On July 18, VPR’s Tell Me More Tour visited Bennington County with a community event at the Bennington Museum.
“The Shires of Vermont” is a campaign encouraging people to visit Bennington County, in the southwest corner of our state. It’s called “the shires” because Bennington County has two county seats (or shires): Bennington and Manchester.
These two towns have very different histories and demographics. But in each place, I heard they face similar challenges. They feel neglected by statewide institutions, and they’re both trying to adapt to economic changes that threaten their existing way of life.
Before we go any further, I apologize for making gross generalizations about places I barely know. Still, as a newcomer to the state, I’m trying to see Vermont’s towns through fresh eyes during VPR’s Tell Me More Tour.
Manchester buzzes with tourists in summer. Well-off vacationers have favored Manchester and the nearby town of Dorset for 200-plus years.
With the rise of online shopping, those retailers are trying to provide something different — more experiences for visitors. The famous Northshire Bookstore hosts famous authors for talks and has the motto: “Building community one book at a time.”
Meanwhile, we heard from employers about the difficulty in finding workers — and we heard workers describe their struggle to afford transportation, health care and housing.
Bennington has a more working-class history. In recent years, it lost many of its industrial jobs. Like many towns in my former home of West Virginia, it struggles with the legacy of pollution. In 2014, the New York Times published a story about Bennington headlined “Heroin Scourge Overtakes a ‘Quaint’ Vermont Town” (though town leaders argue the article was riddled with inaccuracies and unfair stereotypes).
But the people of Bennington have banded together to try and reshape their future. Civic leaders have banded together to rebuild an entire block of downtown — the Putnam Block — with living space, restaurants, offices, retail and more.
Meanwhile, the Bennington Museum is part of a regional effort to promote “Art Country.” Southern Vermont and western Massachusetts are increasingly seen as a place where visitors can find culture and nature together.
I was so impressed with the innovation of the Bennington Museum! Executive Director Robert Wolterstorff says the museum seeks to tell the story of Vermont art to the world. Exhibits range from Grandma Moses to 20th-century modernists.
About 45 people came to VPR's Tell Me More Tour event at the museum. They acknowledged the area’s problems, but they said there’s a more complex and interesting story to tell about the town’s comeback.
A new VPR - Vermont PBS Poll says the most important issues to Vermonters are the economy, jobs and the cost of living. It’s the same message I heard at both of the shires of Vermont: Manchester and Bennington. And VPR is committed to covering these stories and helping debate potential solutions to our shared problems.