Hibernation is ending and Town Meeting is tomorrow. The sugarbushes are tapped and waiting for a thaw — the same thaw that will signal the beginning of mud season — and the coldest (on average) 90 days of the year are behind us. It’s not like folks weren’t out and about during the cold, dark days, but there is more hope, anticipation and activity now that it’s March.
In summer Vermont is dreamy, in autumn glorious, and not without certain charms in winter, but to my mind spring defines her and the character of her people more than any season. Maple, mud and politics glue folks together around here at a time they’re coming apart at the seams and, when just getting out of the driveway is a challenge, the world can seem pretty small. Given everything going on in far away places, it’s darn near a pleasure to spend the whole first Tuesday in March debating with one’s fellow villagers just how much a new box culvert should cost.
A thorough examination of these pages will reveal the true identity of this little town, and we are fortunate to hold our Town Meetings just across our attractive village green, in a large room with comfortable seats. Some towns use metal folding chairs or wooden benches to accommodate the voters, which discourage folks from nodding off but also have the advantage of encouraging them to keep things moving along. We spend the day (except for lunch) in a theater.
This town was once considered part of another town and meetings were originally held there, way the hell over the hill. Tired of heading out before dawn and climbing a snow covered mountain every time the first Tuesday of March rolled around, the folks over here eventually declared independence and started a town of their own, closer to home.
No matter where it is held — or the way it is run, with hybrids popping up that incorporate Australian ballots and “informational sessions” — Town Meeting is an integral and iconic part of small-town life in Vermont. The national news will portray it as a quaint throwback to a different, simpler time, but it is complicated and very much here and now. With long-held traditions and well-documented histories, Town Meetings have spawned tales and anecdotes aplenty that are as much a part of Vermont as answering the question, “How’s the wife?” by asking, “Compared to what?”
Some of the aforementioned tales have been told many times and are still passed around today. The late Dr Allen Foley, Professor Emeritus of American History at Dartmouth College, assembled a collection of stories that are quintessentially Vermont in his small book “What the Old-Timer Said.” (Some of the same stories, or variations thereof, can also be found in movies like “Funny Farm” with Chevy Chase and TV shows like “Newhart” with Bob Newhart.)
My copy of “What the Old-Timer Said” is from the second printing, released in 1971, and is signed by Dr. Foley. The full title is “What the Old-Timer Said to the Feller from Down-Country and even to His Neighbor — when He Had It Coming.” Despite the long title, it’s a slim volume but it holds a prominent place on my shelf with other collections of Vermont legends, folklore, and anecdotes. Town Meeting is well represented.
Two stories in Dr. Foley’s book strike me as especially amusing, one because it exemplifies the thorough reading of Town budgets and deliberative process of Town Meeting (even though the subject and attitudes are dated). The other amuses me because it is as timeless as it is true, coming from a scenario that has played out for as long as there have been roads and people from other places to drive them.
First, a bit of misogyny from the old days, when towns contracted out the care of indigent or less fortunate community members, and struggled to recover costs for expenses incurred:
In the old days when Town Meetings in Vermont were inclined to be more expansively deliberative than they are now, and often more personal, a gentleman arose and informed the Moderator that he had a few questions.
“First, Mr. Moderator, if you will turn to page twenty-one of the Town Report — I want to ask if I am correct in saying that it cost the town one hundred and twenty-five dollars for Mary Brown to have her illegitimate baby?”
The Moderator looked at page twenty-one and allowed as how his questioner was correct.
“Then second, Mr. Moderator, if you look on page eighteen –Is it true to say that the town collected one hundred and fifty dollars from the young man who admitted to being the father of the child?”
The Moderator agreed that was also correct.
“Then my third question, Mr. Moderator. Is it true that the town made a profit of twenty-five dollars on this deal?”
“Well,” said the Moderator, “I suppose you could put it that way.”
“All right then, Mr. Moderator, my fourth and final question is: Don’t you think it might pay the town to breed her again?”
True or not, that’s just the kind of going-over a budget can get when reports are mailed out in February and snow-bound, stir-crazy citizens have a whole month to study them before Town Meeting. I doubt the profitable breeding of young women was ever taken seriously at a Town Meeting, but I guess you never know, especially in a state that once was home to a strong eugenics movement. Tomorrow we will vote on how best to take care of those less fortunate, but not in a way that pays the town. We will vote on allocations to non-profit organizations that serve the needs of our village and neighbors, including food banks, transportation services and the like, along with a medical clinic and doctors we share with five other towns.
The other story related by Dr. Foley that I like reportedly took place in our village (there is no mention of the town where Mary Brown had her baby). I find it amusing because it is so darn true. No date is ascribed to Dr. Foley’s version, but variations of it have played out every winter that I can remember:
It seems the Selectmen were asked to “… explain why, during a rough winter, the town roads weren’t getting more sand and salt. Some of the newer residents were particularly vocal, and after some backing and filling a spokesman for that group got the First Selectman to admit that the town had a good supply of both sand and salt.
“Why don’t you use them more freely?” asked the citizen.
“Can’t,” replied the Selectman.
“But that’s the nub of the matter,” the spokesman said. “Why can’t you?”
“Just can’t,” said the old-timer. “Sometime we’re bound to be needing ’em.”
The newcomers still kick up a fuss about the winter-time condition of our town’s dirt roads and the Select Board still explains the finite nature (and rising costs) of sand piles. I look forward to tomorrow’s conversation, and all the others that will seem to have no end. But someone will call the question and we’ll vote whether or not to vote; someone else might call for an amendment and there may even be an amendment to the amendment; a motion will be made and seconded and we’ll vote on that, but if someone doesn’t like the voice vote a division of the house will be in order and we’ll stand up for our yeas and nays; a paper ballot might settle the issue if dividing the house is unsatisfactory or on items where it is required by State Statute and, when that is all said and done, we’ll move on to the next item on the agenda. All twenty-eight of them.
Our own tribute to Bob Newhart’s vision of Vermont and people from other places can be found in the post “Thank You for Littering” . The video below, from the movie “Funny Farm” is short, to the point, and very, very Vermont.
Funny farm is one of my favorite movies because it told me what New Englanders are really like.