Out & About: Historian explores migration, Vermonter definition

Valley News Calendar Editor
Monday, April 15, 2019

THETFORD — What does it mean to be a Vermonter?

The question has long inspired debate. Some hardliners suggest that, unless your descendants were settled prior to the American Revolution, you can’t use the title. I’ve also heard the frame of reference is three generations. Some community members I’ve spoken with have said somewhat jokingly (but with an air of seriousness) that you can live here most of your life — yet if you weren’t born in the Green Mountain State, you will always be considered a “flatlander.”

Vermont, like other New England states, has experienced population growth and loss throughout the centuries of its existence. Currently, the state is looking to attract more residents and the senate recently passed a bill that would pay people to relocate to Vermont.

In that vein, the topic for the Thetford Historical Society’s annual spring lecture series is “Migration Nation.” At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 25, historian Jill Mudgett will give a talk titled “Vermonters, Coming and Going.” The free program will take place at Thetford Academy, 304 Academy Road.

“Settlement really kicks in after the American Revolution,” Mudgett said in a recent interview. Beginning in the 1820s, however, farmers started to look west toward Ohio and Indiana to raise their crops.

Some family members would leave and write to those who stayed in Vermont encouraging them to join them.

“Sometimes people wanted to leave and often they didn’t want to leave because they felt an attachment to the landscape,” Mudgett said.

But as people kept leaving throughout the 1830s and 1840s, other immigrants started to move to Vermont. For example, Italians arrived to work in the quarries in Barre.

“If you look you can find really great quotes about how they were happy … the geography of Barre reminded them of Northern Italy,” Mudgett said.

Another migration period was the arrival of people who were part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and 1970s. While there was some conflict between the new kids and the old-timers, that wasn’t always the case.

“They will tell you stories about the way that they bonded,” Mudgett said. “These hippie kids move up the road and don’t know how to survive the winter and this farming couple takes them under their wings.”

At a time when people born in the state were looking outward for opportunity, the migration of the young and their interest in farming helped strengthen communities.

But, who exactly qualifies to be called a Vermonter?

“I hate that question. There’s no way to answer that question to please everybody,” Mudgett said.

Instead of tying the word “Vermonter” to the number of years someone has resided in the state, it may better to ascribe it to certain ideas such as self-sufficiency and respect for the land.

“I think to be a good Vermonter … you need to be open to the ways the state will be changing and should embrace some of the changes of the 21st century,” Mudgett said. “Diversity, for example, would be good for Vermont.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the lecture, email info@thetfordhistoricalsociety.org or call 802-785-2068. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.