March 19, 2009

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Historic Photos of Vermont, text and captions by Ginger Gellman, Turner Publishing, 2009, 206 pages.

Whereas I’m used to thinking about Boston in a historical light (see next book review), what with all the colonial and Revolutionary landmarks, I don’t know a lot about Vermont’s history. It has a bit less to know.

Historic Photos of Vermont leans heavily on ordinary folks in ordinary, could-be-anywhere rural or small-town settings. It does have some shots of visiting politicians, like Eisenhower at the Vermont Dairy Festival, and of notable sites like the Calvin Coolidge homestead, but mostly it’s farmers and front porches.

And yet. Vermont has more history than we know. Leaf through the pages to find out.

“The Muddy River Minstrels perform to a packed house in Stowe in 1950. With a longstanding history of racial tensions — including an active Ku Klux Klan contingent in the 1920s — Vermont towns found audiences for minstrel shows…. The University of Vermont’s Kake Walk, a highly attended winter carnival event performed by students in blackface…, [was performed] for the last time in 1969.”

Pictures of the Vermont State Fair in Rutland in 1941, a scrap metal drive in 1942, a worker at a Winooski woolen mill, and a 1956 theater production at Burlington High School prove that Vermont is more than just the sum of its cows, and has been for some decades.

In fact, the final photo, an aerial view of Lamoille County, says, “In 1993, the entire state was named one of the nation’s ‘Most Endangered Historic Places.’”

Not every picture is museum-quality. A shot of three boaters at Groton State Park could’ve been taken anywhere anytime and is uninspiring. A poor-quality photo of a vat of maple sap “boiling down” looks like nothing. And some of the pictures are meaningless to outsiders — the view of Woodstock Ski Hill is useless unless you’ve been there. But those disappointments are canceled out by, for instance, a fantastic, universally appealing, photo of a farmer reading a postcard outside the West Danville post office in 1942, and an all-American picture of cars in Brattleboro after a 1940 snowstorm.

So what do we get from this book? That Vermont has a history. That it looks a lot like the rest of America’s, in ways that are surprising and in ways that aren’t. If you’re a resident or native of Vermont, you’ll get the “oh, so that’s what used to be there” moments — watch the Interstate being constructed, see the milliner’s house (and the milliner!) standing right on what’s now Route 15.

This Vermont edition is less wonderful than the Boston one, but I think that’s a function of the material available rather than the effort that went into the book. Let’s all hit turnerpublishing.com and lobby for a New Hampshire edition.