Town Meeting 2005

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(HOST) Commentator Frank Bryan reflects on the long history – and somewhat uncertain future – of Town Meeting.

(BRYAN) It took more than 100 centuries for nature to produce the land of primeval forests that was Vermont in 1770. It took but one century for us to manicure it into stone-walled farms and clustered villages. It took but one more for us to abandon these landscapes. Now they are almost gone – disappearing under the brush.

But through all of this, town meeting has remained a constant.

In the beginning, the newcomers were mostly English and mostly Protestants. Yet soon, an amazing array of religious groups arrived. In Woodstock, the “Pilgrims” held their property in common and adopted biblical lifestyles. In Hardwick were formed the “New Lights”. Ferrisburg was home to “Quakers”, Putney to the infamous “Perfectionists”.

Then ethnic diversity took over. In the northern counties settled the French Canadians. Italians came to Barre to quarry granite. The Welsh arrived in Fairhaven to work the slate mines. Towns in southwestern Vermont saw considerable Dutch settlement. To Caledonia County came the Scots, to Bellows Falls the Poles, to Proctor the Swedes, to Springfield the Russians, to Arlington the Lithuanians, to Fairfield the Irish.

Throughout all this change, town meeting remained strong.

When first we came to Vermont, we came on footpaths. Pushing wheelbarrows. Leading milk cows. But within two generations, we had fashioned a complex pattern of roads and we traveled by horse and wagon. Then the railroads pushed through Vermont, changing where we lived, how we farmed, whom we loved. After them, the automobile did the same.

But town meeting has held fast.

The first citizens of Vermont lived in log cabins, subsisted on food that changed only with the seasons, lived with pain and died at an early age. They had callused hands – men, women and children. A light in the house after dark was a luxury. Our world would be unimaginable to these Vermonters. Everything has changed so much.

Except for town meeting.

Vermonters of 1830 would be astonished traveling through today’s Vermont to attend a town meeting. Riding in a heated car going 40 miles an hour over paved roads and listening to a radio with airplanes flying overhead.

But once inside the town hall, once the moderator had read the words, “The people of Craftsbury are warned to be at the Craftsbury Common School on Tuesday, the 1st day of March 2005, at 9 in the forenoon to act on the following articles” these Vermonters of long ago would know precisely what to do. Town meeting would be perfectly familiar to them. They would be home again.

How precious our democracy is.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to our town meetings lest we awake some morning in March and find them gone.

This is Frank Bryan in Starksboro.

Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches political science at the University of Vermont.

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