Aiken coined “Northeast Kingdom” 60 years ago

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(Host) On this day – March 24th – sixty years ago, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom got the name that’s stood the test of time.  

It didn’t come from a Chamber of Commerce or a focus group.  It was Governor George Aiken who popularized the name during a political appearance in Lyndonville.

These days, "Northeast Kingdom" crops up frequently in daily conversation, business directories, and bumper stickers.

So VPR’s Charlotte Albright has been asking "What’s in a Name?"

(Albright) The Darling Inn is a stately two-story brick building whose white pillars invite you onto a front porch with planters and, in warmer weather, rocking chairs.

In its heyday, it was a watering hole for well-heeled travelers and the occasional politician on the stump. Now it’s a still-elegant but affordable apartment building for senior citizens, where anyone over 65 can get a free hot lunch.

No one dining on roast chicken yesterday was present for the speech Aiken gave 60 years ago.

But Aiken recalled his impromptu remarks in an interview many years later, when he briefly re-named the kingdom to express sarcastic frustration about opposition to improved east-west transportation.

(Aiken) "It seemed just a natural thing to do, to call it the Northeast Kingdom. And now I tell them that they’re going to not finish the highway from St. Johnsbury across to New Hampshire or they’re going to not put the railroad in passable condition, they better call it the Forgotten Kingdom, instead of the Northeast Kingdom."

(Albright) Aiken’s widow, Lola, didn’t hear the speech. In fact, she wasn’t even married to Aiken in 1949.  In her comfortable Montpelier duplex, she loves to talk about the politically savvy Republican she still calls "The Governor."  But Lola Aiken says when her husband looked back on that day, he never quite understood why  the name resonated through the decades.

(Lola Aiken) "It was something he was talking about that brought it on, and he stopped dead, and said, `Ah, I believe that is the single place… or something like that.’ And I didn’t know what he was talking about at the time. But he always loved that area.

(Albright) The novelist Howard Frank Mosher, who immortalizes the area in his fictional "Kingdom County," believes Aiken cooked up the phrase while fishing in Essex County. The name caught on quickly with locals, but took a little longer to get the ear of  lawmakers. Shortly before his death last year, nonagenarian and former state representative Graham Newell, a St Johnsbury native, told VPR that Aiken’s catchphrase was not an instant hit in Montpelier.  As a freshman legislator, Newell introduced the bill that created a ski trail on Burke Mountain.

(Newell) "In order to do so I had to explain-I have a copy somewhere here in my speech-I had to explain that it was a place called the Northeast Kingdom. In 1953, it hadn’t caught on yet that George Aiken had named it.”

(Albright) But the private sector opened its arms.  In the Yellow Pages, "Northeast Kingdom" means business-from Kingdom Alpaca to  Kingdom Cleaners to Kingdom Travel and Tourism.  Kingdom Trails, in Burke, is bringing thousands of avid mountain bikers into the region every year, lured in part by a glossy National Geographic article.  But 94-year-old Leland Simpson, who was too busy working on his Lyndonville farm to attend the Aiken speech 60 years ago, says he’s glad Kingdom dwellers have kept their traditional ways and have fled fields and factories just to chase tourist dollars.

(Simpson) "Nobody looks forward to be a lackey for flatlanders. They’re certainly gonna keep their independence, and most Vermonters I know think they’re just as good as anybody else.

(Albright) Which  gives new meaning to an old word like "kingdom." In this seemingly sovereign corner of Vermont, the monarchs usually don’t belong to the leisure class.  Kings and queens here may come from the oldest families, but they also tend to be the  hardest workers. Vermont Life editor emeritus Tom Slayton says the hardscrabble residents of this kingdom know mere words don’t  make them royalty.

(Slayton) "The Northeast Kingdom is a really, really wonderful, distinctive place. At the same time it’s a very poverty stricken place. Not everyone there is poor, I hasten to add, but it has the highest unemployment and the lowest wage average of any particular region in Vermont. And yet at the same time it has wonderful people, beautiful scenery, really great natural resources, and in many ways it reminds me of the Vermont I grew up in.

(Albright) Slayton hopes that the Northeast Kingdom will hold onto all those treasures as it figures out how to diversify and stabilize its economy, now that farming and manufacturing are on the wane. 

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.

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