In the spring of 1927, “National Geographic” profiled the Green Mountain State. The Vermont that the magazine shared with the world was at once recognizably ours, expectedly anachronistic, and weirdly prophetic. Portland, Oregon reader Clifford Sagendorf mailed me the magazine story last year, so I owe him both my thanks for sending it to me and my apologies for only opening the envelope last week. (Sometimes I get to my mail in a timely fashion. Sometimes, apparently, not.) Sagendorf’s family still resides in Vermont.
In any case, the magazine writer, Herbert Corey, was impressed by the state’s freakishly long winters and our manufacturing prowess. (The first steel square for carpenters was made in Shaftsbury! We are known for our scales!) He expected an increase in summer visitors to Vermont over time. And he felt we were a “cheerful, sunny, independent little State,” with “a pawky humor that might trace to [our] Caledonian pioneers.”
It’s worth reminding ourselves that in 1927, a Vermonter – Calvin Coolidge – was in the White House, the first uphill ski tow in the state was still seven years distant, and there were no four-lane interstate highways linking Vermont with southern New England. Without irony, Corey could rhapsodize about our state’s vast mineral riches, including slate and talc and our “vast beds of asbestos.” He gushed that “if one sees nothing else in Vermont today, he should see the marble quarries and the granite works, where armies of skilled men, equipped with the latest engineering appliances, wrest huge blocks of stone from the State’s rich mountain sides.”
Always in the spring is the – Corey’s words, not mine – “insidious odors of boiling syrup,” and yet there is still a huge upside to sugaring here: “It is. . .an industry which may enter the major class when tree owners properly appreciate their opportunities.” Too many trees, it seems, “are luxuriating in forest idleness.”
At the same, he wondered, who could ever have predicted that our “rounded hills and lovely dales would sometime offer a promising vacation ground – at a profit – to the thousands in the great cities within a few hours’ ride.” (In 1927, we could still use expressions such as “hills and dales” without being excoriated on the social networks. Also, “few” must have meant something different in 1927, since it must have taken a good five hours to drive from New York City to Bennington 87 years ago. It probably took eight or nine hours to reach Burlington.)
It was a pretty quaint state in 1927. The doctors made house calls on snowshoes. People pulled taffy for fun. And while the winters were “savage,” they gave a farmer “time for reading and thought.”
And, of course, Corey observed that our population had remained more or less stagnant since 1850, and by the time he was profiling the state, we had more cows than people.
To this day when I travel, I’m often asked if we still have more cows then people. Sometimes, given the transformation of dairy farming here – many fewer farms, but larger herds – I tell them we have more microbreweries than people. As the Vermont Brewers Association boasts, “Small state. Big beer.”
My sense is that Vermont has changed no more or less than any other state since 1927. But who would have predicted that in 2014 we might be known best for coffee, ice cream, and Phish? Who would have guessed that we would be battling a horrific heroin epidemic?
Nevertheless, I loved to walk back in time in that issue of “National Geographic,” and see what we looked like to the rest of the world. And while I can’t begin to imagine what our state will look like in another 87 years, I do hope that – no matter what else changes – we still have our “pawky” sense of humor.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 8. Chris’s next novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives next month.)