Anachronistic town jobs recollect Vermont history

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(Host) For more than 200 years, Vermont towns have depended on volunteers to staff the public service jobs that keep a community running. Some of those jobs have been on the books for most of those 200 years.

VPR’s Steve Delaney explores the local positions that have shifted over time, from essential to quaint.

(Delaney) For 28 years, Richard Parker has been the trustee of public money in the town of Johnson. Once a month or so, he finds a check from a bank in his Post Office Box.

(Parker) “The town has certificates of deposit and they get interest. I take the payment that’s in an envelope and give it to the Town Clerk. And that’s all I do, is just turn it back over to them. Or sometimes I take it down, if I’m going down to the Town Clerk’s office, I take it down to them. It isn’t too strenuous, (laughs) it’s within my capabilities.”

(Laurent Bellevance) “I’m Laurant Bellevance from Hardwick, Vermont, and I’m the wood and bark inspector in the area. And what it involves is if somebody buys wood and they think they get shorted a cord or whatever, I’m entitled to go measure it and let them know if they’ve been shorted. And I’ve been doing this for about a dozen years or so, and so far I haven’t been overworked too hard.”

(Delaney) Neither are the other inspectors of wood in Vermont. They’re still on the books, but they’re not very busy. Gilles Rainville has been on the Georgia Select Board for decades.

(Rainville) “That must have been before my time, because I don’t ever recall having any discussion or argument or problems about measuring the wood. It’s still on the books, we still have to appoint people. We never had a call for anybody to, nobody does it now.”

(Delaney) Inspectors of lumber and of leather are jobs that originated in the 19th century, when towns needed to be sure that residents were not being cheated by traveling peddlers who had their own ideas of what constituted a pound or a gallon or a cord of wood. State Archivist Gregory Sanford says you can trace Vermont’s economic history by charting the rise and decline of those positions.

(Sanford) “There were people who were responsible for the measuring of barrel staves, the sealers of leather, measurers of lumber, all these were reflections of the town, of the local economy. What’s evolved over time is that the nexus of commerce has moved beyond the community. It would be very hard to try to establish some of these standards now at the local level.”

(Delaney) Some of the jobs, like inspectors of electrical wiring, are no longer filled. But others linger, most famously the Vermont fence viewer. Georgia Selectman Gilles Rainville:

(Rainville) “So the fence viewers, it’s not, it’s not much demand an more. Everybody surveys, and all the land’s been grabbed, so you still have to fulfill the job. Yes, it’s still there.”

(Delaney) Barbara Oles has been the town clerk and treasurer in Guilford for 19 years.

(Oles) “Here in Guilford at Town Meeting, a fence viewer is appointed every year. But as far as I know, in the 19 years that I’ve been here, they have never been called out to deal with any situation.”

(Delaney) It would take changes in the charters towns receive from the state to eliminate the obsolete jobs in Vermont, and that requires both a local vote and Legislative action. But there may be an advantage in thinning out the list of available jobs. It might just make more attractive the remaining opportunities to serve in local government. And Guilford Clerk Barbara Oles says it’s satisfying in spite of the stresses.

(Oles) “There definitely are days when I’m about ready to give up on it. It gets a little stressful, but then there’s the good things that happen, and you say, hey, well it’s a good job. And you get to know all your neighbors, and it’s nice to work close to home. It’s a very pleasant situation to be in.”

(Delaney) Local government in Vermont is now under significant pressure. Change is eroding some of the traditions of volunteer service, and even some local elected offices. In our next report, an examination of whether listers and auditors and even treasurers are becoming endangered in Vermont’s towns.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Delaney.

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