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An ode to Vermont villages with architect Danny Sagan

Man stands in front of general store in East Calais Vermont
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Danny Sagan in front of the newly re-opened East Calais General Store.

The majority of people in Vermont live in large towns and cities. But the vast majority of Vermont is comprised of small towns oriented towards small town centers or villages.

Danny Sagan is an architect in Montpelier and teaches at Norwich University. He and his family spent their first 10 years in Tunbridge and were regulars at Floyd's General store in Randolph Center. He spoke with reporter Erica Heilman about the unique attributes of Vermont villages, and what we stand to lose if they disappear.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio, but have provided a transcript below.
Danny Sagan: There's a grange. There's a general store. There's another good chance that there's a church or two. There's a good chance there's a multifamily housing unit, people living under the same roof who don't necessarily know each other or weren't necessarily born with each other. Sometimes these villages have the village school, which goes up to eighth grade.

A lot of them have post offices, and there is a store, but the store has a porch, and when the weather's nice, there's going to be people on the porch. And some of those people are going to be lost sightseers. Some of the people are just going to be sitting on that porch because they're avoiding going back home and doing chores. And if you go to a store in a village, and you run into your friend, there's, I don't know, 20% chance you're going to continue the conversation out on the porch. Or even if it isn't a porch, there's like a space between the store and the parking lot where people hang out. It's where the deer scale is. And sometimes there's a gas pump.

The post office, the general store, the Grange, these are nodes of human connection. So you know, the big question, like, "What are we going to lose when we lose these villages?" We're going to lose the physical infrastructure for certain kinds of unplanned connections with people. And if there was nothing but just like driving on Route 14 between South Royalton and Barre, this place would feel desolate. It would feel desolate.

A woman in a flannel jacket standing on the stoop of the Craftsbury General Store
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Katherine Sims stands outside the Craftsbury General Store, known locally as "The Genny."

Danny and Erica in the car:

Danny: Okay. All right. Sorry. Are we on? Yeah, we're here...where are we?

Erica: We're in East Calais at the general store.

Danny: So this building here, it has a porch. And it's got steps going on the porch. And it's talking across the street to this other building that has a porch that's facing the street. They're talking to each other. And they're saying, they're saying... "It's hard to be an old house." And the other one says, "Don't get me started with the moisture problems."

Danny: I guess when we first moved here, it was a way to connect with a place that we weren't part of that we became part of. It allowed us a way in. We used to go to Floyd's Store in Randolph Center. And Floyd literally gave us grief every time we went in there. It was fabulous. Alisa did some crocheted work very early on around live trees, like in the woods. She had a show — I think it was in Randolph — and there was a write-up in the paper. And one day, we went on a Monday to pick up our paper, and Floyd said, "Yeah, I guess you'd pick your paper up earlier if you weren't busy knitting sweaters for all the trees on your place." That's so good for your mental health! Right? Now did Floyd ever come to my birthday party? No. But did Floyd recognize that I was enough of a human being that he could visit upon me this, you know, insult? Yes! And then you feel recognized, right? It's like, again, in terms of like the baseline mental health, it goes up a little bit.

In rural settings, people hire people to plow their driveway. And when somebody has been plowing driveways for 25 years dies, you usually hear about it the first time at the at the village store. That's not a big cataclysmic loss in one's life. But it's a really important event in the community. It's a shared event in the community. And if you have nowhere to hear that, or no one to say, "Oh, yeah, he was a vet, wasn't he?" "Yeah." If you can't do that, you're stuck by yourself at home reading about it on the internet.

Danny and Erica in the car:

Erica: So we're kind of coming into a village-lette.

Danny: That is a hamlet! That's a hamlet. Those houses are shouting distance from each other. And then there's this great church, right? Oh, my God, the mighty Anglicans of Woodbury!

Danny: We have an epidemic of loneliness, especially in Vermont too, because there's some people who live in the countryside and they were married and their spouse dies and then they're living alone in the middle of the countryside and they need connection of some sort or they need somebody to say, "How are you doing?" And if you looked at the state of Vermont and said, you know, we need these centers of human connection, if there was a public health understanding of this, then there would be support to keep the village store above water or there would be support for the public library to be open, you know, more than three hours a day. We might see this as actually cheaper than health care if we kind of globalize it for the state.

Colorful fall trees on the left lead into a town on the right.
Kyle Ambusk
Vermont Public
Fall foliage in Rochester on Oct. 9, 2023.

Danny and Erica in the car:

Danny: And now we've left the village. We're gone. We're done. Now it's trees...the rec field, very nice...

Danny: The villages afford a baseline, that pretty much anybody in Vermont has the opportunity to be checked in on. An opportunity to just have human contact with somebody who might notice that they're not doing well, or might notice that they are doing well. Or might notice that their kid graduated from high school, and isn't that nice? Or might notice that they're going to Florida in the summer in the wintertime, so who's looking after your place. These things have not been planned. They are not necessarily the product of a well-run capitalist economy. But without them, our capitalist economy will run worse. Without them, the mental health of our state will be worse. Without them, our sense of why this place is wonderful, will be worse. And nobody moved to Vermont because they say, "You know, I really want to live in a place where the sense of community is declining!"

We just had a shared catastrophe. And even though my house is okay, it was really important that everybody ask each other, "How are you doing?"

Nobody called us up on the phone. You'd run into people on the street or you run into people at a store and say, "How, how's your place? Did you ride it out?" That's it. I think that what the village space can do for you, if you just come here, is recognize that part of being part of a place means other people know that you are here.

Also from Brave Little State: What’s the deal with intentional living communities in Vermont?

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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