National Geographic : 1974 Jul
A few miles to the southwest, Wardsboro celebrates July 4th on a livelier note-with a parade, fireworks, food sales, and a daylong street fair. I found several thousand shoppers milling around curbside booths, looking for bargains in house plants and handiwork. In one stall a grandmother in gingham and a willowy girl in patched jeans traded tips on how to crochet and make macrame. Next door a crusty codger-his face as crinkled as a dried-apple doll-looked askance at a long haired craftsman tooling leather. "No won der we got so few caows left in Vermont," he mumbled to no one in particular. "Kids is makin' 'em all into belts." Wardsboro has seen at least one busier time. In July 1840 some 15,000 enthusiastic Whigs poured through town to hear Daniel Webster address their outdoor convention on the slopes of Stratton Mountain. NO PLACE BETTER KNOWS the impact of crowds on small communities than Wilmington, halfway between Bennington and Brattleboro. When snow and gasoline are plentiful, it bears the brunt of hordes heading for Haystack, Carinthia, Mount Snow, and resort points north. Roads adequate for 1,500 full-time residents and a trickle of tourists have been choked with as many as 15,000 skiers a day in winter and a rising tide of second-home owners year round. Water supplies, designed for the per manent population, suffer contamination from ever-expanding developments at higher elevations. Chalet and condominium owners clamor for town takeover of their roads and sewage-disposal needs. "We were naive," said selectman Merrill Haynes at the country homestead his family acquired before the Civil War. "A little ski business looked like a good thing, and still does. But being so near Boston and New York, we soon had a snowball we couldn't control. And drugs, disease, and crime prob lems we'd only read about before investors decided this was the promised land." Here, as elsewhere amid the Green Moun tains, property has become highly coveted, exploitable, and expensive. Extra services required because of the current buying binge have saddled Vermonters with some of the highest taxes in the United States. This burden has helped hasten demise of the family farm. Today at least half the state's residential and agricultural land belongs to Vermont-a State of Mind and Mountains outsiders; the names sometimes read like a "Who's Who" of Wall Street. In the past generation prices have soared from $50 a tillable acre to as high as $20,000 for an uncleared quarter-acre lot. The dif ference between then and now is further em phasized by a personality change in many places, notably along the Green Mountain ski corridor that runs the length of the state. For years we enjoyed happy, undemanding relationships with our summer people. I im proved my tennis on their courts; fished and swam on their unposted holdings. Our part timers then baked for church suppers, sup ported local activities, and took Vermont as they found it. Some still do. But many newly purchased properties are fringed with no-trespassing signs, and the imported sophistication behind them leaves no time for town affairs. In balance we owe a great debt to out siders. Robert Frost left San Francisco to be come, in his latter years, our poet laureate; in the village of Barnard, Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson fueled our fondness for letters. Painting his Arlington neighbors, Nor man Rockwell captured our character for all the world to see. And in Landgrove a soft spoken New Jersey man named Samuel Og den breathed new life into a dying village. "I'd summered in Vermont before moving permanently to Landgrove in 1929," Sam said, stroking a black retriever lying across his feet. "Only two old brothers lived in the whole village then. All 11 other places were for sale, so I bought the lot for less than $9,000. I fixed up the buildings and sold them at cost to people who shared my affection for this area-as it was and still is." Like others along Landgrove's single un paved street, Sam's house-uncompromised by "restoration"-nests in a natural setting of maple trees and lilacs. Long a Vermont legislator, Sam told of a college professor who, while running for governor, advocated abolition of towns, call ing them "barnacles on the ship of state." "Didn't go down too well with the voters, I'm glad to say. You start eliminating the local unit and there's no end to it. Like the schools. Before they consolidated, kids used to walk to class, smelling the sweet fern. Now they ride, smelling gas fumes. That's progress?" Not all Vermonters agree on the present approach to education-or any other subject, including development.