Content Vermonters Keep Clock Turned Back

Times Staff Writer

It was a cold, snowy, mid-April Saturday morning and the three-story, yellow, weathered, century-old East Burke General Store was stirring with activity.

Dairy farmers, maple syrup makers, old timers and others were buying groceries, picking up mail at the back-of-the-store post office, exchanging greetings and the latest tidbits about local happenings.

Kids darted in and out reaching into large jars on a bottom shelf filled with Whoppers and other penny candies. Yes, penny candy . Candy that sells just about everywhere else in America at a nickel a shot.

“Bet you just about everybody in East Burke (population 200) is a native Vermonter,” said a stranger to Delin McPhee, 25, manning the cash register.


“Nope,” she replied. “Even East Burke has Flatlanders. To be considered a real Vermonter in this part of the state your great-grandfather had to be born here.”

Dairy farmer Albert Gorham, 65, standing at the counter waiting to pay for his purchases, nodded his head in agreement and added his two cents: “Yup. You’ve got to earn it.”

By definition and tradition you must be born in Vermont to call yourself a Vermonter. If you lived in Vermont all your life--60, 70, 80, 90 years--but were born somewhere else, you don’t dare call yourself a Vermonter. You’re a Flatlander.

It’s an important distinction. Vermonters pay attention to such things. Vermont is a mountainous state. Hence the name.

Great Migration

Flatlanders have migrated to Vermont in great numbers during the last 30 years from New York, from other New England states, from across the nation. They come to escape the fast lane, to seek the simple life.

There are nearly as many Flatlanders as native Vermonters. Old-time Vermonters fear the small state is being bought out by outsiders and that they may lose their identity.


They think about their political leaders. The governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, 17 out of 30 state senators, 68 out of 150 representatives--all from outside the state. Flatlanders.

In East Burke you can be a third-generation Vermonter, as Delin McPhee said, and still be considered a Flatlander, someone “from away.” That’s the way it is in the “Northeast Kingdom” (Caledonia, Essex and Orleans counties), Vermont’s most isolated, most rural section of the predominantly rural state.

“We can tell a real Vermonter right away,” McPhee insisted. “Way a person talks. Way a person acts. Flatlanders are more forward. They’re just different in every way. We real Vermonters are born with something in us that’s special. We can sense that unique quality in other Vermonters.”

Sugar-on-Snow Party

A sign in the East Burke General Store window told of a sugar-on-snow party at the local Methodist church. Spring snowstorms often occur in Northern Vermont through late April. The parties are held in the higher reaches if the snow has melted at lower elevations.

Sugar-on-snow is a Vermont tradition dating back to Colonial days. It means pouring freshly made hot maple syrup onto the snow. On hitting the snow, the syrup has a consistency of taffy. Then it’s picked up and wrapped around a dinner fork and eaten.

Homemade doughnuts and dill pickles are eaten with the chilled syrup--dill pickles for the sourness to contrast with the sweetness of the syrup.


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Vermont is built on small-town traditions. It’s woods and wild animals. Moose, bear, deer. It’s lakes and mountains and little hamlets like East Burke. Biggest town in the state--call it a city if you like--is Burlington on Lake Champlain, population 37,840.

Montpelier, the capital, has a population of 8,220. Vermont has a population of 515,000. Only Wyoming and Alaska have fewer people.

“Vermonters are the salt of the earth. People here laugh at little things. Folks in urban areas need a whole lot of big things. Not here,” said John MacDonald, 40, shopping in the East Burke General Store.

Carol Wahl, 42, a stained-glass artist, is a Flatlander who moved to East Burke 12 years ago from Western Pennsylvania. She told how Vermonters do business by handshake. “Someone tells you something, you can rely on it. People here don’t have locks on their doors. The sense of good neighbor is very strong, people doing for other people.

Old-Fashioned Practices

“It’s turn back the clock, especially in the Northeast Kingdom where many old-fashioned practices persist--horses for plowing, horses for logging. People here shun clothes dryers. They hang their clothes out to dry in all kinds of weather.”

Real estate prices in the Northeast Kingdom are a throwback to earlier times--quoting from a current price list, land from $125 an acre, homes from $12,000, farms from $23,900. Sure, they’re old, weather-beaten places, but you can’t beat the prices.


Vermonters are hardy, shrewd, frugal, self-reliant people of few words. You hear “Yup” and “Nope” and little else as Vermonters size up strangers, suspicious of their motives.

As for frugal, Scudder Parker writing in “The Vermont Chef Cookbook,” published recently by The Umbrella, an organization for women in St. Johnsbury, listed 13 household efficiency tips including:

“When you throw wash clothes into the hamper, use them first to do a quick damp mopping in the dusty corners of the bathroom. Always leave the bathroom and kitchen sink hot water in until it gets cold. Think of all that heat gain in your bathroom and kitchen.”

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Vermont’s legendary heroes are Ethan Allen, Adm. George Dewey, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Dwinell. Allen heads the list. He was the farmer-statesman who, in 1775, led Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys in capturing Ft. Ticonderoga from the British, the first offensive action of the Revolutionary War.

He was a leader in establishing the Independent Republic of Vermont, which lasted 14 years, from 1777 until Vermont became the 14th state in 1791. The republic minted its own coins, had its own postal service, carried on diplomatic relations with foreign powers. Allen wrote Vermont’s constitution, which included the prohibition of slavery and provided for universal manhood suffrage without owning property.

Spanish Navy Guns

A four-ton marble statue of Ethan Allen is on the Vermont Capitol steps. On the lawn of the Statehouse are two Spanish navy guns captured at the Battle of Manila in 1898. Dewey, a native Vermonter, was commander of the fleet in the battle.


Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President, was sleeping when Warren Harding died. He was awakened in the middle of the night at his home in Plymouth, Vt. His father, a justice of the peace, administered the oath of President by lamplight, then the two men went back to sleep.

Dwight Dwinell? He was the 86-year-old Vermonter who carved the 14-foot pine statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, that stands atop a six-foot pedestal on the Capitol’s gold dome.

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“When I was a kid you could tell what town people were from just by the way they talked. Their accent was different one town to the next. Television, cars and Flatlanders moving in here from other states have changed all that,” mused Everett Drinkwine, 60.

Drinkwine put together his Rube Goldberg-like portable sawmill in 1978 using parts from old cars, tractors and other equipment. “First portable sawmill in the state. Now there are 17 of them,” he proudly related, patting the contraption affectionately at his shop in Cambridge Village, population 217.

The portable sawmill weighs 12 tons, rides on eight wheels and is 48 feet long. Drinkwine has sawed 2 million feet of lumber with his mill the last seven years, sawing lumber within a 50-mile radius--for houses, barns and bridges.

“I’m a Vermonter first, a U.S. citizen second. Eight grades in a one-room Vermont school as good as a high school education anywhere else. Glad I didn’t get any more learning. Might of made me a different person. I like the way I am,” he confided.


‘Always Been Inventors’

He laughed and explained that he is a hired consultant for the University of Vermont. “The university sends people to me, an eighth-grade graduate, to tell them how to build a portable sawmill. Ain’t that something? We Vermonters have always been inventors. Always had to come up with our own ideas to get things done. The world’s first electric motor was made by Vermonter Tom Davenport in 1834. He wound the magnet with silk from his wife’s wedding dress.”

He described Flatlanders as “a strange lot. They didn’t like where they come from. Now they try to make Vermont where they lived before. They want paved roads. Many of our roads ain’t paved. It’s the Flatlanders that did away with many of our one-room schools.”

Drinkwine said people always ask him about his name and what kind of wine he drinks. He doesn’t drink wine. “Ever around here again, stop in. I like to visit,” he said after a hearty handshake.

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Eunice Greene, 61, has been teaching a one-room school for 24 years at Lake Elmore, population 250. When she began teaching, the school, built in 1889, had eight grades. Then it dropped to six, now it is down to the first three grades with 21 students, 10 boys and 11 girls. Students in higher grades are bused to a school in the next town. Parents are hoping to have six grades in the school again next year.

“One reason I stayed so long is you have a chance to try things,” said Greene, who believes children educated in one-room schools receive more individual attention and have an opportunity to learn more. She groups her students by ability rather than grade.

“Years ago there were seven one-room schools in Lake Elmore, when more people lived here. It was an accepted fact that one-room schools were a better education system than one school with teachers for each grade,” explained the schoolteacher.


Close Watch Kept

Alice Rich, 52, is a registered nurse and teachers aide at the school. Her three daughters and two grandsons have been students in Eunice Greene’s classes.

Vermonters keep a close watch on activities around country schools. Kathy Miller, 24, owner of the Elmore General Store across from the Lake Elmore one-room school, noticed two men in an out-of-state car park and enter the school. She phoned the school. Greene told her the two men, from The Los Angeles Times, were doing a story about the school. Miller called the state police and the head of the school district just to be on the safe side. It didn’t ring true. The Los Angeles Times in a Vermont hamlet? A car with a Quebec, Canada license? Within minutes the superintendent of schools and officer Jim Gillen arrived to make sure everything was OK.

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Practically every town, village and hamlet in the 150-mile-long, 40- to 90-mile-wide state has a general store. The biggest is Willey’s at Greensboro, a wide spot in a narrow, winding, two-lane country road six miles north of Hardwick.

Customers come for miles to shop at Willey’s. It’s huge. Supermarket, hardware, clothing, sporting goods, auto supplies, you name it. In the middle of nowhere. Tin ceiling. Over the years the store has grown by connecting walls to the town’s old post office, to two other stores, to two residences and an icehouse, now all under one roof. All Willey’s General Store.

“I’m the last of the Willeys,” said Phyllis Willey Hurst, 60, who owns and operates the emporium with her husband, Ernie, and 33 employees in the summer, 20 year-round. “My grandfather bought the store in 1900. I don’t know how long it was here before that. We handle everything that’s basic. I was born upstairs in the store and never left.”

Uncanny Sense of Humor

More than 100 covered bridges, most of them still in use, dot the state. There is also moot evidence of the Vermonters’ uncanny sense of humor. Like the “Milk--the Udder Cola” sign on a dairy barn at Morrisville. The mailbox on a pole 30 feet above the ground outside an Alburg farmhouse with the sign “Air Mail.”


Each of the state’s 242 towns holds an annual town meeting the first Tuesday of March, a tradition two centuries old. At the meeting voters gather to elect officers, levy local taxes, participate directly in making decisions on policies, programs and finances.

Every town and village also has a white frame Protestant church with towering steeple, the hallmark of Vermont. United Methodist minister Dawn Robbins, 27, is pastor of three churches in Burke Hollow, West Burke and East Haven. One of her churches is the Burke Hollow historic Union Meeting House built by four denominations in 1825 and still used by all four--Universalists, Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists.

Placing Stock in Tradition

“Vermonters are very protective about their church and their state. Even young people are tied to the past and place a lot of stock in tradition. Imagine my situation. Here I am, a Flatlander six months from Massachusetts, a woman and under 30. My congregations sit back, waiting and watching. Some of the young people have accepted me. Most of the older ones are hesitant. That’s the way Vermonters are. Skeptical of outsiders.”

The church is one of the cornerstones of the community. The church, the general store, the school. “We have a very active youth group. There’s nothing else for the kids to do,” explained Rev. Robbins. “People here won’t travel eight or nine miles to the next town to do something. They want to do whatever in their own back yard.”

Artih Dubois, 29, is co-owner of a bookstore in St. Johnsbury, population 7,938. He is one of only 1,130 blacks in Vermont, 2/10 of 1% of the population, fewer blacks than in any state in America. “I lived in New York. It’s a much easier life here. Sure there is subtle racism here, but there is blatant racism in New York,” Dubois said.

“Vermonters in general are very accepting. They leave you alone. They are likable people. I find it comfortable living here. Vermonters in general judge you on your worth as a human being, not on the color of your skin.”


‘You Can Embrace It’

Jim Armosky of South Ryegate, a writer-illustrator of children’s books, described Vermont as “a little smaller than other places in every way. You can embrace it. The mountains are smaller. You can observe a whole valley. It is a perfect combination of living beside and working with nature.”

“We’re one of the last states in the Union that is small enough on the human scale to somehow hold on and maintain what we’ve got,” said Frank Bryan, a University of Vermont political science professor and co-author of Vermont’s current best seller, the humorous “Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats.”

Former Gov. Richard Snelling has said: “The rest of the world would be better off if it understood some of the things that we understand in Vermont, if it prized some of the things we prize in Vermont.”

And, as Albert Gorham, the 65-year-old dairy farmer at the East Burke store allowed: “If you stub your toe here in Vermont you don’t turn around and sue somebody.”