Lessons from old times
There’s an old tale about Vermonters getting through hard times that begins with a hill farmer asked about how he and his family weathered the Great Depression. “Didn’t notice,” the farmer is supposed to have answered, the kind of laconic and pragmatic reply you might expect from a Vermonter.
The Vermont of the Great Depression was far more rural and far poorer in material terms than today’s Vermont, but as we gradually emerge from the Great Recession, we might gain by reflecting on the effect economic pressures have on community and our outlook on life.
The vestiges of Vermont’s rural past remain in the mindset that we often have about distance — in some ways, a town over the hill might as well be on another planet, and when winter sets in it can be awfully hard to get out the door to go to an event or a meeting in a neighboring village or even 10 miles down the road. That didn’t happen by accident, and when you think of what happened during Irene — where towns were cut off for conventional transportation from the outside world — as being the norm when heavy snow hit during winters in the early part of the 20th century, it’s not so hard to understand how we can sometimes seem insular and inward-looking.
But being insular can also teach you self-reliance, and in many ways Irene was just a refresher course for us in that respect. ‘‘Use it up, wear it out, patch it up, do without,’’ was a refrain of the Great Depression, and while that phrase hasn’t returned to wide currency (the Great Recession, after all, is a little speed bump compared to the 25 percent unemployment and terrible privations of the 1930s), there are signs that the recent economic tribulations have spurred some renewed focus on the impact we can have in our own small arenas here in Vermont.
Across the state there are refreshing signs of Vermonters turning away from despair at the worldwide downturn and focusing their efforts on what they have control over, right here at home. In Rutland, the year-round farmers market has refurbished an abandoned warehouse to make a new food center; the city has built a world-class mountain biking park with only volunteer effort and has also completed the first link in a beautiful bike path. In Barre, the Big Dig is transforming the downtown, with investors and tenants measuring out space in long-disused buildings downtown, prepping for a new lease on prosperity. In Montpelier, a new generation of businesses and businesspeople are putting in roots, and in Hardwick the food industry has gained national attention for injecting life into a slowly fading small town.
In Brattleboro, the community has weathered fire, flood and tragedy to open a new co-op and preserve the historic downtown theater. In Springfield, one of Vermont’s greatest artists, Sabra Field, has opened an exhibit in a former factory turned art space, to glowing reviews. And in the Northeast Kingdom, an economic boom is under way, albeit fueled by outside money — but the trend of departing jobs has reversed course.
The key to these trends is the work of dozens, if not hundreds, of local people, boards, volunteers, lawmakers and businesspeople. These are people who are rooted and invested in their communities — a key point when considering that the travails of international economics can pull an employer like Energizer out of part of the state. The enduring part of local efforts is that the expectations and the investment is sized right. To paraphrase another Vermont aphorism, think of the farmer who says, ‘‘We didn’t get as much as I hoped, but then I didn’t expect we would.’’
As a nation we’re emerging from a decade where the big life, the big extravagance, the big deal and the even bigger profit were celebrated, lauded, and even expected as the just desserts of simply being an American. People bought into the hype that the gains couldn’t help but keep on coming. Thankfully, Vermont preserved a sense of frugality and economy even in the boom times, and while Vermont didn’t go as large in the boom as many other parts of the nation, maybe it’s better if we didn’t expect to.
Viewed on their own, the local revitalization efforts might seem like small gains, even insignificant, but it’s worth remembering the lessons from our forebears. We’ve been through worse, and together we can do better.