Vermont Counterculture Spotlighted in Barre Exhibit

FREAKS, RADICALS & HIPPIES: Counterculture in 1970s Vermont
Vermont Heritage Center
Barre, Vermont
Through September 2017

Vermonters are known for their contrarian streak, but until quite recently that streak was of "crusty conservative" variety. Vermont once voted in an Anti-Masonic ticket and it and Maine were the only states never to go for Franklin Roosevelt at least once. There were pockets of progressivism–religious visionaries in the 1830s, Knights of Labor in Rutland in the 1880s, and socialist mayors in Barre in the early 20th century–but Vermont was a red state. Every one of its governors from 1856 on was a Republican until Phil Hoff took office in 1963 and even then, it was another ten years until Vermonters elected another Democratic governor. Today, Vermont is reliably blue–and invokes images of Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, and Ben & Jerry.  How did that happen?

Vermont is a small place–only Wyoming has fewer residents–but it used to be a whole lot emptier. Today's population of 620,000 is 55% higher than its 1900 population of 343,641, but that doesn't tell the whole story. For that, check out the exhibit Freaks, Radicals & Hippies. Today's Vermont is a product of the late 1960s and early 1970s. From 1900 to 1960, the Green Mountain State added just 46,000 residents; in the next twenty, its population soared by over 122,000–nearly 32%. Many of them identified as "freaks," "hippies," "progressives," and "radicals." Collectively they transformed Vermont's crusty conservative consciousness to one that tolerated, then embraced countercultural ideals. Today's most popular Vermonter, independent socialist Bernie Sanders, was part of that tidal wave–a Brooklyn-born Jew who moved to Vermont in 1968 and was viewed by the few who knew him as a crank, but 13 years later was elected mayor of Burlington, the state's largest city.

If you're near Barre in the next eleven months, pop into the Vermont Heritage Center and check out Freaks, Radicals & Hippies. It won't take long–the entire exhibit is a single medium-sized room–but you will be transported to a bygone era. If, like me, you are of certain age, you will experience the frisson of nostalgia. (I worked a bit on several Sanders' campaigns, including his 1981 mayoral election.) If you are a younger traveler, you'll learn about the power of optimism.

Vermont became a countercultural epicenter for a simple reason: there was a lot of available cheap land. Old-timers complained of the hippie influx, but hippies saved Vermont in very material ways. So many back-to-the-land idealists set up communes on failed Vermont farmlands that no one knows exactly how many there were. (It is said there were 38 communes just between Montague, Massachusetts, and Putney, Vermont.) You can hear oral testimonies from several former communards and locate numerous experiments on a large state map. As elsewhere, most of these efforts foundered quickly, but not before their residents launched progressive education enterprises, brought niche farming to the state, crisscrossed the region with hip business start-ups, and created the very "day-glo" capitalism that spawned the Vermont "brand" for which it is known today. 

At first glance, this exhibit appears old-fashioned in that it relies heavily upon static wallboard text panels. There are a few monitors playing video clips, the aforementioned audio clips, and a reconstructed (and not terribly authentic) geodesic dome. The "stars" of the show reside in glass showcases or hang on the walls: underground newspapers, banners, posters, flags, and ephemera that represent countercultural movements ranging from anti-Vietnam protests, drug advocacy, and the ecology movement to modern spinoffs such as progressive politics, live-and-let-live ethics, eco-consciousness, and the sustainable agriculture movement. Check out how so many pictures from today are full-color analogs of back-and-white images from decades ago. It slowly dawns on the viewer that the exhibit's seemingly simple mix of old-school display with just a splash of modernity mirrors Vermont's subtle but inexorable transformation.

Freaks, Radicals & Hippies is a quiet rejoinder to wrongheaded assertions that the 1960s were little more than an age of wretched excess. It is a snapshot of a state remade in a countercultural image. Some folks still don't like that, but if hippies had never happened, it's not too hard to imagine Vermont as the Appalachia of New England punctuated by ski lodges for the one-percent. Another reason to see this exhibit: It captures a permeating element of the 1960s that's sadly in short supply these days–hope.

Rob Weir 

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