Vermont is a mixture of the 19th and the 21st centuries—maple syrup and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, tiny clapboard villages and carefully zoned towns complete with unobtrusively signed outlet malls, covered bridges and civil unions—with much of the 20th, its factories and suburbs, skyscrapers and shopping malls, mostly left out. Not so long ago, Vermont seemed an entirely antique state, almost as carefully preserved as its Shelburne Museum, with a barn and jail, railroad station and blacksmith shop, covered bridge, and 37 buildings full of folk art. Yet it has been transformed by newcomers, who came here attracted to its antique look but have transformed its culture in their own image.
Vermont was first settled by flinty Yankees from Connecticut, and showed an independent streak from the beginning. After Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys repulsed the British in 1777, this was an independent republic for 14 years, claimed by New York and New Hampshire without avail. Allen conducted “international” negotiations with the British and tried to get George Washington to agree to make it a new state; several books argue that Vermont never voluntarily joined the United States. All this rugged independence paid off when when Vermont was admitted as the 14th state in 1791. The economy was almost entirely agricultural, as second sons and daughters from small New England farms struggled to scratch out livings from the rocky soil. In time, they quit struggling and raised dairy cows instead, producing milk for the masses of New York City. Vermont developed commerce as well. With its legendary thriftiness, it accumulated capital that, invested wisely, was used to build the solid stone office buildings and courthouses, the thick-timbered houses and gold-topped state Capitol that have remained long after ramshackle wooden buildings of the 19th century have crumbled into dust. Vermont made an economic asset of its maple trees and its quaintness; state government starting in the 1890s promoted it as a tourist destination and passed a law requiring Vermont maple syrup to be made only from the local trees. But Vermont never developed labor-intensive industry, and so over the years it exported people, and it aged. From 1850 to the 1960s, as a result of continuous outmigration, Vermont’s population hovered between 300,000 and 400,000. Today, millions of Americans have Vermont blood—far more than the 623,000 who live here now, many of whom have no Vermont roots at all. Two presidents were born here, but both made their careers elsewhere—Chester Arthur in New York, Calvin Coolidge in Massachusetts. Vermont made no visible impression on two great foreign writers who lived here for years—Rudyard Kipling and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Since then—perhaps the key date was 1963, when people first outnumbered cows—Vermont has changed rapidly. Its economy has boomed, led by leisure-time industries—ski resorts, summer homes—and IBM, with several big high-tech facilities around the Burlington area on the mostly undeveloped shores of glorious Lake Champlain. Here you can find big box retailers in Williston and ethnic diversity—Vietnamese, Bosnians, Koreans—in Winooski only 30 or 40 miles away from Sheldon, where 83% of residents are native Vermonters, the highest in the state, or tiny Buels Gore, a sliver of land left out when the first settlers drew town lines, whose population increased in the 1990s from 2 to 12. Homegrown firms started by Baby Boom rebels—Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, founded in 1978, is the archetype—have flourished. The newcomers cherished what novelist Paul Greenberg calls “maple’s homespun image.” Vermont’s population rose from 390,000 in 1960 to 511,000 in 1980 and 609,000 in 2000. It hasn’t been random settlement: While next-door New Hampshire, trumpeting its low taxes and aversion to government, attracted right-leaning migrants from Massachusetts and elsewhere who were happy to live in spanking-new developments and ravenous for low taxes, Vermont, proclaiming its desire to preserve the environment and the past, attracted left-leaning migrants from New York and elsewhere who were willing to pay higher taxes and higher prices for the privilege of living in a seemingly pristine setting. Its greatest fans may be members of the 251 Club, the 4,000 people who have traveled to all 251 of Vermont’s cities and towns.
Public policy played a part in the evolution of Vermont. Back in 1970, Republican Governor Deane Davis (the last Vermont native to hold the job), facing a primary challenge, pushed through a sweeping land use law (Act 250) that helped give Vermont its environmental reputation. Housing developments and new ski resorts were required to meet 10 environmental criteria and get the approval of five different commissions, with opponents granted a right to appeal. Since then, Vermont has passed its own Clean Air Act that levies a tax on new cars that get less than 20 miles per gallon. It bans billboards and rooftop air conditioning units. It passed Act 60, which attempted to equalize property taxes throughout the state, and Act 200, which provided state support for regional planning boards. It has a state land trust that buys development rights of farmland to stop the disappearance of family farms. Distressed by the demise of dairy farming—more than half of dairy farms have gone out of business since 1982 and numbers slipped from 1,800 in 2001 to 1,150 in 2006—state government loans money for farmers to buy water buffalo to produce mozzarella. Although it has no gun control laws, Vermont has been busy regulating other things: banning clear-cutting of forests, requiring seat belt use, banning smoking in public places. There are now four Wal-Marts in the state, but two of them are in preexisting buildings. And when Home Depot tried to build a store in one town, the locals insisted on a vegetation-covered roof on which cows could graze: Home Depot passed. Some dairy farmers now are processing their animals’ solid waste, mixed with bacteria from their digestive systems, into methane fuel; the Grass Energy Collaborative is making fuel pellets from grass and corn; other farmers are making biodiesel fuel from canola beans, sunflower seeds and flax. Some environmental problems remain. Phosphorous embedded in reforested farms is leaching into Lake Champlain at an increasing rate. And there is an overpopulation of moose that spurred an “aggressive” hunt in fall 2006.
If there is something of the Yankee busybody in such policies, they also represent a departure from the state’s Republican past. In the 19th century, Vermont, with its Yankee heritage, was the most Republican state in the nation; in 1936, Vermont and Maine were the only states to resist Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide. For three decades thereafter Vermont’s Yankee Protestant Republicans outnumbered its French Canadian and Irish Catholic Democrats. But now, political issues slice Vermont on different lines—between liberal, highly educated newcomers and conservative, less educated old Vermonters. In the 2004 presidential election, Vermont was the third most Democratic state; its last Republican member of Congress switched to become an Independent in May 2001 and voted to make the Democrats the Senate majority party. In January 2003 former Governor Howard Dean set off to run for president; by July his opposition to the Iraq war (and not his relatively moderate fiscal record in Vermont) made him the leading fundraiser and frontrunner in the polls for the Democratic nomination. Vermont, valuing tradition, had become the leader of America’s left.
One issue that made Dean attractive to left Democrats was civil unions. Ironically, it was one on which he had not taken the lead. In a lawsuit brought by three same-sex couples, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the legislature had to pass a gay marriage law or one which gave same-sex couples the same rights under state law as married couples. In April 2000 the legislature passed a law authorizing civil unions for same-sex couples and Dean signed it out of sight of cameras. Opposition to civil unions was fierce and vocal, though seldom articulated in the state’s liberal press; groups were formed called Take Back Vermont and Who Would Have Thought. Backers of civil unions and other liberal policies formed a group called Move Vermont Forward. Civil unions and other liberal laws were opposed vociferously by Republican governor candidate Ruth Dwyer. Several pro-civil union Republican legislators lost their seats in the September primary, and Republicans won control of the state House in November. But Dwyer was beaten 50%-38% and Democrats held the state Senate.
Democrats have mostly prevailed since. Al Gore and John Kerry carried the state comfortably; Vermont was one of only two states in which George W. Bush’s percentage of the vote declined between 2000 and 2004. In those years the controversy over civil unions has abated. Both major party candidates for governor in 2002 opposed repeal and the 2000 Census showed that only 1% of households were same-sex unions. The 2004 exit poll showed that 40% favored same-sex marriage, 36% civil unions and only 21% neither. Senator Patrick Leahy has won reelection by very wide margins, and Bernie Sanders, reelected easily to the House every two years, was elected to Jim Jeffords’s Senate seat in 2006 by a 65%-32% margin, while Democrat Peter Welch won the House seat.
Yet at the same time Vermont may have become somewhat less liberal on economic issues. Job losses at IBM and slow economic growth in what had been the booming Burlington area were accompanied by a questioning of the costs of Act 250 and Act 60. In the 2002 election for governor, longtime Republican officeholder Jim Douglas beat Lieutenant Governor Doug Racine by 45%-42%. Douglas’s prime goal was revision of Act 250, and in May 2004 the Democratic Senate and Republican House voted for major changes. But Vermont’s cultural liberalism persisted. Douglas was proud of a law cleaning up Lake Champlain, and he let a medical marijuana bill become law without his signature. Republicans lost their majority in the state House in 2004; after the 2006 election, Democrats held a 93–49 margin there plus a 23–7 margin in the state Senate—margins that look almost like Massachusetts. But as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have done for many years, Vermont has voted to keep its Republican governor; Douglas was reelected by 59%-38% in 2004 and 56%-41% in 2006.