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The Greening of Vermont: From Hippie Invasion To Blue State Conversion and Beyond

Donald Trump’s fear-mongering about Mexicans and Muslims, Haitians and Africans, and other foreigners is hardly sui generis in U.S. history. In the mid- 19th century, east coast nativists regularly sounded the alarm about barbarian invasions from famine-stricken Ireland. Their west coast counterparts warned for many decades of the “yellow peril” to California, which took the form of Asian immigration.

Yvonne Daley’s Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks, and Radicals Moved to Vermont (University of New England Press) reminds us that even domestic population shifts involving native-born whites can be easily demonized. All it takes is a threatened influx of outsiders whose physical appearance is different and whose social customs or community behavior are reportedly not very law-abiding.

One of the highlights of Daley’s account of the late 20th-century transformation of Vermont is her depiction of a local panic triggered in 1972. That’s when Playboy magazine informed millions of readers that 50,000 “unwashed troublemakers” were fleeing urban America for the greener pastures of Vermont. In his sensationalistic piece, journalist Richard Pollak wondered what would be left of conservative values in the Green Mountain State after it was engulfed by advocates of free love, psychedelic drugs, and rock-and-roll?

As Daley notes, “thousands of hippies and people who identified with counterculture values” were, at the time, already “living on Vermont communes and collectives, in group houses and teepees, school buses, sugar shacks, and farmhouses across the state.” So the news that their ranks would soon be expanding was received locally with great alarm.

As one Vermont journalist recalled years later, “bold, black newspaper headlines warned of the impending ‘HIPPIE INVASION’, sending more than one old farmer scurrying for his shotgun.” The state’s commissioner of public safety had to publicly discourage any use of tactics employed two centuries earlier by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, a colonial militia famous for roughing up “flatlanders” from New York.

In the face of mounting concern around the state, Republican Governor Deane Davis, a local insurance executive, urged Vermont residents (then only 440,000 in number) to remain calm. In an official press release, Davis noted that “the bulk of young transients” involved in this “so-called ‘Hippie influx’ go about their business in a self-sufficient, peaceful manner, although their habits and appearance may not be to our taste.”

Few observers—even those adopting such a “live-and-let-live” stance—anticipated that these “transients” might have a lasting political impact. (Among them, however, was a persistent young radical from Brooklyn named Bernie Sanders who purchased an 85-acre wooded tract near Montpelier for $2,500 but “never liked the word hippie nor thought of himself as one,” Daley notes.) Only Richard Pollak accurately foresaw what lay ahead for Davis and his GOP if “the nation’s alienated young decided to stick around and stage a take-over of Vermont….by ballot!” As Daley documents, changing demographics and unexpected synergy between newcomers and native Vermonters have, over the past fifty years, turned a long-time Republican bastion into a solid blue state, now widely known for its progressive policy initiatives, socialist U.S. Senator, and successful left-wing third party.

Back to the Land

Before becoming a Rutland Herald reporter and, later, a journalism professor, Yvonne Daley belonged to Vermont’s “back to the land” movement. In her book, she traces the personal and political trajectory of her fellow communards. Over time, many became involved in elected boards, commissions, and, of course, annual town meetings in a place where 65 percent of the population still lives in rural settings. Her fascinating interviews stir up no shortage of old memories, good and bad, plus passionate defenses of differences once thought to be important.

“Red Clover was not a commune,” insists one of its co-founders, John Douglas, a radical film-maker in the Sixties. “We were a collective. We were fucking serious revolutionaries.” As Daley recounts, Douglas and others tried to pull together a statewide counter-cultural network, called Free Vermont, but were most successful locally. Common Ground, their worker-run vegetarian restaurant in Brattleboro, survived for 36 years. It was the first of its kind in Vermont, and spawned a local food co-op, now part of a constellation whose rising star is the unionized City Market in Burlington. Its $38 million in annual sales volume is greater than any single co-op outlet in the country.

Going Up the Country describes the broader impact of Sixties-inspired newcomers on organic farming, “farm-to-table” distribution networks, women’s healthcare, arts and crafts, higher education and music. (In the last two categories, we learn about the role of Goddard College in the formation of Phish!) Family-run dairy farms may still be in steady decline, but overall, Vermont’s $776 million agricultural economy was largest of any state in New England two years ago. Its ninety farmers’ markets provide more fresh food than any other state per capita. It boasts nearly 600 certified organic farms, including one run by David Zuckerman, a pony-tailed leader of the Vermont Progressive Party who was elected Lt.-Governor in 2016—by the same electorate that rejected a corporate Democrat in favor of Republican stock car racer, Phil Scott, in the gubernatorial race.

What Daley calls “Entrepreneurship—Hippie Style” has paid off big-time for the creators of local brands like Ben & Jerry’s, sold in 2000 to Unilever, and Jogbra (nee Jockbra) sold ten years earlier to Playtex Corp. The Brooklyn-born ice cream magnates, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, helped found Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the largest and oldest state group of its kind with more than 750 members in 640 companies. Going Up the Country shows how non-conformists drawn to Vermont not “only wanted to get out of the rat race by building a different kind of life;” they were, as former Rutland Herald reporter Tom Slayton notes, “willing to endure long winters, live simply, and do hard physical work.” After the “initial strangeness of the newcomers wore off, their Vermont neighbors saw that they shared many values with them.”

Gods of the Hills

The rollicking plot of Radio Free Vermont reflects environmentalist Bill McKibben’s own affection for artisanal industry and agriculture in his adopted state. Like Daley, he hails from Massachusetts originally but now lives not far from Middlebury College, where his campus presence helped spawned 350.org. In McKibben’s “fable of resistance,” a beloved Vermont radio show host named Vern Barclay gets fired and then pursued by the police for sabotaging his station’s fawning coverage of a Walmart store opening. An unlikely rebel, the 72-year old Barclay goes underground, aided by local monkey-wrenchers who next target Starbucks, Coors Light, and other symbols of corporate influence.

Among Vern’s tech-savvy helpers is a female veteran and gold medalist in the biathlon, who returned disillusioned from her military service in Iraq. Their creative plotting takes place, in mid-winter, “the sheer brownness of it all just depressing him” because,

“[t]he globe had warmed faster and harder than anyone had predicted. With Arctic ice melted, there was no place to build up the intense cold that had always marked winter in Vermont. Lake Champlain didn’t freeze much anymore, and, if snow fell, it was usually for a few hours in the middle of a rainstorm. Vern knew he should have been worrying about the people in Bangladesh busy building dikes to keep the sea at bay—but these warm, muddy winters were what really bothered him…”

From a series of safe houses, Barclay finds ingenious ways to promote grassroots resistance to corporate power, environmental destruction, and non-craft beer. Transmissions by Radio Free Vermont spark a lively, statewide debate about the feasibility and merits of separation from a Trump-led USA. Much of that exchange echoes the yearning for self-determination, direct democracy, and peaceful co-existence expressed by Daley’s interview subjects in Going Up the Country.

In McKibben’s satire, Vermont authorities are repeatedly flummoxed by Barclay’s deft invocation of local history and traditions. “Underground, underpowered and underfoot,” Radio Free Vermont takes aim at the state’s modern-day corporate overlords and their local vassals, reminding both that, in the immortal words of Ethan Allen, “the gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills.”Before long, local post-offices are flying “Free Vermont” banners designed by Barclay’s 96-year old mother. Bumper stickers on pickup trucks favor “Barclay for Prime Minister!”

How far out is the author’s fictional depiction of secessionist sentiment in a state striving to be a model of environmental sanity and sustainability? Well, the idea of leaving the rest of the U.S. behind has definitely crossed the minds of a few real-life Vermonters more than once in the past. Despite her later success getting elected justice of the peace for the town of Goshen, VT. (current population:164), Daley and “other hippies living at the end of North Goshen Road” were once so alienated from Richard Nixon’s America that they “harbored ideas of seceding from the union” as members of a locally organized “North Goshen Secessionist Society.”

Going Independent?

In 2003, supporters of the Second Vermont Republic, a group founded by the late Thomas Naylor, a former Duke University professor, promoted secession in higher profile fashion. At the peak of its popularity, Naylor’s campaign for independence landed Vermont on Time’s list of “Top 10 Aspiring Nations” and won the backing of thirteen percent of its eligible voters, according to a 2007 poll conducted by UVM’s Center for Rural Studies. A Naylor- backed candidate running for governor in 2010 campaigned on a promise to withdraw Vermont National Guard troops from all overseas deployments, a worthwhile objective that, nevertheless, attracted only .8 percent of the vote for his campaign. The appeal of secessionism waned, according to McKibben, when some local advocates “colluded with a collection of rancid southern racists” (who had little interest in opposing militarism or imperialism).

More recently, Governor Scott, a moderate Republican described by McKibben as a “stalwart opponent of Mr. Trump,” stirred controversy with his public musing about how Vermont could stand out—or even stand alone—in the face of climate change. In the wake of devastating southern California wildfires last winter, Scott told local reporters that Vermont’s location and topography might spare it similar woes. In fact, if fires and water shortages became more widespread elsewhere, that “could be in some ways beneficial to Vermont,” the governor asserted. “If we protect our resources, we could use this as an economic boon.”

To many, Scott’s comments reflected a poor gubernatorial grasp of the term “global warming.” Yet the thirty-time winner of races at Thunder Road Speed Bowl in Barre, Vt. did have local defenders. Sara Solnick, a University of Vermont economist, agreed that “there are constantly winners and losers with every kind of change,” including in our climate. If other states become less habitable due to drought, fires, or floods, Solnick foresaw a possible reversal of past patterns of migration to the Sunbelt from wintery New England. In short, Vermont’s next wave of “invaders” could be refugees from extreme weather in the southwest!

The message of McKibben’s comic novel is, of course, quite different. There is no shelter from the storm of climate change, as his many non-fiction books have documented. In the end, everyone on the planet will be among the losers. Despite its local charm, separatism has definite limitations as a left-populist response to corporate globalization and its many malign cross-border impacts. However, as the newcomers to Vermont profiled by Daley learned sooner or later, getting involved in local politics remains one of the most effective ways to link national and international issues to rural community concerns. In 2018 and beyond, anyone planning to do short-term campaigning or longer-term colonizing in any present-day red states should first consult Going Up the Country. Daley’s insightful look at Vermont before and after its fabled “hippie invasion” is a useful guide to building bridges to new neighbors not on the left or anywhere near it.

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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