(Host) Great thoughts and philosophies from Vermonters have shaped our state and sometimes influenced the nation. Commentator Philip Baruth recalls Ted Riehle’s sponsorship of Vermont’s billboard law.
(Baruth) In America we’ve always mythologized the inventor, the person who understands intuitively what needs to be added to the world and precisely how to go about doing so. But there is also a very particular kind of genius involved with knowing what to take away: the genius of subtraction.
Prior to the late 1960s, Vermont had its share of roadside billboards like any other state. But it also had a genius of subtraction, a guy named Ted Riehle, Jr. Riehle had relatives in Florida, and on his car trips down there he would drive by hundreds of red-and-white Burma-Shave shaving cream signs, stuck everywhere in the landscape. Burma-Shave’s gimmick was to group five billboards together, spaced so that passing drivers would read only one line of doggerel verse at a time. The five or six-line poems were deliberately hokey and down-home. Here’s one:
It ain’t too late
He’s gone to git
Some widder bait —
And another one:
If Crusoe had kept
His chin more tidy
He might have found
A lady Friday.
Actually, I kind of like that one; but that’s not the point. The point is that Burma-Shave’s campaign worked wonders for the company, and it was soon copied by other outfits elsewhere. And the more money these campaigns made, the more money the companies showered on more billboards.
Unlike some people, Ted Riehle was not amused. He thought the signs were an eyesore, and he didn’t want Vermont to look like Florida roadside. In that he wasn’t too unusual. What was unusual is that he introduced legislation into the Vermont House to ban almost all billboards in the state, with an exception for small signs advertising agricultural products. It was a sweeping, almost inconceivably bold stroke.
And, predictably enough, Riehle ran up against fierce opposition. According to his daughter-in-law, Helen Riehle, a significant portion of the opposition came from hamburger stands, places that used big blinking signs to sell their burgers and fries. Many men would have caved to the hamburger lobby, but Ted Riehle, Jr. was ready for them: he’d taken pains to recruit garden clubs across the state, to help him make the case loud and clear for a landscape free of unregulated outdoor advertising.
Still, for a while there in the late sixties, it was touch and go. The hamburger joints against the gardeners, trowel against spatula, locked in a death struggle over what would eventually come to be known as the Riehle Bill. Governor Phil Hoff finally signed the bill into law in 1968. And now when friends from out of state drive up to see me, they remark on the beauty of the roads, and they ask me how we outlawed billboards – instead of asking what widder bait means.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. Learn more about the Great Thoughts of Vermont series and share your comments with other listeners.