By Karen D. Lorentz
The years 1879, 1891, 1916, 1931, the 1960s, 1970 and 2017 have much in common. Do you know why?
Here’s a clue: “Midway of the southern range of the Green Mountains… and close to the banks of the historic Otter where that stream winds its way through southwestern Vermont, is Rutland—by birthright and achievement the foremost city of northern New England. Nature has done much for Rutland. For no other city has she done more. Verdant, forest-clad slopes whose timberlands stretch away in almost endless expanse; rolling hills whose orchard foliage…” and the praise continued with mention of broad valleys, waterpower, mineral deposits, drinking water, and “a climate more healthful than that found elsewhere in almost the entire country; these are a few of the attributes with which Nature has endowed Rutland and its immediate vicinity.” Thus began a booklet that espoused Rutland as a city of “Resource and Opportunity,” published circa 1916 by the Rutland Business Men’s Association to promote the “Gateway to the Green Mountains.”
The introduction concluded with: “If you are looking for a place to locate for business, health or pleasure—visit us in ‘the Switzerland of America.’”
It wasn’t the first time Rutlanders sought to promote the region—nor the first comparison to the Swiss Alps.
There was considerable publicity out of Rutland in the 1880s after local citizens raised funds in 1879 to build a road to Killington Peak through the Mendon backcountry so as to capitalize on the new Summit House and the tourism that would spill over to local hotels.
From 1850 to 1880 Rutland tripled in population and aside from its good fortune of being a manufacturing and railroad center, it was the recipient of a favorable tourist trade enhanced by surrounding lakes and peaks.
Rutland was one of the exceptional “urban” areas. By contrast, most Vermont towns did not prosper, or if they did, it was short lived. By the turn of the century, “The Green Mountains of Vermont had become a biological wasteland, offering little for people to live upon—a dramatic change from the bounty of a century earlier,” concluded Charles W. Johnson in The Nature of Vermont.
Disease, storms, and the general ruggedness of climate with short growing seasons made survival difficult. Many simply gave up; by 1860 some 175,000 native Vermonters had fled the state. The economic downturn intensified the exodus; by 1880 Vermont had lost 54 percent of her native-born population to emigration! From 1850 to 1900, two out of every five Vermonters gave up the struggle and headed for greener pastures. Over 200 out of Vermont’s 256 towns lost population from 1850 to 1950.
It was within this context that in 1891 the state became the first in the nation to set up a publicity service, which became the Bureau of Publicity in 1911. Its first publication was entitled “Vermont, Designed by the Creator for the Playground of the Continent.”
In 1931 the Vermont Commission on Country Life, a group of 200 Vermonters, produced Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future. It pushed for tourism noting, “Vermont’s development as a recreational region affords the most promising opportunity for business growth in the state at the present time, and so far as can be foreseen, for a considerable period in the future.”
Vermont A Guide to the Green Mountain State (Federal Writers Project, 1937) extolled Rutland’s assets—mountain peaks of Killington, Pico, and Shrewsbury, marble industry, etc.—along with those of 13 other towns. Let Me Show You Vermont (Alfred Knopf, 1937) by Vermonter Charles Edward Crane provided a more personal and readable story promoting Vermont, its attractions and quality of life.
The publications put out by the Vermont Development Department in the 1960s—especially the 1970 booklet “Vermont the Beckoning Country”—epitomized efforts to attract visitors and residents, extolling year-round opportunities and the winter season which was then fulfilling the “recreational promise” with scores visiting and/or moving to Vermont in the 60s and 70s.
As with the earlier promotions, the goal was to grow the state’s economy and population. Attracting vacationers and homeowners was a way to do both.
In 2017, the Rutland Regional Initiative is underway, causing one to wonder if history will repeat and with the promotion of outdoor recreation playing a similar role in reversing declining populations and the need for a bigger workforce.
Population in Vermont through history
1776: 20,000 1990: 564,798
1800: 154,465 2000: 608,270
1880: 332,286 2010: 625,960
1950: 377,747 2016: 624,594