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Why Did They Go Away?

May 2024
10min read

The restlessness of Vermonters, says a native son, peopled many other states—but a solid core remains

Fifty years ago on a shelf of Monadnock Mountain in Essex County, Vermont, were the empty cellar of a house, the foundations of a barn, and the stubborn remains of an orchard. To us youngsters these things were the ruins of some ancient and extinct civilization, pervaded with the same mystery that held the excavators of Pompeii. The find of a bullet mold, or a pewter spoon, was an event comparable to the uncovering of the Temple of Apollo. There was also the melancholy of times past. One felt it in contemplating the lilacs which still struggled feebly in the smothering brush to put out a few pale blossoms. The great slab of pure granite lay where the door had been; to move it a hair would have called for a yoke of oxen the like of Job’s.

Each empty cellar on all Vermont’s many hills asked the same question: Why did they go away? Forty years ago I went away, and though I am still uncertain why I left, yet in forty years and nigh forty returns to my native state, I have come to an understanding of why Vermonters deserted their beautiful country in such astounding numbers and also why those who remained have continued to live—fairly prosperous, commonly happy, and above all in a sort of bemused wonder that anybody could want to live anywhere else.

Professional genealogists have complained that Vermont is a stumbling block in their researches, that only too often a generation is “lost” somewhere in the Green Mountains. They should bear in mind that for nearly half a century after the first settlements, the region was a no man’s land. Some declared it to belong to New York province. Others held it to be the New Hampshire Grants. Until admitted as the fourteenth state in 1791, Vermont was pretty much a wilderness and a violent wilderness at that. Little wonder if few private or public records were kept, or if even fewer survived the partisan raids and general chaos of this freewheeling time, a period that was characterized perfectly by Ethan Allen, both patriot and real-estate operator, whose Onion River Land Company gave him more trouble than his celebrated military exploit at Ticonderoga. In the latter case, both Jehovah and the Continental Congress were, said he, on his side. In the former business, however, the “whole avaricious, insatiable, and inhuman land-owning class” of York State opposed him. In defying this hideous monster, Colonel Alien, who was seldom at a loss for words, delivered a line that Vermonters, it no others, have quoted often these past 185 years. “Sir,” said he to John Taber Kempe, attorney general for New York, in refusing to compromise on land titles, “Sir, the gods of the hills are not the gods of the valleys.”


It was cryptic. Perhaps it was meaningless. Yet it had that indefinable something about it men remember through generations.

Though in recent times genteel writers have tried to sol’ten somewhat the story of Vermont’s formative years, the record indicates it to have been a rough-and-tumble region and its settlers superbly fitted to live there. The British General Burgoyne remarked of it as a place “which abounds in the most active and rebellious race on the continent.” A little later Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College and the authentic whale of Yankee pedagogs, was appalled almost but not quite beyond words by what he termed the “forester class” in Vermont, meaning the pioneering type, and he urged the founding of a college at Middlebury, hoping it might do something to break these shiftless people of a habit which he called in so many words their “orgies of dram-taking.” Then he went away from there. So did wave upon wave of his shiftless and restless topers.

Unquestionably they were restless, but shiftless was hardly the right word. Jim Fisk made a fortune in New York City. H. A. W. Tabor made another in Colorado. Jehudi Ashmun became “the Father of Liberia.” John Deere went away to put his name on a million plows. Two obscure Vermont preachers founded a beacon light in the West which they named Oberlin, then financed it by making and selling the cooking stoves one of them invented and patented. Joshua Stoddard went away to devise the steam-organ called calliope.

They were not only restless; they came in all styles. Paul Harris of Wallingford founded Rotary International. Sile Doty of St. Albans was, before the James-Younger era, the most energetic and notorious allaround bandit in the United States. Jason Lee founded the first American mission west of the Rockies. Conceived in Grand Isle County, Vermont, and born in Illinois to emigrants William Alonzo Hickok and wife Polly was a son, James, who became Wild Bill the frontier marshal. George Dewey took Manila. Louis Sherry led Manhattan’s wealthy. And Mrs. Stowe declared that her “Simon Legree” was a real person born in Vermont. So were two of Lincoln’s severest critics, Thaddeus Stevens and Stephen Douglas.

Whether or not the characteristic restlessness of Vermonters is wholly environmental or is due in part to heredity is for the many experts to settle. In any case their yeasting had become, by the middle of the last century, something of a scandal. Writing then of Yankee emigration in the Hartford Courant , an observer discussed the large numbers of natives who had been leaving the New England states. One by one he ticked them off, the figures of the émigrés growing greater and hence more disheartening as Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut passed in review. Then he came to Vermont. One can almost see and hear him, this reviewer of shame, as he girded his loins to tackle the “most active and rebellious race on the continent”; and fancy the emotion in his pen as he went on to write that the figures quoted for the other five commonwealths paled to nothing compared to what had been going on in the Green Mountains. That is, in proportion. Almost half of the living natives of Vermont, said he, were living elsewhere than at home—53,000 in York State, 15,000 in Ohio, 12,000 each in Illinois and Michigan, almost as many in Wisconsin. And God alone, he went on, and certainly not the immigration authorities, knew how many Vermont people had moved into the provinces of upper and lower Canada.

Vermont is a four-season state

The exodus did not end in 1850. It continued briskly enough to 1890, a decade in which Vermont’s population increase was less than one-tenth of one per cent, indicating, when births and deaths and immigration were taken into consideration, a still notable departure of natives. By 1900 there were 343,641 people living in Vermont, and the saying was current that the state had more cows than people. This wasn’t quite true, but it was near enough.

Why they went away is something not to be learned in a moment, or charted in a graph. The reasons were almost as many as there were emigrants. A mortgage, a death, a fire—these were things not found in the record of the movements of peoples. The conventional reasons usually cited include the Year of No Summer, which was 1816; the more or less organized excitements of religious sects: and the great Merino Sheep Mania. This latter item deserves capitals. Raising sheep demanded more pasture than was readily available. Hill farms were bought by the sheepmen and turned into range; and the hill farmers went away. Go look at the maps prepared by Louis Stilwell to show what happened to the sheep towns. They have never recovered from the blight of the Merino boom which collapsed suddenly but not soon enough. Many thousands of Vermonters left home while their hills tinkled with the belled music occasioned by 1,700,000 sheep eating the life’s blood out of fields and wood lots. The same land had supported the people who laid those uncounted miles of stone fence, who fought New York and wolves, the British and Congress, and wallowed in snow up to their ears, establishing meanwhile the first American state whose constitution expressly forbade that a man should be held in bondage against his will.

Thousands more left home for a reason that the academic sociologists will not recognize. This was the identical reason that had brought their fathers to Vermont in the first place, namely a devoutly held belief that the grass was greener on the other side of the mountain. They had, in short, become professional pioneers, the sort of people destined almost never to be the oldest living citizens of a given community. “Man moves with the sun,” declared Thoreau. He was three-quarters wrong. Vermonters crossed two mountain ranges to settle Maine. They moved in droves to the eastern townships of Quebec. They went in organized groups to Tennessee and Carolina. They helped to drive Indians out of Michigan so they might found Vermontville in the midst of 5,000 acres of fine rock (sugar) maples; went on to build a few cabins in Iowa and call them Burlington; then walked across the Great American Desert to Oregon.

The coming of the new steam cars did nothing to halt emigration. It merely changed local conditions. The steam cars tended to concentrate population along the tracks. Elsewhere the villages started to fade and with them went the many little water-driven mills and factories that had been making textiles, flour, clothing, clocks, calf-weaners, and numerous things in the nature of Yankee notions. Maple sugar continued to be the chief source of income of a large part of the rural population.

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.

In surmounting the difficulties of a static population and depleted natural resources, the Vermonters at home surely displayed great courage. They could, as the saying is, take it. When I was there late in 1938 to write about the hurricane which had hit New England in September, I went with an old friend to see what had happened to his sugar place. It was a shambles of some 1,800 fine old maples. There in a pile of jackstraws lay his chief income. It was something like a funeral. I wanted to commiserate the bereaved. The proper words would not form. The best I could offer was an inane observation that it must have been one hell of a wind. The farmer gazed a long moment at the desolation, took the pipe from his mouth, and spoke. “Well,” he said, “she wasn’t no zephyr.”

I asked about salvage. A government feller had been there, he related, and told him he could sell the wrecked trees to an outfit that made cellophane. The farmer knew about cellophane. It was that stud “they clutter up everything with these days.” No, he didn’t think he’d let them have his trees; he thought too much of good rock maple to see it wasted that way. “But,” he added, “I’m sure going to have stove wood to last me until my Jerseys turn Holstein and start giving Democrat milk.”


His remarks did not happen to fit into my story, but they made me know again that the character of at least one inhabitant of Vermont was equal in strength to the austerity of his beliefs. The spirit of Ethan Allen was not wholly dissipated by time. The gods of the valleys still did not count for much in the hills of Vermont. I don’t think they do today.

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