• 'Distinctive' is his word for our past
     | October 26,2008
    Stefan Hard

    Vermont Historical Society Executive Director J. Kevin Graffagnino stands on the stairs leading to the library at the Vermont History Center in Barre. Graffagnino is leaving his post to take a job in Michigan.

    As Vermonters, it's easy to get a little smug about our state's history. Our founders, more than those of other states (we like to think), were brave and hardy men and women with independent streaks a mile wide, who faced down rivals from a neighboring colony, fought off the British, eked out livings from rocky, uncooperative soil and managed somehow to have both freedom and unity within close-knit communities.

    It's an honorable patrimony to claim. But is it true? Is our state so special? And are we unique in thinking our past was special?

    Living in Vermont, it's easy to lose perspective. But J. Kevin Graffagnino can offer plenty of it. Graffagnino, who was raised and educated in Vermont, has held jobs at the University of Vermont and the Kentucky and Wisconsin state historical societies.

    For the last five and a half years, he has run the Vermont Historical Society. And next month, he will start his job as director of the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

    "I think it is true that Vermonters have a distinctively, though not uniquely, high level of respect for our heritage," says Graffagnino.

    Whether someone is a seventh-generation Vermonter or just arrived here, he or she is often interested in the state's past. Graffagnino says he finds that even people who never liked history in school often appreciate traditions, the stories of their grandparents, the sort of things from the past that they might not define as "history."

    "Almost everyone in Vermont has an awareness that (the state) not being overdeveloped, not being heedless of the past, is a valuable thing," he says.

    Vermont draws people, he says, not just for its pretty scenery but for the sense that you can connect with its past. "All those Vermont Life-type slogans have some basis in reality, like, 'Take the history out of Vermont and you might as well live in New Jersey.'"

  • Vermont, as it is today, owes much to the fact that it was essentially bypassed by the Industrial Revolution. Vermonters may have missed out on the factory jobs it brought, but they also avoided the population explosion, social ills and environmental degradation associated with mass industrialization.

    "Our population barely changed between 1850 and 1950," Graffagnino says, "while the nation's population probably went up by a factor of six or seven."

    That era ended with the arrival of the interstate, which made it easier for families to travel to Vermont.

    One of those families was Graffagnino's. He was born on Long Island, but his family moved to Montpelier in 1961, when he was 6. He says he visited his grandparents enough times on Long Island, with its crowded suburban sprawl, to realize that moving to Montpelier was the best thing his parents ever did for him.

    Graffagnino has come to admire some distinctly Vermont traits: "the value of our social traditions, our independence of thoughts, support of the right to speak one's mind freely, the support to live life as you want." Those characteristics are real, he says, not myth.

    "One of the things that Vermonters are rightly proud of as a state tradition is we don't tend to get physically violent," he says. "The records show that we are a fairly calm society. The tradition is we talk things to death."

    The recent civil unions debate is proof that the tradition survives. "I'm not sure that would have happened in other states that I've been in or heard about," he says.

  • Vermonters' pride and interest in the state's past can be seen, Graffagnino says, in the astonishing number of local historical societies, 196, in a state with only about 220 communities with populations of more than 300. That interest can also be seen in the fact that while running the state historical society, he got about 40 requests a year to talk at places around Vermont, towns like Canaan, Guilford, Bennington and Alburgh.

    The state society is going strong itself. In recent years, it has created a popular museum in Montpelier, moved its offices and library to an elegant former school building in Barre, expanded its outreach to schools, and established the well-attended annual Vermont History Expo. Oh, and last year it was one of 10 U.S. institutions to win a National Medal for Museum and Library Services for its work in communities.

    Though Vermonters have shown a strong interest in history, Graffagnino thinks more can be done to introduce schoolchildren to the state's past. Traditionally, state schools teach Vermont history in the fourth grade. Graffagnino would like to see it also brought into the curriculum in other years, and in other ways.

    In addition to standard history classes, elements of the state's history could be taught in other courses, such as civics, social studies and even environmental studies.

    During the last 40 years or so, historians have begun looking at the state's past in a broader way. "We have broken away nicely from the total emphasis on the 18th century as the only interesting part of Vermont history," says Graffagnino. "It's no longer just Ethan Allen and the American Revolution." And that's coming from an expert on Allen's brother, Ira, one of the state's founders.

    Now the state is seeing interesting work being done on other areas – like tourism, transportation, the Civil War and the Flood of 1927. And some creative researchers are using the state's founding era as a way of delving into, say, women's history, instead of the heavily mined areas of military and economic history.

    The academic world is also showing more interest in homegrown history. "When I was a student at UVM, you were advised not to focus on Vermont, because you couldn't get a job," he says. Students needed to study the history of a "major" state, like Pennsylvania, if they wanted to get an academic job elsewhere in the country.

  • But Graffagnino doesn't want Vermonters to get swelled heads about their heritage either. He likes to say the state's history, and Vermonters' strong interest in it, is "distinctive."

    "I always stay away from the word 'unique,'" he explains. "You go to Massachusetts and the people are very proud of their history. The same thing is true if you go to Nebraska or Arizona.

    "I also try to stay away from the 'best …,' 'most …,' 'biggest …' verbiage. It's very difficult to prove and a bit disdainful. I prefer the Vermont tradition of being understated."

    One thing that's never been understated in our traditional understanding of Vermont history is Ethan Allen's role in it. He remains probably the most popular figure from our past. But is our adulation of Allen and his heroics overblown?

    "Every state has founding fathers or generations," Graffagnino says, "but I think Ethan is distinctive." There's that word again.

    Allen was a "frontier hero, a larger-than-life guy," Graffagnino says. "He is our Daniel Boone, our Davy Crockett, our Kit Carson." Many people outside of Vermont have heard of him. In contrast, he says, "I couldn't tell you who Delaware's Ethan Allen is. It might be that Delaware doesn't have one."

    OK, maybe we can be just a little smug about that.

    Mark Bushnell's column on Vermont history is a weekly feature in Vermont Sunday Magazine.
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