Not in Our Vermont

Big-boxes for the Green Mountains?

By Richard Todd 

Montpelier is the capital of Vermont.

Credit: Jesse Larsen

According to the Census Bureau, Vermont, though only about a five-hour drive from New York City, qualifies as the most rural state in the country. That may surprise someone from South Dakota, but the definition depends on the relative presence of cities of a certain size, and Vermont essentially doesn't have cities. Its capital, Montpelier, is a town of only 8,000 people, with its little gold-domed capitol building sitting on Main Street as approachable as if it were the YMCA. Montpelier—a trivia fact—is the one state capital in the nation that lacks a McDonald's franchise. Only Burlington, home of the University of Vermont, comes close to urban dimensions, and its population is just 40,000.

If you're of a certain turn of mind, Vermont can make you oddly melancholy: It reminds you of what much of our country has lost. The state remains remarkably beautiful and sparsely settled. With only about 600,000 citizens, a still viable agricultural community, and much rugged, forested terrain, it largely preserves a traditional landscape of tight-knit towns and open land. Life on this scale has its effects on people. I don't suppose one can impute any genetic virtue to Vermonters—unless tolerance for extreme cold counts—but there is an admirable egalitarian ethos about the place. Probably it has a quite practical source: You are likely to know your neighbor, and you can be sure your neighbor knows you.

I live in Massachusetts not far from the Vermont border, and have for some time, and so I'm no stranger to the state, but during the course of some recent visits there, I got a fresh sense of just what a close and organic society it is. By that I don't mean that everyone thinks alike, but that almost everyone seems to have a vested interest in Vermont as a place apart. Burlington is home to a wonderfully cranky fellow named Thomas Naylor who likes to warn against the "Americanization of Vermont." He's at the forefront of a movement to secede from the Union and form the Second Vermont Republic. His fellow citizens tend to take this as a joke, of course—but here's the point: It's not absurd.

For the remainder of this article, e-mail us to purchase a back issue. Or read more excerpts from this issue.