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Vermont: Can It Happen Here?

Vermont communard and organic farmer Robert Houriet once stated that after the violence of 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the counterculture/new left had two possible choices—to go to Vermont or join the Weatherman organization. While Houriet’s statement was certainly exaggerated in order to make a point, it was founded in a truth of the times. White America was at war with itself. Its children (or at least a fair number of them) were protesting its atrocity in Vietnam and aligning themselves with those white America had always been at war with inside its own borders, Blacks, Latinos and the indigenous peoples. Those who weren’t protesting were dropping out either completely or at least occasionally. At least, that’s how it all seemed to the moms and dads of suburbia.

Meanwhile, young people really were moving to places like Vermont, the Pacific Northwest, northern California, the mountains around Taos, New Mexico and a myriad of other places far from the madness of US cities and the boredom of its suburbia. They went to build a new lifestyle that was simpler and closer to the vibrations of the land. Or they went to build a new world. Some just wanted to get away. For those in the northeastern United States intent on getting the hell out of the aforementioned hells, Vermont was a popular destination. Land was cheap, there was plenty of it, and it wasn’t too far from Boston and New York City. Playboy magazine published an article talking about a hippie invasion of the state. Its conservative (in the traditional sense of the word) Yankee population became concerned. Some freaked out and harassed the new residents with guns and fire. Some politicked against them. Many other ignored them, taking their money in exchange for goods and services. Some welcomed them and the rest tolerated them, helping those willing to accept help make it through the harsh Vermont winter. Many of the hippie invaders left after a year or three. However, many stayed and made Vermont their home.

Yvonne Daley’s new book, Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks and Radicals Moved to Vermont, is her take on those who stayed. Breaking these folks into a number of loose categories—politicos, communards, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, educators—Daley tells the story of a number of Vermonters who moved to the state in the late 1960s and the 1970s and made it their home. Her stories include the members of the Liberation News Service who set up the Total Loss Farm commune in Brattleboro, Vermont and the inventor of the Jogbra; Ben and Jerry and Bernie Sanders. She discusses the organic farming movement often spearheaded by Robert Houriet (whose statement begins this review) and the film-making of Jay Craven. Although the book’s politics are decidedly left liberal, Daley does a fair job discussing the radical movement known as Free Vermont which published a leftist newspaper, organized protests against Richard Nixon and other warmongers, and created a network of co-ops and schools that was an alternative economy and culture for a few years among the communes in Vermont.

Although the text discusses the negative reaction of a fair number of Vermonters to the “hippie invasion,” Daley’s story is fairly upbeat and emphasizes the eventual assimilation and acceptance of the countercultural settlers. The fact that the original invaders now have grown children and grandchildren provides the author with a sense of history that echoes the historical role played by the counterculture throughout the United States. Vermont’s story is like that of many other regions, even in these times of reaction. What makes its story unique, however, is how much of an impact the counterculture settlers actually had on the politics and culture of the state. In large part, this can be attributed to Vermont’s relatively small size in terms of population and land mass. Another reason would be Vermont’s deserved reputation of being a place where tolerance is the norm, not the exception.

Rick Winston’s forthcoming book, Red Scare in the Green Mountains: Vermont in the McCarthy Era, presents a more nuanced look at Vermont’s reputation of tolerance. The story he tells in this slim yet comprehensive volume presents the rabid anti-communism of most Vermont politicians and media in the years preceding the period discussed in Daley’s book. At the same time, the reader discovers the tale of a group of leftist intellectuals who lived in the small town of Bethel, Vermont. This group of individuals held discussion groups, gave talks and fended off the venomous attacks of reactionaries in the legislature and the newspapers. Right-wing newspaper publisher William Loeb, who owned at least two Vermont dailies and the Manchester, New Hampshire Union Leader, led a crusade against college professors, supporters of Progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace, and others whose politics he disliked. He insulted these individuals, considering them to be dupes of Moscow, and joined those expressing concern that the communists were taking advantage of Vermont’s tolerant reputation in order to turn the state into a communist dystopia.

Winston’s text describes this history, combining his narrative with newspaper clippings from the period, making the book very readable and visually appealing. In contrast to Daley’s text which sometimes approaches a sort of civic boosterism, Red Scare in the Green Mountains is a straightforward telling of a period in US history and its effect on the small towns and cities of Vermont. Taken together, the two books present a fairly honest history of the past seventy or so years in Vermont. Like it did in Sinclair Lewis’s fiction classic about US fascism It Can’t Happen Here, the state of Vermont serves as both metaphor and fact for the ugly side of US politics and culture in the books discussed here. Believe me when I say that today’s forces of reaction in the state are trying their hardest to make Lewis’s nightmare come true. Yvonne Daley’s history in Going Up the Country seems to provide proof that the changes discussed in her book in the decades since that “hippie invasion” may prevent Vermont from going down that path in the months and years to come.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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