Seasoning Vermont: When Fall Became a Product

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine on 10.16.21 in the “Remember When” column with the title “Falling for Vermont

Frank O. Duffy, a postal worker from Mattapan, Massachusetts, had been visiting Wallingford for more than 40 years. His friend, Patrick J. Muiry, of Boston, had “discovered” the town back in 1895. And now, the retired Mr. Duffy was staying at Maple Grove Farm for his annual October vacation. The foliage was, he told the Rutland Daily Herald, “as gorgeous as ever this year,” especially along the “back roads where October’s colors are gayest.”

It was 1937, and Vermont hadn’t long been a fall vacation destination. That is, until marketers decided it should be.

Out-of-state city-dwellers had been summering here since the early-1800s, traveling by carriage, and after 1850, by train, to enjoy the mineral springs and lakeside resorts that proliferated throughout the early decades of the century.

When the train came to Vermont, providing faster and more comfortable travel, middle-class families also began staying at city hotels, such as those in Rutland, Montpelier, Bellows Falls, Burlington and St. Johnsbury. Some village hotels, which in some cases were the refurbished inns of an earlier period, also attracted visitors.

But toward the last third of the century, Vermont saw a decrease in its population — both seasonal and native-born.

Vacationers began to visit states that boasted “main attractions,” such as Maine’s Bar Harbor or Newport, Rhode Island. Although also a mountainous state, New Hampshire drew vacationing Victorians whose aesthetic at the time was for the craggy, “sublime” nature of its White Mountains. Vermont’s more pastoral land — dedicated to farming practically devoid of forests at this time — no longer appealed as it once had.

Meanwhile, farmers were abandoning their land — mostly hillside farms — and heading west or into the growing cities. By 1872, the Vermont State Board of Agriculture was concerned. Its First Annual Report proposed a variety of ways to keep people on the farms. According to The Selling of Vermont by Andrea Rebek, “Suggestions were offered on how to make farm life more pleasant; farmers were urged to make improvements to augment farm value, and to be proud of their land and achievements. Above all, one theme was constant: ‘Vermont as home.’”

It didn’t work.

Even after the Vermont Legislature appointed a commission to figure out how to make the state more appealing and productive and the Vermont State Board of Agriculture actively recruited immigrant farmers — from Sweden, in particular — the rural population continued to decline.

The thinkers of the time turned to tourism as a possible solution. It was thought that city people — of “proper moral bearing,” of course — could bring the state back to life. One writer believed summer migration would solve a myriad of social problems because, as he wrote in 1891, “the cultivation of rural tastes… (is) a source of mental and spiritual health. The hills, the fields, the woods, the brooks, the open sky, are the natural heritage and instructors of men.”

By 1922, Vermont author Dorothy Canfield Fisher, concerned about the state’s lack of financial resources for educational and social needs, extolled the virtues of Vermont in an essay written for The Nation. As reported in the Caledonian Record on Oct. 6, 1922, John Barrett, speaking at the Vermont Hotel Association meeting in Manchester, promoted the “liberal ‘selling’ of the state.”

Barrett argued that “Vermont’s chief need of the moment is effective newspaper and magazine selling and advertising of the state’s attractions as resources and possibilities.”

“Vermont’s truthful appeal in … climate, air, and scenery … is recognized altogether too little throughout New England, New York and elsewhere,” Barrett said. “Picture for a moment what it would mean in fine publicity if all the dailies and weeklies in Vermont … should publish special illustrated … supplements … Hundreds of thousands of the right kind of people could be reached.”

At this time, Fisher and Barrett were still focused on selling Vermont to the summer folk. But by the 1930s, tourism marketers had figured out how to peddle something else: Fall.

With automobiles and road trips ever more popular and Route 7 running from Massachusetts straight through Rutland and farther north, it was now possible to drive to Vermont for just a weekend, even during the school year. Seasonal brochures and films of the 1920s and 1930s — and starting in 1946, the magazine, Vermont Life — promoted Vermont’s (greatly romanticized) old-fashioned, pastoral charm — the preferred aesthetic of the new century. Foliage reports began popping up in New England newspapers, which, as of 1934, were sometimes filed by an “expert publicity man” reporting from an airplane.

And because of the blaze of color that lights up the serene Green Mountain State once a year — and the marketers who “sold” it — Mr. Frank O. Duffy, who “at first only spent summer vacations here,” was in 1937 spending another October of his retirement enjoying Vermont.

The irony is, the apple-picking and foliage-peeking for which tourists began to flock to the state — and still do; over one million of them just during the month of October (in non-pandemic years) — would not have been possible if so much of the farmland which had earlier dominated the state had not been abandoned in the century prior. It was then that the trees grew again.

The history of Vermont’s “branding” and marketing which began in the 1930s and lives on today, cannot, unfortunately, be discussed without mentioning the dark side of its conception: Eugenics. It is now well-known that Dorothy Canfield Fisher was tied to the eugenics program in Vermont. While serving on the Vermont Commission of Country Life in the 1930s, Fisher told on the committee on Tradition and Ideals that the state should hand-pick its summer people, and that preferably they should be “teachers, ministers, doctors, librarians and college professors,” suggesting that “prospective summer folk (should be protected) from any sharp dealing on the part of the hard-bitten hill farmers.” Her push to bring new people to the state was in fact part of a drive to entice, as Barrett said, “the right kind of people.” Even the recruitment of Swedes to take over the farms was intentional. They were, according to a writer of the time, “most likely to become hard-working, Protestant Vermonters,” unlike the “undesirable,” as they were described, Irish and French-Canadians. (For more on this, visit here)

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