even primarily the result of the influx of flatlanders, the election of Democrats, or the actions of out-of-touch legislators in Montpelier. Rather, it is the result of the rapidly changing world outside Vermont in which milk prices in Waitsfield are more dependent on the output of factory farms in California than on Vermont's weather, where fixing a new car depends more on computer systems programmed by the German manufacturer than on welding skills, where a saw mill's revenue depends on the building of new houses for new residents of the state, and where the internet enables people to work from home and work with others around the world.
Miller's book serves to highlight the effect of these changes on individuals and reminds us of what has been lost, but I believe that he would agree that it's time to stop mourning the past and focus on what comes next.
How do we protect the natural beauty of our state, the well-being of its inhabitants, and the future of our children given the world we live in? No matter how much we long for a return to the world of Ethan Allen's Republic of Vermont, the wealth of the Merino sheep industry before the Civil War, or the small town virtues of the Green Mountain State in the post-World War II years, there's no turning the clock back.
While Miller's book may be a reminder of the past, it also hints at a successful blueprint for the future---a channeling of the Vermont independent spirit into the entrepreneurial initiatives displayed in two of the interviews. Jen and John Kimmich have translated their interest in craft beer brewing into the nationally acclaimed Alchemist Brewing Company in Stowe where locals and tourists line up for their six packs well before opening time. Steve Norse skipped college and turned his interest in wood-working and pipe-smoking into the one man company Vermont Freehand that is the largest supplier of pipe-making supplies and operates out of a barn in Dorset sending materials to 135 countries.
As the people in Miller's book indicate, the past is gone but the independence, creativity, and hard work — those old time Vermont virtues — remain and are the keys to future success. It won't look exactly like the Vermont of the past, but for those who love the mountains, valleys, lakes, and rivers of our beautiful state, the future can again be bright.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, and in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.