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Vermont towns have always reflected the history of the State. From a town's perspective, that history can be divided into three fairly distinct periods. The first period, lasting from founding until the later part of the 19th Century was essentially an agrarian period. The population was more or less homologous, although there was a distinct difference between the eastern and western Vermont cultures, in attitude if nothing else.

Many towns changed, beginning in the 1850s, as industrialization swept through the western world. Mills and factories sprung up in the Connecticut Valley. Stone cutting and mining industries appeared in Central and Western Vermont. Railways were built and places like Rutland, White River Junction, Burlington, St. Johnsbury and Montpelier became major commerce centers.

With industrialization came immigration. Italians moved in to work the stone quarries. Irishmen came in with the railroads. French Canadians moved in to work in the mills. Poles and Russians followed. Catholic and Orthodox churches sprang up. Towns were shaped not only by industry, but also by cultural diversity.

A third historical period began during the late 1970s and continues today. I call this the period of De-industrialization. In the wake of environmental legislation, most of the century-old mills and factories closed up and moved on. Rail Transportation went into decline. Small farms began to go away, yielding to larger farms. The introduction of the sales tax caused the retail industry in the Eastern half of the state to dry up in competition with opportunistic (untaxed) New Hampshire outlets. Nearly the entire industrial infrastructure of the state disappeared in about a decade.

In general, the gap in the loss of these industries was filled by an increase in service-related jobs based largely on the tourist industry. In the past decade, some cleaner high-technology industry has moved into the area, providing some jobs in the Champlain Valley and in the Hanover-Lebanon New Hampshire border area.

As in previous periods, Vermont towns are beginning to reflect the nature of De-industrialization. During both the Agrarian and Industrial periods, towns continued to be self-sustaining little empires. The principal manifestation of the new period is the suburbanization of towns. This is apparent in towns located within a 20-mile radius of Burlington and Hanover, NH. In some cases, towns are starting to resemble suburban neighborhoods like those of our larger neighbors to the south. Other towns are becoming "gentrified."

A gentrified town has the appearance of an authentic town. They are, however, populated mainly by folks who derive substantial income from somewhere else. This concept borrows from the main theme of the De Broca film, The King of Hearts. During WWI, the British arrive to liberate a small French Village after the Bosch retreat. In their retreat, however, the Germans have planted a bomb in the village square. The town's people flee the town behind the Germans, leaving the door of the insane asylum open. When the British arrive, the loonies have wandered forth and assumed the roles of the town's people. There's nothing wrong with gentrification, really, but it contributes precious little to the local economy beyond property tax revenues.

Anyway, amid all this change, here are twenty characteristics that should be found in any Vermont town to identify it as an authentic, self-sustaining place:

1. At least one member of the board of selectmen will pronounce the word "time" as "ti-yum."
2. The town will have at least one general store. For towns over 2000 people or within 5 miles of an interstate exit, the term "general store" may include one or more franchise Mini-Marts. For towns within 10 miles of a Connecticut River bridge, the term "general store" may be extended to include the nearest New Hampshire "Wal-Mart."
3. The town will have at least one establishment that sells "grinders."
4. The town will contain at least two villages (and people will know the difference between village and town).
5. The town will have at least one body of water that contains brook trout.
6. At least 30% of the roads will be unpaved.
7. The town will have distinct low-income housing. This housing may be in the form of apartments, trailer parks or homes with one or more derelict cars in the front yard.
8. The town will define "town house" as any residential structure within the village limits.
9. The town will have at least one inter-denominational church.
10. The road signs on all dirt roads that were created under the provisions of the 911 program must bear the same name that existed before the names became official.
11. The town will have at least one place that sells live bait.
12. The town will not have any street named after a) characters from Lord of the Rings, b) European cities, or c) trees and flowers not native to this area.
13. At least 40% of the town will not have cellular coverage.
14. Every major road surface in the town will be bare and drivable within one hour after the fall of the last snowflake in any snowstorm.
15. Have at least one place where you can eat breakfast for less than five bucks, get unlimited coffee refills, and go looking like however you look in the morning.
16. The town will not have more than 20% of the homes valued at over $200,000. No ranch-style home, no matter how fancy, will be valued at over $150,000.
17. The town will not have more Saabs than pickup trucks registered there.
18. The town will have one street called, "Main St.", whether or not it is, in fact, the main street.
19. The tallest structure in the town is either a silo or water tower.
20. The town must contain at least five working farms of any size or condition.

Of course, there's no sense in clinging to the past. The evolution of Vermont towns just adds to the colorful fabric of the eccentric past and presence of this place. The beauty of it all is that there will be towns that remain unaffected by this new period in history, just as some seemed to have skipped the 20th Century altogether.

Jim Bennett
Vermonter-At-Large

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March 21, 2009