'Why We Stay' In Vermont, And Why We Don't

Apr 30, 2014

There are two types of people in this state: those who stay here, and those who leave.

Well, maybe it's not so simple. Some people leave and come back; some people leave but still call Vermont home; some people boomerang to and fro for years before returning to settle down for good; some people arrive from "away" set down their own roots.

But the tension between staying and going has always preoccupied us. Since Vermont's sheep grazing days, in the 19th century, parents have lamented the "youth flight" that tugged their children to bigger cities, bigger mountains, bigger salaries. At the same time, it's a point of pride for Vermonters whose families have been here for seven generations or more to claim that they're "real" Vermonters, and everyone else is a mere flatlander. "Gotta have four in the ground," some say. That would be four grandparents.

Vermont youth: restless or rooted?

Today, Vermont is facing an aging population, lower birthrates and a net outmigration of its citizens. At the same time, a new Gallup poll suggests that Vermont residents have a below average desire to move to a different state, and just 8 percent of residents plan to move within the next 12 months. So why do the people who leave leave, and why do the people who stay stay? A new survey from the University of Vermont asked some of those questions – and they got a lot more answers than they were expecting.

The Roots Migration Survey, co-led by UVM professor of geography Cheryl Morse, sought to survey Vermonters about what factors determined where they settled as young adults. Morse told Vermont Edition's Jane Lindholm that she and her colleagues were expecting about 75 responses. They got nearly 3,700.

"I think that people want to talk about Vermont, whether it's a place they grew up and left, and haven't returned to, or a place that they chose to stay in very consciously and decisively. And everybody wants to tell their story, so that's part of it. But I think there's something else about the identity of Vermont and being a Vermonter that we're already seeing in our preliminary analysis," Morse said.

The only requirement for participation was that the respondent had to have attended high school in Vermont (which Morse herself did, at Woodstock High School) or was a resident of Vermont when they attended high school.

One of the questions asked people who left Vermont and haven't returned if they ever feel homesick for Vermont. About 80 percent of the respondents said yes.

"What really struck us was being able to say 'I'm a Vermonter' is something they miss," Morse says. "It's stories like that that really push us in the direction of looking at how people frame their identity based on where they grew up, even when they haven't spent their adult lives here."

Morse says she and her colleagues have yet to sift through the thousands of responses they received, but says her sense is that the range of respondents ultimately constituted a representative sample. 

"We did ask questions about gender, age, race, sexual orientation, relationship status, whether they have children, whether they have family in Vermont, the highest level of education attained," Morse says. "And because we have so many responses, we can feel fairly confident that we are representing a fairly high number of Vermonters. And the ages range from 15 to 91, for example. We didn't aim to be representative, but we may just be that in the end."

Results show that economic pressures here play a smaller role in driving people away than opportunity elsewhere, Morse says. 

"In fact, fewer than 20 percent of the people [who have left the state] said that the cost of living in Vermont was too high ... It was more likely for someone to say that their job was located outside of Vermont, they maybe couldn't do that inside the state – that was more like 37 percent."

The other striking result was the prominent role of Vermont's landscape in responses, Morse says. 

"The landscape kept emerging as an actor unto itself. So people would say they missed the rolling hills and the forests and small towns, or they would say that's why they stayed, or why they've returned. At least in one case, the lure of landscape seemed to be an even stronger draw, or matched, very closely matched, the lure of family."

Those who stay

If social science is one way to understand the push and pull so many Vermonters feel, so is social documentary. For the past several years, Windsor photographer Chris Cammock and her brother Nate have been working on a project called “Why We Stay.” The siblings have collected portraits and audio interviews with decidedly rooted Vermonters – first in Windsor, and then in South Royalton.

The project had its genesis when Windsor celebrated its 250th anniversary. 

"We had the idea of taking portraits of 250 people in our town. And that's how the project began," Cammock told Vermont Edition. "And we actually did have a Kickstarter, and raised money to do the project and print books. And we printed 11-by-11 inch hardcover coffee table books. We had this vision of a really beautiful portrait book that people could have that was a remembrance of the 250th year."

Cammock says the copy of the book in the Windsor library serves as a kind of town yearbook, with people paging through to find pictures of their friends. It's also a kind of timepiece:

"There's a lot you can kind of glean ... by looking at the pictures that I think is interesting. Just seeing what people are wearing, or how they sound, what they're talking about, can be very relevant to the time in which we did it," Cammock says.

"It's beautiful. People here are awesome," says John Duffy of Royalton.
Credit Chris Cammock / "Why We Stay"

"It's like walking around in a brochure all the time. It's beautiful," says one participant, John Duffy: 

"People here are awesome. You should have seen the people when I had the flood [during Irene]. A hundred and something people were here. They would just stopping and running over and helping." -  John Duffy

"Everybody's is slightly different," Cammock says. "So some people will say, 'It's like living in a brochure. I want everyone to be here and experience it." And then others will say, "I want this to stay a secret. I don't want too many people to come here."

"I think there are lots of towns like this in Vermont and all over the country," says Thomas Powers. But I live here and I know people here and I like it here."
Credit Chris Cammock / "Why We Stay"

Thomas Duffy spoke with the project at the Royalton Farmer's Market: 

"Just the personal connection. I don't actually think it is unique. I think there are lots of towns like this in Vermont and all over the country, in fact. And a lot of them, I'm sure, are great places to live. But I live here and I know people here and I like it here." - Thomas Duffy

Cammock says she appreciates Duffy's perspective. "I think that that's a really honest opinion about how communities are," she says. "It's about the personal connections, and I like his matter-of-factness about it … I just think that's refreshing."

"Fortunately I'm pretty happy with my job," says Kyle Rikert. "But, I mean, a lot of people struggle to find employment here."
Credit Chris Cammock / "Why We Stay"

Kyle Rikert spoke to the project just weeks before getting married:

"Fortunately I'm pretty happy with my job, but, I mean, a lot of people struggle to find employment here. A lot of people that I graduated with moved, because they can't find opportunities here. There's no real industry in Vermont – I'm not sure if I really want big industry in Vermont. You know, you find that in New Hampshire. But I think that's one of the more challenging things. Property taxes aren't cheap here, so how do you survive?" - Kyle Rikert

Rikert brings up important points, Cammock says. "I think that [people leaving the state] is kind of a touch point in Vermont right now ... [Kyle] wanting to be here, but it's difficult. I actually grew up in Barnard, so did my brother. We both left and did college elsewhere and lived abroad, but Vermont was always a draw for me. I've always thought of it as home, even though I think true Vermonters wouldn't consider me a Vermonter. But I've always thought of it as a place that I wanted to be. And so I came back, and I found it to be a really supportive place, creatively. And if you want to make it work, you can make it work … I like Kyle's perspective because it is difficult. But, if you want to be here, there's a strength here."