‘The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964’ – the subject of the next installment of “The American Experience” on PBS January 14th. In his new installment of The Vermont Newsguy for VPT, Margolis examines what Vermont looked like in 1964 and how it has changed in the last 50 years.
That New Years Day, a traveler could drive into Vermont from the south on Interstate 91, crossing the border from Massachusetts right about at the Guilford-Vernon line, and then zooming as far north as…well, about as far north as Bellows Falls.
From there northward, it was Route 5, inching through all the towns and villages along the way.
There was a little more of Interstate 89. Motorists could drive between Montpelier and Bolton, and also between Richmond and Winooski. But not straight through.
A few days after the year began, the Legislature convened in Montpelier. The 30 senators gathered in their chamber. The 246 House members met in theirs.
Yes, 246 House members. The year that had just begun was 1964, and Vermonters still elected one House member from each town, regardless of size. The 35,000 residents of Burlington elected one House member. So did the 113 of Stannard. House members representing 12 percent of the people comprised a majority.
Not for long. The year that began half a century ago was the one in which Vermont entered the modern world.
Or perhaps was pulled into it, not quite kicking and screaming, with as much reluctance as enthusiasm. As it was in the rest of the country, 1964 was a year of profound change in Vermont, a kind of dividing line between eras. Vermont’s old era – when it was dominated by small towns, dairy farmers, the Republican Party, and antagonism toward the federal government – was fading. Something else was beginning.
The new beginning, needless to say, had earlier beginnings. There is something a touch arbitrary about assigning unique significance to any one year. The Interstate highway system that would transform the state began in the late 1950s. For a few years after 1964, the state would still have a poll tax, and University of Vermont students and visitors would still enjoy (and defend) the blatantly racist “kake walk. ”The Legislature would not abandon its “one town-one vote” system until 1965. And Democrat Phil Hoff had eked out a victory in 1962, becoming Vermont’s first Democratic governor in more than a century.
“That second term for Hoff signaled that (his victory in) 1962 wasn’t a fluke,” said Mark Hudson, the Executive Director of the Vermont historical Society.
And throughout the year, the bulldozers kept churning and the concrete kept being poured. By the end of the year, more than 13 more miles of I-89 had been open to traffic.
“The Interstates were it,” when assessing the single biggest factor that “pushed Vermont into the modern age,” said Chris Graff, the veteran Vermont journalist who is now vice president for communications at National Life Group.
Graff said the expansion of the IBM plant in Essex, new and bigger ski resorts, and second home development. “Just would not have happened if it wasn’t easy to get to Vermont.”
And that growth, he said, with its occasional excesses, brought about the reaction that led to the Land Use and Development Act (Act 250) and other environmental laws which are now central to government and society in the state, and such an important part of its nationwide image.
In 1964, Vermont’s population had been growing for more than a decade. But in many ways the state remained “a very isolated rural backwater, with an old economy based on dairy farming, lumbering, quarrying and small manufacturing,” said Paul Searls, an assistant professor of history at Lyndon State College.
But it was not only the state’s economy that was archaic, Searls said. So was its governmental structure, in which power was centered in “tiny fiefdoms of local control.”
If the Interstates brought the state into the 20th Century economically, that U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1964 (Reynolds v. Sims) and the federal court orders that followed did the job governmentally. The following year, amidst great controversy and no little anguish, the legislature recreated itself, reducing the House of Representatives to 150 members, apportioned by population, not town lines.
Not all Vermonters were happy about the changes. Romaine Tenney did not like the new Vermont the Interstates would bring, and would not leave the land his family had farmed since 1892, though it was in the pathway of I-91. When the sheriff’s deputies came to evict him, he set fire to his farmhouse and died with it.
Percy Mendell did not like the federal government ordering Vermont to change the way it chose its House of Representatives.
“It’s how we elect our Legislature. And it’s worked just fine,” he said. “What right do the folks in Washington have to come in and tell us to fix what ain’t broke? It just flies in the face of logic – and it destroys local control.”
Percy Mendell is fiction, a character in “Into the Wilderness,” a novel by Deborah Lee Luskin of Newfane. Luskin never got to Vermont until 1965, and she was then only nine years old. But she set her novel in the fictional town of Orton, Vermont, 1964, and said she did extensive research into what life was like in rural Vermont then, reading old newspapers and talking to people who remembered those days.
And there’s little doubt that the outlook she has Mendell express was widely held in rural Vermont at the time. Nor was it just a matter of governmental philosophy. It was also a matter of power and money. Under the old system, lawmakers used their power to funnel state money into the small towns. It was “small-town pork-barrel legislation,” in the words of Anthony Marro and Stephen C. Terry in their book, “Philip Hoff: How Red turned Blue in the Green Mountain State.
Fictional though he was, Mendell was at least partly right. If switching to one person-one vote did not “destroy” local control, it greatly diminished it. The state now handles many of the functions then under the control of the towns. In 1964 each town had an “overseer of the poor.” It was they who dealt with income support for the disabled and indigent. There was no state welfare system. Nor were there state environmental laws, though Hoff tried to get the Legislature to pass a bill regulating land use. Hoff called that his “most tragic loss” of the year.
Change is never easy, its benefits are not without some cost, and the benefits are not evenly distributed. In general Vermont is far more prosperous than it was in 1964, but to some extent the prosperity has followed the paths of the Interstates. The economic troubles of Rutland and Bennington, Chris Graff notes, can be at least partly explained by how far they are from the highways.
A more centralized government inevitably brings with it more bureaucracy, more control from farther away, and even if “farther away” in this case is only as far as Montpelier, dealing with a state office is more impersonal than dealing with the town clerk, who is also a neighbor. The consolidated “union” high school, not in the center of the village but out on the highway, may have more up-do-date facilities than its smaller predecessor, but perhaps gives some parents the “sense they are losing control over their own children,” Paul Searls notes.
As it is elsewhere, life in Vermont is more standardized, more homogenized than it was 50 years ago. Television, chain stores and restaurants, suburban subdivisions that seem all to have been designed by the same (not very good?) architect almost seem to have conspired to blot out distinctions.
Vermont still seems to want to retain its distinctions, and despite all the changes, the 2014 debates about how to do so sound not so different from the discussions of 1964: how much should state government do and how much left to “local control”? Should schools or school districts consolidate? Should economic growth be guided or limited, or just left to the dynamics of the market?
Such discussions are not unique to Vermont, but seem to have more salience here simply because most Vermonters do want to retain the small towns, the pastoral landscape and the more personal ambiance of the state’s past. The irony, as historian Searls sees it, is that “in order for Vermonters to take control of their own destiny they have to shape it rather than have outside forces shape it.”
In other words, a certain amount of very modern government planning – the kind Phil Hoff envisioned but could not accomplish in 1964 – may be needed to preserve what people want preserve of the past. Left untouched, the dynamics of the market will suburbanize and standardize everything in their path. Among the legacies of 1964, it seems, is what to argue about and how to argue it.