“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Age of Burke

Burlington's First Progressive Era

When Theodore Roosevelt visited Burlington in September 1902 he brought some kind words for Vermonters. He had been to the Queen City a year earlier, on the very day he found out that President McKinley had been shot by what the papers were calling a “crazed anarchist.” But now the “wild man,” the “damned cowboy” hated by Wall Street, Vice President under McKinley for less than a year, had returned as President.
     Burlington Mayor Donley C. Hawley stood with Roosevelt at the train barn near the waterfront, surrounded by flags and bunting. “You have always kept true to the old America ideals," the President told the Vermonters, "the ideals of individual initiative, of self-help, of rugged independence, of the desire to work and willingness, if need, to fight.”
     Still, Republicans like Hawley were suspicious. Roosevelt’s rhetoric about a “square deal” for working people and control of big business sounded radical. But Democrats like James E. Burke were unabashed admirers. Burke was already the leading spokesman for the city’s growing Democratic Party. He was also promoting a fusion movement with dissident Republicans. Like Roosevelt, he projected himself as a pragmatic reformer, thriving on idealism, moral outrage and an ability to inspire the masses.

     Born in Williston on May 4, 1849, from a family that admired the British populist Edmund Burke, he had emerged as the leader of a new Irish, Democratic opposition in the city. Son of Irish Catholic immigrants from Canada, he‘d begun his political career at almost 50 years old, identifying himself as a champion of the poor, labor, and ethnic newcomers. He was also known and well-liked as a blacksmith.
     To many local Yankee “puritans” James Burke was something else entirely: a dangerous “papist,” implying that his main allegiance was to the Catholic Church. But he found more than enough support at the foot of University Hill – in low-income neighborhoods, tenements near the railroad tracks and along the waterfront. These were the city’s ethnic neighborhoods at the time, populated not only by the Irish but also Germans, Italians, Jews, and French Canadians. In 18 citywide races between 1903 and 1937, Burke lost only twice in these “immigrant” wards. They were also the base for his five-year foray into “third party” politics during the 1930s Depression – the Citizens Party.
     Burke’s first victory came in 1893, when he was elected to the Board of Aldermen from Ward 4, then the city’s waterfront area. Two years later he was appointed to the Board of Police Examiners. But he couldn’t recapture his aldermanic seat in 1899, and his first two runs for mayor, in 1900 and 1902, were unsuccessful.

Power Struggles

On March 3, 1903, the hotly contested mayoral race between Burke and incumbent Republican Donley Hawley drew an overflow crowd to the city clerk’s office. The men – only males could vote – perched on windowsills and stood on the rail that surrounded the aldermanic table. As the results for each ward were announced the winning side cheered.
     Hawley, a surgeon, came out of top in affluent areas, but Burke’s persistence was finally paying off in the immigrant wards. Plus, he had two compelling issues this time around: a proposed city-owned light plant and local licensing of saloons.
     When the final votes were tallied, Hawley had a three-vote margin. But the reason was that City Clerk Charles Allen refused to count ballots that had been marked twice. Burke was livid. “Those who laugh last laugh best,” he proclaimed. “There are many men who voted today for me and whose ballots were thrown out. We propose to have them counted.”
     Good to his word, Burke took the matter to the Vermont Supreme Court and won, gaining certification of an 11-vote victory by early summer.
     It took more time, but he also got the light plant. Two years later, during his third term, Burke’s daughter Loretta pressed a button at the bandstand in City Hall Park energizing two circuits of streetlights with power from the newly built plant.
     Municipal power had enormous appeal. In December 1902 the Vermont legislature had authorized the city to furnish electricity, purchase needed land – by eminent domain if necessary, and issue bonds for the work. However, it also approved the incorporation of a privately-owned company, Burlington Light and Power, which would subsequently compete with – and sue – the city over the management of energy distribution.
     Burlington Light and Power was founded by B.B. Smalley and Urban Woodbury. In 1892, Smalley, a wealthy Democrat, had run for governor. But his main focus was business, as a corporate lawyer, banker, and president of the Burlington Gas Light Company. Woodbury was his closest business associate, president of the Consolidated Electric Company, a founding board member of Smalley’s Burlington Gas Light, and a war hero who had been mayor and lieutenant governor. In fact, two years after Smalley ran for governor in 1892 and lost Woodbury ran as a Republican and won.
     Only a week after Burke was declared Mayor by the state Supreme Court he asked the alderman to approve bonds for a light plant. Two days later, on June 11, he staged a special city-wide meeting to vote on a proposed $150,000 investment. Woodbury spoke against the plan, along with Elias Lyman, owner of the area’s big coal company and Burlington Traction Company, the local mass transit monopoly. Both men were hissed by members of the audience as they spoke.
     Local voters clearly favored public power, and within ten years the city was generating over one million kilowatt hours with a turbine generator. Despite widespread support, however, the owners of the competing private power company did not cave in. Instead, when the city was on the verge of expanding its department in 1910, Burlington Light and Power made a competing bid to supply energy for street lights, public buildings and parks. When it was turned down the private utility company filed an injunction to prevent the city from issuing new bonds.
     The lawsuit was dropped after two years, since it wasn’t possible to prove that commercial lighting supplied by the city would increase public debt. But Burlington Light and Power did eventually win a battle in court, using a 1904 agreement with the city as the basis for its argument.
     To avoid duplication as demand for electricity increased, the city had made a deal to share utility pole space with the company. Since the city used Light and Power poles, it was supposed to pay a 20 cent per year fee for each wire attached. But the city stopped paying in 1909, claiming that it had a right to use the tops of all poles without charge. Light and Power cried foul, especially since the city was their chief competitor. The Court agreed. No matter what the City Charter said, the light department had to pay up.
     That defeat didn’t change the direction in which the city was moving, however. When Green Mountain Power offered $1 million to lease the department for 20 years the city declined. During those years public power brought Burlington more than $2 million in profit. In 1953, the department became a city monopoly when it bought Green Mountain Power’s franchise.

Next: Attempted Fusion – The Burke-Clement Alliance

Monday, April 10, 2017

Cleaning Up the World: Memories of Vermont's First Earth Day

While reporting for the Bennington Banner, I had the opportunity to cover Vermont's first Earth Day in April 1970. Locally, the environmental faithful gathered that morning in Barn 1 on the Bennington College campus to help kick off the day's events with a frank discussion on the future of the planet. 
      Three keynote speakers meant three different viewpoints. Harvey Carter, then a young Republican lawmaker from Pownal, called for community action to influence legislation and elect candidates concerned with the emerging crisis. Local business leader Joseph E. Joseph urged better education and more constructive use of technology. And conservationist John Bischof said the key was each individual's commitment to change society, "even if we have to choose voluntary poverty."
      When Bischof explained that he was an organic farmer, the response was a round of applause. "The individual can change society," he said. For me, that related to a "visual pollution" project I had covered for the newspaper. David Wasco, a student at the high school who would later become a production designer for major Hollywood films, was collecting photos for a display of Bennington's visual deficiencies, things like poorly designed buildings, bad locations, inadequate maintenance, and trash piles. It was original, individual, the kind of thing that often can make a difference.  
Bennington Stream / Greg Guma Photo
      Several Vermont communities participated in what had been billed as a national "day of concern." At Middlebury College, Governor Dean Davis, Lt. Governor Tom Hayes and Attorney General Jim Jeffords -- Republicans all -- led a discussion of environmental problems with students and teachers. In Montpelier, Vermont College hosted a two-day observance that began with a speech by the governor on "The Aspects of Pollution." The second day featured classes, films, and more speakers, culminating in a talk by Reinhold Thieme, the former Vermont Commissioner of Water Resources who recently had been appointed a deputy assistant in the Interior Department.
      Taking the lead from Green Up Day, a campaign to clear roads of litter, Vermont College students demonstrated the scale of the problem by piling all the garbage normally collected at the school in one week inside a wire mesh enclosure.
      Carter was skeptical about Green Up, claiming it had been "cooked up" by the governor's assistant Al Moulton, and even questioned the effectiveness of pending legislation. Mentioning the Pure Water Act, which gave the Water Resources Board authority to set standards, he noted that it also gave the Board the ability to set low standards and permit temporary, or even permanent, pollution of streams. "I had to have the law amended to protect water near Readsboro," he explained. 
      Vermont had recently adopted what was lauded as the most effective package of environmental controls in the country, a model for other states. It was becoming fashionable to be an "environmentalist," especially after mercury was discovered in most of Vermont's waterways. Developers were meanwhile exploiting quick money by developing leisure home tracts, while the attorney general hinted at an organized crime connection.
      Politicians, many of whom hadn't heard of ecology a year before, now lined up to pass laws that they claimed would save the state from pollution and threats to the land. The heart of the package was the creation of nine district environmental commissions that would watchdog pollution and control development. Echoing Richard Nixon, Governor Davis called it a chance to "apply our creative localism theory."  
     Some lawmakers said the new laws weren't strict enough. As David Scribner wrote at the time, "They pointed to certain loopholes, argued that they were drafted without consultation with environmental experts, did not adequately coordinate various state agencies, and particularly, that they excluded a determination of what environmental damage was incurred by government projects."
      To many people, the state land use map proposed by the governor looked more like a blueprint for development than a means to define an environmentally sound approach to growth. Beneath the veneer of environmental concern lurked attitudes and assumptions that could open the way toward an ecological crisis down the line. 
      "The thinking is that we can manage the environment, create problems, and then use technology to solve them," Carter charged. "That is sheer nuttiness."  
      The Earth Day discussion with Carter, Joseph and Bischof was followed by workshops, with both civil disagreements about whose approach was safest and practical ideas for developing a more self-sufficient community. Despite the prevailing optimism, one participant did predict, "A catastrophe is going to occur." 
      BE, a new environmental group also based in Bennington, was already working on an ecological survey, with longer-term plans to act as an information center for residents with questions and concerns. Students were meanwhile preparing a personal ecology handbook.
      Dartmouth College took the opportunity that day to announce a new Environmental Studies Program that would bring students "to grips with the problems of controlling and reversing the damaging encroachments of modern man and technology upon the Earth's ecology." To be co-directed by geology professor Charles Drake and public affairs professor Frank Smallwood, the program was expected to involve significant research and interdisciplinary undergraduate courses as a supplement in traditional major fields.
      During his talk, Carter called Earth Day "a safety value," and hoped to see more "in terms of political action," specifically support for candidates "concerned with the environment." Joseph, president of the Bennington Brush Co, was more skeptical, calling Earth Day "an intellectual approach to the problem. While the community may know what it means, that's as far as it goes."
      A campaign to "clean up the world" requires consistent leadership, the businessman argued. "Children in school must be taught not to pollute. All you have to do is drive around the community to see how people live and will continue to live, unless a catastrophe occurs." It was a surprisingly grim outlook.
      About a month after covering Earth Day, I left the Banner and went to work for Bennington College as Publications Director. It was the end of a semester marked by environmental engagement and escalating political action. You couldn't visit the school without hearing phrases like resist the draft, zero population growth, and "man is an endangered species." Best of all, I arrived in time to meet Kurt Vonnegut -- and hear him issue this sharp, funny observation in his commencement address: 
     "The majority of people who rule us, who have our money and power, are lawyers and military men. The lawyers want to talk our problems out of existence. The military men want us to find the bad guys and put bullets through their brains. These are not always the best solutions -- particularly in the fields of sewage disposal and birth control."
       It does capture the mood. But so does another slogan seen around campus that year. 
       "The rich and powerful are killing all the butterflies.
       "If your children are to see butterflies you must be a revolutionary and yourself take control of your life and its surroundings." 
        Forty-seven years later, both outlooks still sound relevant. And Earth Day is still being celebrated. 

Here's the original Bennington Banner story... 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Boom and Bust in the Quarry Towns

October 18, 1935: In the depth of the Great Depression workers call a strike against Vermont Marble.

      As agriculture entered a long, slow decline in the late nineteenth century, many Vermonters turned to mining and manufacturing. Vermont's first marble quarries had been cut in Dorset in 1792 using gunpowder, saws, wagons and sleds. But the industry faltered through various business cycles until 1857, when major business interests raised it from a decade-long standstill.
      Then, in 1880, the Sutherland Falls Marble Company merged with the Rutland Marble Company, owned by New York banks and families, to form the Vermont Marble Company, which grew and took over smaller firms under Redfield Proctor. Within a few years it was the state’s largest corporation.
      By 1900 Vermont was producing half the country’s marble output.
      The benevolent ruler of both Vermont Marble and the company town named after him, Proctor provided workers with access to accident insurance, a company-owned bank and store, and a town library. As “friend and benefactor,” he also used his economic power to launch a political career, becoming a state legislator, governor, US Secretary of War and US Senator from 1891 to 1908.
Redfield Proctor, 1904
     In the Senate Proctor fanned the flames for the Spanish-American War and guided invasions of Chile and Peru. He also chaired the committee that awarded contracts for federal buildings, making certain that their exteriors were built with Vermont marble. The first was Indiana’s State Capitol, followed by the US Supreme Court Building and Jefferson Memorial.
      Following in his father’s footsteps, Fletcher Proctor acquired businesses for Vermont Marble in Swanton, Roxbury, Danbury, Brandon, Pittsford and Fletcher. “The ownership of one marble quarry is very precarious,” he explained. “The ownership of many marble quarries of diverse kinds and differently located may be fairly stable.” Also like his father, Fletcher used business as a springboard to the governor’s office.
      In 1882, the Proctors invited the first Italian immigrants to Vermont, five sculptors from Carrara. A flow of Italian marble workers and railroad builders into the state was soon underway. But accidents and dust in the quarries claimed lives. And before coming to the US some of the newcomers had been members of Italian “mutual aid societies.” Many were prepared to defend their rights with radical tactics and ideas.
      By the early twentieth century over half of Barre’s residents were Italian and 90 percent were unionized. There were 15 separate locals, including laundry workers, musicians and bartenders. A Central Labor Union coordinated the groups, and socialist mayors were elected in 1916 and 1929.
        When the Great Depression began, many Vermonters were still working in small industries. Employment was divided fairly evenly between mining, quarrying, forestry and machinery production, with somewhat fewer workers in textile mills. New Deal programs tried to prime the pump with public investments, but buying power continued to lag, businesses closed, and unsold goods collected dust.
      Some owners used Depression conditions as a rationale for layoffs and pay cuts. When this was attempted in Barre, granite workers launched a bitter two-month strike. Local residents backed the union, local tradesmen and farmers distributed free food, and a federal arbitration board looked for a compromise. On April 29, 1933 the Quarry Workers union rejected extension of the old contract for a second time. But the Granite Cutters accepted binding arbitration and the strike was practically settled by May 5.
      Two days later the National Guard arrived, creating easier access for strikebreakers. Soon most quarries were back to business as usual. The workers had been demanding union recognition in the open shop quarries. But the presence of the Guard, combined with compromise by the Granite Cutters union, left many people high and dry. The strike was basically broken during arbitration.
      At Vermont Marble the hard times, combined with increased costs, led to reduced services. Management dropped its free medical care and visiting nurses programs. By the mid-1930s the “company town” era was over in Proctor.
      Vermont Marble also claimed to be operating at a loss and therefore couldn’t consider any wage increases. The quarrymen didn’t believe it, and on October 18, 1935, more than a hundred of them decided to strike as a protest of management’s decision to stagger their hours, which meant work only three weeks out of every four. The workers wanted a 40-hour week, an hourly wage of 50 cents — up from 37, and recognition of their union for collective bargaining.
      Within a few days hundreds of other quarry workers were backing their action and demands. But management refused to negotiate. 
Vermont Marble Quarry
       That Thanksgiving at least a thousand striking workers and their families marched through Proctor in the rain to draw attention to their cause. This was followed in early December by a clash with the authorities and hired “security” resulting in serious injuries. The strike continued right through the winter.
      But after four months on the picket line about half of the employees returned to work. In the end they got a two and a half cent raise and inspired Vermont Rebels Again, a play about the campaign that opened in New York.
      By then, however, the Vermont legislature was ready to take a side, opting to help businesses troubled or threatened by worker militancy. A bill outlawing sit-down strikes was passed on April 7, 1937, making Vermont the first state to declare it illegal for employees to stop working but remain in their plant until a settlement was reached. 
     It was signed by Governor George Aiken, who had just been elected on an anti-New Deal platform. But Aiken wasn’t happy with the law and subsequently tried to mend fences with organized labor. He backed the creation of a state Department of Labor and, in 1938, helped to settle another granite workers strike.

This is the seventh in a series adapted from The Vermont Way, a study by Greg Guma released beginning in 2012

Friday, March 3, 2017

On the Waterfront: The Age of Burke 3

James Burke’s allies considered him honest and fearless, driven by civic pride and a sense of duty. His political enemies questioned his motives and called him a demagogue. He sometimes called them “corporate interests” or “foreign capitalists.”
     He was no friend of Elias Lyman’s coal company, for example, or of the Masons and the railroads. In his 1904 race for mayor, he publicly forced the Republican candidate, Rufus Brown, to deny that his campaign was financed by Burlington Gas Light.
     One of the most difficult crusades of Burlington’s first progressive era put him at odds with both the Central Vermont and Rutland Railroads over public ownership of waterfront land. The railroads had owned and controlled the water’s edge since Burlington emerged as a commercial center, and weren’t willing to let the city take any part of the land for a “public wharf.” That was precisely what Burke proposed to do.
     Robert Roberts, a Republican mayor before Burke, later claimed that the idea was really his own. This does make some sense, since he was on the executive committee of the Lake Champlain Yacht Club. That and the local trolley company were run by Lyman, who also headed the Board of Trade. But aside from having the idea Mayor Roberts did little about it during his time in office.

     The first breakthrough came in 1902. In December, only days after the city won a legislative go-ahead for a light plant, it also received approval to operate a “public wharf…for the landing, loading and unloading of boats and vessels.”[1] In addition, the city would be permitted to take land by eminent domain. The idea was popular and embraced by candidates of both political parties. By 1905 Burke was confident that Burlington would have a wharf within months. But months ended up stretching into years.
     Since the railroads were refusing to sell the city any land, Burke hunted down some frontage at the foot of Maple Street that had, as he put it, “escaped the eyes of corporate greed.”[2] Most land in that area was owned by the Rutland line. In June 1905, as the city sought construction bids, the railroad won a court order to block construction. Filling in the slip would destroy its “property right,” the company claimed.
     The court battle dragged on into the next mayoral election. The Burlington Free Press, whose staff member Walter Bigelow frequently ran against Burke, urged the city to negotiate with the other railroad, Central Vermont, for a lease while simultaneously accusing the mayor of trying to “make political capital” out of the issue.[3] 
     Burke won anyway, by 140 votes, mainly based on his popularity in waterfront neighborhoods. In his fourth annual message, he charged that, “The citizens of Burlington are getting impatient over this question (the wharf)…An outraged people will hold us responsible if we show any inclination of shirk our duty in this great battle now going on with corporate interests which are ever vigilant and successful in watching after their own interests.”[4] 
     Despite public opinion or impassioned speeches, Central Vermont aggressively opposed the city’s public wharf plans for three more years. In a variety of legal actions, including a 1909 Supreme Court case, the railroad put its objection this way: First of all, the city had no legal right to be a “wharfinger” – slang for running a wharf, and the land was already being used for a public purpose – that is, whatever the railroad chose.
     Second, they claimed federal approval was required by law – in this case by the Secretary of War, who had not spoken. In any case, the state law authorizing the city to seize land was unconstitutional as it denied the railroad due process. And finally, even if taking land on College Street was legal, it wasn’t necessary since the city already claimed to own another wharf site at the foot on Maple Street, not coincidentally land also claimed by Percival Clement’s Rutland Railroad.
     Like the private utilities, the railroads wanted to establish that Burlington had no legal right to run a public business that would “enter into competition with the world at large.” The state’s top judges disagreed. Vermont government could, they ruled, “build or aid others in building, wharves for public use and in aid of trade and commerce; and it is equally clear that whatever the state can do in this behalf, it can delegate to a municipality to do.”[5]
     The project didn’t have to be within the narrow purpose of local government, said Vermont’s High Court. It could be almost anything of special local benefit, anything considered “proper means for promoting the prosperity of its people.”
     The decision was handed down on January 16, 1909, less than two months before Burke returned to City Hall after defeats in 1907 and 1908. Even journalists such as James Tracy, who thought Burke tactless and possibly a dangerous demagogue, had to concede in a Vermonter Magazine profile that his persistence and success on the wharf issue had netted him “prestige among the common people who look upon him as a safe leader and wise counselor.”[6]
     Nevertheless, the negotiations continued to drag on. Optimism that Central Vermont might let go of its College Street property faded when the railroad, after agreeing to sell for $27,500, demanded to retain the right to run tracks across the property. The land was condemned and the corporation went back to court.
     Having lost at the ballot box, the economic establishment hoped to win by wearing down the opposition and exploiting technicalities. By 1910 Burlington was under legal attack by the railroads, Burlington Light and Power, and the Masons. Before all the disputes could be resolved, Burke, the politician at the center of them, was out of office again. His old rival Robert Roberts had returned to electoral politics after a ten-year absence to defeat the mayor in five of the city’s six recently-redrawn wards.
     But comebacks were Burke’s forte. In 1913 he made yet another one, and immediately after winning another term as mayor picked up his discussions with the railroads. Now he linked the purchase of wharf property with plans for a Union Passenger Station nearby.[7] The Public Service Commission was invited into the debate, and the Supreme Court ironed out the details. Both Central Vermont and the Rutland Railroad eventually accepted the city’s proposal. 
     In 1915 the city purchased 160 feet of lakefront property near College Street for $8,000. A decade-long battle with corporate power had been won. 

[1] Vermont General Assembly, December 11, 1902.
[2] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, April 3, 1905.
[3] Burlington Free Press and Times, June 7, 1905
[4] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, 1906.
[5] Vermont Supreme Court opinion, Burlington v. Central Vermont Railway, Co., January 16, 1909.
[6] James E. Tracy, The Mayor of Burlington, Vermonter Magazine, March, 1909.
[7] Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, 1913.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dark Shadows in Vermont's Past

By Greg Guma

Given the contemporary image of the Green Mountain State as a refuge and laboratory for independent and progressive thinkers it can be jarring to look at a not-so-distant past when Vermont was an isolationist bastion in which Native Americans had to call themselves gypsies to avoid sterilization.
     Cynthia D. Bittinger’s book, Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History, doesn't over-stress this dark chapter in state history. But the impact of Vermont’s eugenics movement does suggest the need to revisit and update the state's traditional narrative. In the 1930s and later, both immigrants to Vermont and any other “non-Yankees” were widely considered outsiders, at best. Since about half of all residents today are “transplants,” there is good reason to reconsider just who was and is a Vermonter, native, "real" or otherwise, and what has been previously omitted or downplayed in telling the state’s story.

     To start, even Calvin Coolidge, one of two Vermonters to become president, had Indian blood in his background. It was not so uncommon. Unlike many Abenakis, however, Coolidge did not feel the need to hide his ancestry. In fact, Vermont was viewed as the “last great white hope” of New England in the 1920s. But immigrants, “nomadic tribes” and others did not fit in with this squeaky clean image and a related “domestic hygiene” movement. 
     The state’s shameless plunge into control of “human breeding” was apparently driven by a mixture of xenophobia and a confused desire to weed out so-called defects. Harry Perkins, the University of Vermont professor who led the state’s Commission on Country Life, publicly justified eugenics as a way to build a healthier society, eliminate poverty and prevent genetic diseases. But he focused specifically on the “hereditary degeneracy” of many Native Americans and French-Canadians.    
     “Perkins was judging who was unfit to reproduce,” Bittinger writes. “So he drafted a sterilization law that would provide prevention of propagation by consent.” Passed in 1931, it promised that the procedure would be "voluntary." In reality, it largely wasn't. The total number sterilized is unknown, but the impact on Abenakis was reportedly dramatic. It took almost half a century for the state to publicly acknowledge this disturbing human rights crime. Vermont’s sterilization law remained in place until 1981.
    Bittinger also lends support to the idea that the winners get to write history with the case of the Abenakis, who lost their chance in large part by siding with the French before the American Revolution. However, what distinguishes her book is not so much the revisiting of well-known moments as the intriguing biographical sketches.
     In a section on settlers who were captured by Native Americans, she recounts the journey of Susanna Johnson. In a memoir Johnson described life at an Abenaki village north of Lake Memphremagog in 1754: people living “in perfect harmony, holding most of their property in common.” The Abenaki were kinder and gentler, Johnson concluded, than the French jailers she met later on.
    She also grapples with the significant, often underrated impact of African Americans on Vermont’s reputation for innovation and independent thinking. Among the leaders were Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave who resettled in Guilford and became the first African American poet in the United States; Lemuel Haynes, a minister in Rutland and first African American ordained by a U.S. religious denomination; and Alexander Twilight, the first to serve in any state legislature.
     Twilight was a teacher, but also designed Athenian Hall, a school and dormitory that is the home of the Orleans Historical Society. In 1836, a crucial transition period in Vermont, he fought to reform education funding in the Legislature.
     Vermont’s record in the struggle to end slavery is certainly laudable, and features a broad range of leaders and strategies. Still, when William John Anderson Jr. became the second black elected to the state legislature in 1945 – more than a century after Twilight's time – he could not enter the Montpelier Tavern and Pavilion Hotel.
     In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan actually saw a brief revival. There were cross burnings and rallies, but also acts of courageous resistance. In order to go after the KKK’s secrecy, Burlington passed an ordinance against wearing masks. Rutland residents responded by staging a boycott of any business owner who dared admit to Klan membership. Frequent condemnation by local newspapers also made a difference.
     On the other hand, Kake Walk, a minstrel show performed in blackface, continued at UVM fraternities until 1969. When confronted, UVM President Lyman Rowell defiantly refused to “remake the university” for the benefit of blacks. The student senate eventually ended the tradition. Bittinger concludes that the persistence of Kake Walk “revealed a state university with a real paradox on race issues.”
     The book’s third section, a refresher on women’s history, is subtitled “the other half of the story.” It begins by describing the lives of Native American women. They had a “large degree of authority,” she writes, and older native women were respected as authorities on herbal medicine, sacred matters and tribal history.
     In contrast, early female settlers from Europe “were dominated legally by patriarchy and religious beliefs.” These women could not own property, sign a contract or keep any wages they earned. Even though Vermont’s constitution promised education for all, most women obtained little before becoming parents.
     “A woman was only remembered through her connection to her husband,” Bittinger says. In fact, the word “relict,” meaning a widow but also an inferior person, was carved on tombstones rather than the maiden name of the deceased, a practice demonstrating that women were deprived of identity even in death.
    Bittinger’s portraits point to some overlooked cultural cross-currents. For example, Mother Ann Lee was a British “shaking Quaker” who resettled near Albany and attracted hundreds of Vermonters during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Among her disciples was Jane Blancard, who left patriarchy and farm life behind in Norwich after seeing visions and joined the movement.
     There was also Emma Hart Willard, who first opened a school for women in her Middlebury home in 1814. Willard may be the first woman to teach other women science and math. However, she decided that Vermont was not the ideal place to pursue her vision of higher education for women.   
     Clarina Nichols made a similar decision more than 30 years later after fighting for suffrage and other legal reforms. “She wanted to tackle a new state and set up new laws. Vermont was just too conservative, with patriarchy too entrenched.” The 19th century migration trend “often took the best and the brightest” out of Vermont. Even before the Civil War, almost 150,000 women left. It took a century until the emergence of women politicians like Consuelo Northrup Bailey and Madeleine Kunin.
     So, why did Vermont lag behind on women’s rights when it was ahead in other areas? 
     In June 1870, for example, a year after it was founded, the Vermont Suffrage Association brought its signature issue to a Council of Censors’ Convention. It was defeated 233 to one. The only yes vote was Harvey Howes of Fair Haven. Women had mounted an active lobbying campaign, but it somehow ended up alienating the press and clergy, which made the defeat more overwhelming than it might have been. Afterward, Howes found it impossible to obtain a publisher for a written defense of his position.
     For that matter, why did Vermont’s leaders resist giving women the vote until the bitter end?  
     When a suffrage bill finally passed in the state legislature in 1919, Governor Percival Clement – at one time the leader of a progressive fusion movement – called it unconstitutional and refused to sign. A year later, when the state was pressured to ratify the 19th amendment, he refused to call a special legislative session. What was he thinking?
     Years earlier, Clarina Nichols’ first appearance at the Statehouse – the first ever by a woman – had outraged many in the audience. Why? 
    Here’s a clue: fashion. The editor of the Rutland Herald literally threatened to come to the capital with a man’s suit -- and dress her in it. Furthermore, the year Nichols left the state, when feminist leader Lucy Stone told people in Randolph that they should withhold their taxes until women had the right to vote, what did the papers say? 
     They wondered why attractive young women in the audience were parading around in “unfeminine” bloomers.
     So, it looks like Vermont, along with its many achievements, has also practiced the provincial politics of exclusion, delay, and judging books by their covers.

Adapted from a review by Greg Guma first published September 9, 2012 on VTDigger. Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History, by Cynthia D. Bittinger, was published by The History Press.