Why Did They Go Away?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

When times grew dreadfully hard, Vermonters in their desperation turned to the manufacture of tonics, elixirs, and remedies of virtually miraculous powers. Paine’s Celery Compound not only made several modest fortunes in Burlington, but in far places it gave new hope to the nervous, the debilitated, and the aged, and brought astonishing vitality to thousands of outlanders, many of whom were moved to write testimonials of gratitude to the beneficent proprietors on Lake Champlain. In nearby Enosburgh Falls, Dr. B. J. Kendall was performing wonders with his sovereign spavin cure, and “Horse and Cattle Renovating Powders,” which he promoted from Bangor to Houston with the handsomest full-color lithographs ever seen in cow barns and livery stables. Lyndonville’s fame rested on the sound base of millions of cans of Kow Kure (Registered) going forth to every state in the Union.

Lesser alchemists were also at work making bitters and pain killers in astounding variety and volume, none of which ever went sour or moldy for lack of an alcohol preservative. Few Vermonters know that over the years their state’s official Census of Leading Manufacturers seldom failed to list “Patent Medicines and Compounds” which, by 1900, had a value exceeding $82,000,000 and stood only a little below “Marble and Stone.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Up and down and across the state, on isolated farms and in the villages, hundreds of men and women started little ventures that failed. Persuasive agents sold them mulberry bushes, complete with busy silk worms, from which they were told they could expect fortunes. Again, they bought poppy seeds and special machinery which, so the man said, would produce a fine grade of opium, bring a high price, and would be used only for the alleviation of pain, surely a Christian enterprise. Meanwhile, in their despond, they were assaulted and fermented by Dorrilites, Mormons, Perfectionists; by temperance shouters, hydrotherapists, and anti-nicotine soldiers; by Abolitionists, anti-calomel men, and Grahamites; by Thomsonians, homeopaths, and Adventists; and by assorted Sabbatarians, feminists, anti-Masons, Friends of Liberia, and vegetarians. Indeed, one group of Vermonters took off for Kansas with the doomed Vegetarian Settlement Company. Oneida Community in New York, founded by Vermonter John Humphrey Noyes and one of the most successful communal experiments in Nineteenth-Century America, could scarcely have come into being without the many Vermonters who emigrated to Oneida. It is of course well-known that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were born in Vermont, but less known that Smith’s amanuensis while the Book of Mormon was being translated was a Vermont youth, Oliver Cowdery; or that six of Prophet Smith’s wives were natives of Vermont; or that four of the original Twelve Apostles were born in the Green Mountains.

Whether Vermont’s émigrés were usually the bolder and more energetic, or merely those who had not done well on the home ground, has been for years a subject discussed in Vermont and elsewhere. One may take either side and win the argument, then turn around and make hash of both theories. In the West one often heard and read that Vermonters were watchers of pennies, savers of string, eaters of shoe box lunches on trains, wearers of shiny clothes, tippers of nickels and dimes. (Wrong: Coolidge always tipped fifteen cents.) This is merely the great western brag in reverse, an attempt prompted by a feeling of selfguilt to indict a people for two of their more admirable traits—the ingrained habit of spending less than they make, and a complete disregard for the façade of ostentation. The gods of the hills are not the gods of the valleys of Texas or California, and possibly not the gods of anywhere west of Lake Champlain.

A little over a century ago an observer wrote that “The inhabitants of Vermont are of a character equal in strength to the austerity of their beliefs.” In forty years I have come to think that those who stayed home have shown as much ability and considerably more courage than those who went away. On periodic visits I see on every hand the remains, and often the ruins, of the Nineteenth Century. I cherish them too. On every hand is also the bustle and style of the Twentieth Century that is called Progress. I do not happen to cherish this, but it goes to show that the inhabitants are not the morose mossbacks of tradition.

You can still find kerosene lamps in use. Yet no industry has brought its technology to a higher level than that of the marble and stone quarries, unless it be that of the maple sugar men. It seems unnecessary to more than mention the many “progressive” schools in Vermont villages which attract pupils from all over the country. The several ski tows operate by Diesel power. Hunting and fishing are infinitely better than in my youth, for the conservation efforts of this alert state have supplemented the work of its lively Development Commission.