Ways of Seeing: Small towns are Vermont’s backbone

Looking out an airplane window, people who are flying over the Midwest often say the earth looks like a patchwork quilt, all the many squares of fields spread out across the flattened plains. My grandparents farmed in western Illinois, and I suppose that was how their farm would have looked, although I never saw it from the air.
These days, those squares have gotten larger. Much of the land, while still farmed, is owned by huge agri-business corporations. The remaining houses are rarely occupied by those who work the landscape. In consequence, the towns and small cities that once thrived by selling seed, farm equipment, clothing, those basics of country life, have contracted. This didn’t just happen recently. It began some decades ago, but it is an alteration that doesn’t appear to be turning around.
When my grandparents retired in the 1960s, they bought a small house in the nearby town. By the late ‘80s, that house sold for about a fifth of what they had originally paid. In a town rapidly losing population, interested buyers were rare. I recently looked online to assess the current market in that community. Available house prices ranged from $25,000 to $85,000.
Vermont agriculture is not likely to get scooped up by agri-business corporations in any significant way. Around here it is not so easy to have a self-driven piece of mega-machinery travel back and forth across fields for miles on end. What might be the source of our demise, if there should be one? Perhaps it will be Airbnb and out-of-state second home owners.
There is much angst about the lack of growth in our state’s population. In truth, after an early spurt before 1830, population in Vermont pretty much leveled off over the next 100 years. There was a little growth right after World War II (probably the “baby boom”), and then minimal growth until the mid-1960s. From that time until the early 2000s, the state’s population increased by almost 50%. Is that a sustainable rate of growth for our geographically small state?
To me, the real issue is maintaining sustainable small communities in our state. There are 251 towns, and roughly one third of them have under 1,000 residents. Only 20% have over 3,000 people. Attracting young people to move to or stay in Vermont is a fine goal, but if we do not take state-wide action to support our small communities, it may well be for naught.
Strong communities require invested residents. How else to have the volunteer fire departments, the necessary shops, the people to step up and take the roles for government, environmental planning, and just plain caring for one’s neighbors? That does not happen with the folks renting a house for a ski trip or a party weekend.
The patchwork quilt of the Midwest would look much more like a rather rumpled crazy quilt if you were to view Vermont from above. And while here and there some larger shapes of population stand out, most of the state is held together by the 200 other, smaller communities. Their historic buildings, country stores, town greens, and seasonal festivals attract the tourists on which our economy relies. Rip those pieces out of the quilt and not much is left.
Just as the small farmers held together the now-vacated towns of the Midwest, it is the small towns that hold together our state. Think about a wagon wheel. The hub is vitally important, but if the spokes and rim fall apart, the hub is, essentially, nothing.
So, when small communities ask for internet access, cell service, emergency services and to maintain their town schools, they don’t ask this merely for themselves. They ask this for the future of our state. They know that without their healthy existence, the center cannot hold. They are the very fabric upon which all our lives — and our livelihoods — are built.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.

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