How they saw us then
Seventy-five years ago, a summer visitor to the state would most likely have consulted the Guide to Vermont, published in 1937 by the Federal Writers’ Project — part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Today the Guide offers an intriguing look at how much Vermont has changed since that time, and how much it’s stayed the same.
From the very first sentence of the preface, the Guide celebrates community and cooperation, which is appropriate given that it was written by multiple authors as part of a New Deal employment project.
The preface asserts that out of a zealous desire to preserve Vermont’s oversimplified reputation for individualism, people have long overlooked numerous examples of cooperation in Vermont, including, for example, the first Community Church in the nation, cooperative creameries, and house-raisings of earlier days. “New Englanders have always had to work together,” it argues. I thought the book protested a bit too much, but interestingly, the description of the state as a collaborative place does bring it more into line with Vermont’s contemporary community spirit and abundant social capital.
Providing “General Background” are a dozen short essays on various topics. The shortest essay is on Racial Elements, which actually deals with the nationality of new immigrants to the state and not their race. The History chapter perpetuates the myth of early Vermont as a place empty of any real Indian settlement. Our understanding of Vermont before contact with Europeans has changed since the 1930s.
The essay about Transportation notes that Burlington is the state’s only “radio-equipped” airport. It also notes that electric trolley cars connect many towns, including Springfield, Vt., and Charlestown, N.H., with nine trips daily, four on Sunday. Would that we had such convenient public transportation in Vermont now, especially as we seek to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
The Recreation essay predicts, inaccurately, the creation of the Green Mountain National Park — “[which] would extend from Mount Ellen to the Lamoille Valley and would include Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump.” And the Flora and Fauna chapter reports that a moose hasn’t been killed in Vermont for decades.
The Guide’s descriptions of some Vermont towns are surprising. For example, it says, “There is an aloof, independent spirit about Montpelier and its people, a coldness bordering on indifference. While the town displays an interest in the cultural phases of life, it remains backward in several respects. ... A community of ‘white-collar workers,’ in part transient, lacks the social vitality which a more balanced economy supplies.” That doesn’t sound like the Montpelier of today. Barre’s granite-cutters are described in thinly veiled language about its new immigrants, as “hard-working and hard-playing,” “notoriously a free-spending and pleasure-seeking people” who contribute to Barre’s “fast and lusty tempo.” And it calls Woodstock “one of the most charming villages in northern New England,” adding that although a resort community, Woodstock “has nevertheless retained the somewhat astringent quality of its native personality.” Apparently that’s meant as a compliment, one applicable to the state as a whole.
We learn about ourselves in part from seeing ourselves as others see us, and by knowing about our past. This book helps us do both.
Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. This essay was first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.