Many years ago in Vermont, the Webbs (in Shelburne) and Billings (in Woodstock) chose to buy in, and play, country gentlemen on lands formerly farmed by folks ill-positioned to resist a buyout. In mid-scale, it happened at innumerable times and places up and down the Appalachia (yes, Vermont is technically a part of Appalachia).
Towards the upper end of the wealth scale, there’s the Reynolds’ Tanglewood on the once-small-farm outskirts of Winston-Salem, N.C., and, of course, at the apex of such ventures, there’s the once-near-county-size Biltmore Estate in the hills of western North Carolina.
It turned out that even the vast late 19th century rail fortunes of the Vanderbilts were not enough to subsidize such a magnificent trust-funder playground. Thus, in the early 20th century, most of the land was sold or gifted off; the French chateau version of Potemkin Village with an agricultural-theme-park was converted to just enough profitable mini-enterprise to replace red ink with black on the balance sheets.
The Biltmore has been doing just fine ever since. Right now the day-visitor’s ticket costs $59.
Rhetorical question: has the high-cost-of-entry-and-stay Biltmore been the model for the contemporary Gentry-Left restructuring of the Vermont economy—a new Biltmore in the Green Mountains?
Vermont is no exception to the general rule that those who are gentrified out of their houses and businesses—and off their land by government or the evil rich—don’t like it and say so.
The Dutch truck-gardeners of mid-Manhattan in the mid 19th century didn’t like being run off at bayonet point for the creation of Central Park (it wasn’t even shown on the infamous 1811 Manhattan street-grid plan). Wikipedia notes that it wasn’t envisioned by the planners until 1853.
The hill-farmers of the mid Appalachians were similarly run off by government for the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway (for their motoring betters) during the Depression and didn’t like it either.
When the Interstate Highway System was pushed through Vermont in the early 1960s, there were similar stories of futile landowner resistance—at the same time that “Farm for Sale $20 per Acre” signs could be seen up and down Route 100.
The Vanderbilts, it’s safe to guess, bought out the original 125,000 Biltmore acres from some 4,000 small-scale hill farmers at even lesser acreage values in the 1880s.
But the next, trustfunder Vanderbilt generation couldn’t keep it; unlike the government, the family couldn’t run annual budget deficits. By 1914 the first 85,000 acres were sold off—to the feds.
Presently the Biltmore has shrunk to a mere 8,000 acres, but it is run at a profit.
In Vermont the passive sector of the economy isn’t yet the largest, but it’s the fastest-growing.
Dairy farms (once there were more cows than people—back then the majority of the latter liked it that way) are below a thousand.
This year, a nationwide recession year, Vermont governance posted a genteel little surplus of $40 million, one of only a handful of states to do so. In contrast, there’s been a series of non-trust-funder-oriented governances, from California’s Orange County in 1994 to the big city of Birmingham, Ala., and the little city of Central Falls, R.I., which went or are going bankrupt this year for the usual governance/management misjudgment reasons.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on recent widespread unemployment growth, too: US average, 9.2 percent, Vermont average, 5.5 percent.
No space here for the philosophical aspects of a state seeking to be dependent on income-flows from wealth created earlier and elsewhere, from which a current generation can be supported without effort, in a passive-income society which must always be, by definition, not self-sufficient and not self-sustainable. You decide.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris now lives in Tennessee.