Old Home Days

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(HOST) Commentator Peter Gilbert says that here in New England at least, today’s creative economy approach to community development has a lot in common with traditional Old Home Days – and even a couple of classic children’s books.

(GILBERT) Recently I’ve traveled to several Vermont towns as part of site visits designed to help communities plan local creative economy projects.

Many Vermont towns are concerned about both prosperity – particularly employment for young people – and preservation – preserving what’s best about their community. Alas, that’s nothing new.

Northern New England towns have wrestled with precisely those issues for two hundred years. They struggled after the collapse of the wool industry in the early nineteenth century and when California gold, rich Midwestern farmland, and the call of war enticed farmers to leave their hardscrabble hill farms. More recently, they’ve struggled as dairy farming has become increasingly difficult.

Some towns have turned to wonderful festivals both to draw visitors and dollars, and to draw attention to their community’s assets and charm.

That’s precisely the origin of Old Home Days – those community celebrations of town heritage, complete with parades and vintage costumes. Old Home Days started about a hundred years ago in New Hampshire, Vermont, and elsewhere. Old Home Days were deliberate attempts by struggling towns to encourage people who had moved away (and presumably made good elsewhere) to come back for a visit and perhaps, even, to stay.

Poet and author Donald Hall’s children’s book entitled Old Home Day tells the story of a New Hampshire village, its founding, its prosperous years, its decline, its annual Old Home Day celebration, and its recent revival – because people like a young couple drawn to the festivities want to live and raise a family in such a beautiful, vibrant place.

Similarly, Robert McCloskey, renowned author of Make Way for Ducklings, wrote a kids’ book called Lentil, about a town’s preparation for the return of the great Colonel Carter, who had paid for the town library, park, and monument. Banners and brass band await the great man at the train station. But when the Colonel steps off his train, the town sour puss, Old Sneep, starts sucking on a lemon as loudly as he can. The players in the brass band get all puckered up and can’t play a note, and the Colonel’s welcome is headed for disaster. But then Lentil, a local boy with a harmonica, starts playing “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain,” the Colonel joins in, and the day is saved. The Colonel’s homecoming is a success, and sure enough, he builds the town a hospital.

As the story suggests, it’s not necessarily brass bands or extravagant fakery that will ensure the future of Vermont towns. It’s the harmonicas – it’s towns’ recognizing who they really are and telling others. That’s what will put them in good stead – both economically and as vibrant communities. Towns need to recognize their greatest assets and capitalize on them, being careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg in the process. If we’re careful, thoughtful, and lucky, Vermont can be both special and prosperous.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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