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The newspaper war that shaped the Upper Valley

A man sits in an armchair reading a newspaper.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Steve Taylor has lived in the Upper Valley all his life, and was news director of the Valley News for just under eight years. What does he think about the term, "Upper Valley"? It's a "preposterous term," he says.

A smattering of Vermont and New Hampshire towns on either side of the Connecticut River are known collectively as the “Upper Valley.” We set out to find why.

Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from David Watts, of Norwich:

“What is the Upper Valley? And how did it get its name?”

Reporter Josh Crane talks to a geographer, the “unofficial mayor of Plainfield” and as many Upper Valley residents as he could find to get to the bottom of what makes the Upper Valley, the Upper Valley.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.


Josh Crane: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.

From my home on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, it’s about a 40 minute drive to my destination in New Hampshire — a house in Plainfield on a mostly defunct dairy farm. 

A snowy scene at a red barn against a blue sky.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Steve Taylor's farm, Taylor Farm in Meriden, shuttered in 2018.

Steve Taylor: So, where do you want to, would you like to to set up? You want to be in the light, don’t you?

Josh Crane: Yeah.

Josh Crane: I’m here on a recommendation. For the past few months, I’ve been working on a story all about the Upper Valley: a cross-border region that includes parts of far-eastern Vermont and far-western New Hampshire. It’s a long way from the political and cultural centers of both states — so much so, that it kind of feels like a third state in and of itself.

When I was describing this story to one of my neighbors, he said: “You gotta talk to Steve Taylor,” and that Steve’s probably forgotten more about the Upper Valley than any of us will ever learn.

My neighbor was right. Steve spends hours regaling me with tales from his long life in the region — all 85 years and counting — as I sink ever-deeper into the armchair in his living room.

Steve Taylor: It was a 4-H project that went haywire … Raw land, for 10 bucks an acre when I was in high school … I just became a great grandfather. 

Josh Crane: Congratulations! 

Steve Taylor: Well, yeah, pretty exciting.

Josh Crane: By the end of the interview, it’s dark outside, and the wood stove is raging. I’ve burned through all my prepared questions. But I’m cozy, Steve is on a roll, and I don’t want this conversation to end.

Josh Crane: Anything else people should know about you?

Steve Taylor: Oh Jesus. I, I don’t know. There’s probably (laughter) there’s probably stuff they don’t want to know about me. I don’t know. Hell no. I guess just diversity of interests—

(phone ringing)

Steve Taylor: Well I — you don’t want to hear this. What’s this going? 

Hello? Hey.

Josh is still here and we, we talked, and you wouldn’t believe what we’ve been talking about. He just asked me the things that people should know about me. You got any suggestions?

Okay, say that again, cause I, I missed it. What? Say that again?

Rosemary Mills: (on speaker phone) You’re very good at getting things done behind the scenes. And your years of being a selectman, you know, helped you to be almost the unofficial mayor of Plainfield.

Steve Taylor: (laughter) Jesus.

Rosemary Mills: Alright?

Steve Taylor: Alright.

Rosemary Mills: Do you want me to go on?

Steve Taylor: No, no. Stop right there. That’s enough of that. (laughter) That’s funny. OK.

We’ll hit the movies on Thursday, alright?

Rosemary Mills: Sounds good.

Steve Taylor: Alrighty.

Rosemary Mills: Alright, bye.

Steve Taylor: Take care.

Josh Crane: Who’s that?

Steve Taylor: Her name is Rosemary Mills. Oh … We date a lot. She’s right nearby.


Josh Crane: Rosemary’s assessment of Steve as “the unofficial mayor of Plainfield” sounds about right. He’s a lifelong resident. He spent more than 30 years as the town moderator. And he worked in local newspapers.

He also did a long stint as a statewide official — New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Agriculture.

Steve Taylor: I was an outside-the-box candidate.

Josh Crane: “Outside-the-box” because Steve is more dairy farmer than politician. He’s long retired now. And his dairy operation, “Taylor Farm,” shut down a handful of years ago. The worsening economics for small dairies forced his family’s hand.

Steve Taylor: To see the cows go in 2018 broke my heart. But, it’s the way it is.

Josh Crane: In retirement, Steve has become a sort of de facto historian of the Upper Valley. So, here are some basics:

The Upper Valley describes a stretch of the Connecticut River spanning about 50 miles — depending on who you ask — and the cluster of Vermont and New Hampshire towns on either side. The exact edges of the region are a little fuzzy, but there’s no debate that its middle includes Norwich and Hartford in Vermont, and Lebanon and Hanover in New Hampshire.

There are no big mountains here — the Greens and Whites are distant peaks to the west and east, respectively. But there are a lot of winding roads and hills.

A map of towns in New Hampshire and Vermont is labeled "Vital Communities Service Area."
Steve Taylor
Vital Communities' service area map is the most generous map of the Upper Valley, extending as far south as Westminster and Walpole, and as far north as Ryegate and Bath.

Steve Taylor: This basically is on the northeast end of the Appalachians. And, by rights, it should be an Appalachian economy. It would be a hardscrabble place.

Josh Crane: Small farms. Forestry. Rural communities. That’s certainly all present in the Upper Valley. It’s a pretty remote area.

In spite of this, the Upper Valley has a dash of the cosmopolitan. It’s home to advanced engineering companies, historic opera houses and art museums. Also public media organizations like the Brave Little State mothership, Vermont Public. We have an Upper Valley studio in Norwich, in the headquarters for the King Arthur Baking Company.

Steve Taylor: My neighbor down here, he's a tech executive. The guy, he starts these tech companies and he sells them for a zillion dollars and goes and starts another one! And uh — you know, right down there. And right over here is, the guy's a house painter and she does home health care. The next house up, that guy is a neurologist and his wife is a music teacher. Next house up, the guy's a banker. And I mean, it just goes on and on, just all this diversity.

And I still have a soft spot for people who have farmed or who have worked with their hands. I like to talk with a guy who can run a backhoe.

Josh Crane: I ask Steve why this is — why all these people and institutions ended up in this remote area, far from Burlington and Montpelier, Concord and Manchester. He says it’s simple.

Steve Taylor: Here, plunked down, are two multi-billion dollar operations: Dartmouth College and the medical center.

Josh Crane: Dartmouth College, the Ivy League institution; and Dartmouth Health, one of the major medical systems of northern New England.

He also highlights all the transportation options in the area. Interstates 89 and 91 reached the Upper Valley in the 1960s and ’70s, which paved the way for strip malls with big box stores. Amtrak stops here. And you can even fly from the Upper Valley to New York or Boston via the Lebanon Municipal Airport.

For many of those who live here, the Upper Valley has everything.

David Watts: I think that there are a significant number of people in the Upper Valley who identify more as residents of the Upper Valley, more so than as residents of Vermont or New Hampshire.

Josh Crane: This is David Watts, the winning question-asker for this episode. He lives in Norwich and works across the river in Lebanon at a hospital affiliated with Dartmouth. He’s also on the board of directors of a non-profit called Vital Communities. The org operates as a convener across state lines — bringing together Upper Valley communities on either side of the Connecticut to address common issues, like housing shortages and climate change.

That type of collaboration between Vermont and New Hampshire might sound odd. The states are sort of rivals. I mean, Brave Little State made a whole episode about it. You can even get a sense just from the two state mottos. Vermont: “Freedom and Unity.” New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die.”

ICYMI: "Vermont vs. New Hampshire: What's The Beef?"

In the Upper Valley, there’s an air of cooperation. “Live Free and Unity” or something like that. The river here feels less like a political and cultural border, and more like the beating heart of Upper Valley life. I live and work here, and sometimes I find myself criss-crossing it three, four, five times a day — running errands, going for hikes, visiting friends.

David Watts: I just think that that creates a unique identity for the people who live here.

Josh Crane: And also a unique identity for a lot of area businesses. I did a quick, unscientific experiment to get a sense of this. I opened Google Maps on my phone, hovered over the general geographic area of the region, and searched for the phrase, “Upper Valley.” Almost 150 companies, non-profits, groups, centers and services popped up, all bearing the phrase “Upper Valley” in their official name.

A newspaper piece is titled "One Upper Valley, Indivisible."
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
A 2004 piece from Steve Taylor in the Valley News outlines 20 things that bind the Upper Valley together.

This regional identity is a point of pride for David. But in the larger story of Vermont and New Hampshire — and maybe even New England — he thinks the Upper Valley gets a little bit overlooked, or possibly even taken for granted.

If you don’t live here, you’re more likely to pass through on your way to somewhere else. There are no big ski resorts in the immediate vicinity. And, other than Woodstock, which calls itself “America’s prettiest town,” and Hanover, where Dartmouth is, there aren’t really any major tourist draws.

David Watts: I don't know if people beyond the Upper Valley know what the Upper Valley is. It's ill-defined.

Josh Crane: “Ill-defined” is part of the problem. Because the first step to appreciating something is understanding it. And even amongst those who live in the Upper Valley, there isn’t a clear consensus about some pretty basic things — like, exactly how big is it? Where does it end? And also, why is it called the Upper Valley?

David Watts: I don't know if the Upper Valley is defined by geography or economics or a state of mind.

Josh Crane: David’s hoping Brave Little State can clarify some things. And lots of you do, too, since his question won in a public voting round to decide the focus of this episode. His question goes like this:

David Watts: What is the Upper Valley, and how did it get its name?

Steve Taylor: Preface anything with this: “Upper Valley” is a preposterous term.

‘A newspaper war’

Steve Taylor: Now we get to the term Upper Valley. 

Josh Crane: Back to the “unofficial mayor of Plainfield,” New Hampshire: Steve Taylor.

Steve Taylor: The term begins with a newspaper war.

Josh Crane: A good old-fashioned newspaper war. On one side, the Claremont Daily Eagle. Headquartered in Claremont, New Hampshire, it served the area from Bellows Falls, Vermont and Charlestown, New Hampshire in the south, up to Bradford, Vermont and Orford, New Hampshire in the north — a group of towns that were all colonized around the same time.

Steve Taylor:  So, it was pretty good-sized territory that they function on. McLane Clark was a great newspaperman.

Josh Crane: John McLane Clark was an accomplished national journalist and Dartmouth College alum, which is why he bought the nearby Claremont Daily Eagle in 1948 — to return to his old stomping grounds.

Steve Taylor: He put together a tremendous news team. And they put out a fine newspaper. Very sadly, in 1950, there was a flood and the Claremont area of the Sugar River went wild. And John Clark and two of his kids went out in a canoe, kind of for the hell of it.

Josh Crane: John McLane Clark never made it home.

Steve Taylor: So, in November 1950, his widow was, had this newspaper dumped in her lap, and she had five kids to raise. It was a tremendous undertaking, and she struggled and she stayed with it.

Josh Crane: Right around this time, two other Ivy League grads enter the scene.

Steve Taylor: Two young whippersnapper, one graduated from Dartmouth, one graduated from Harvard.

Josh Crane: Alan Butler and Jim Farley.

Steve Taylor: They had their Ivy League pedigrees, and they were aspiring newspaper guys. Well, they can see that Mrs. Clark was struggling to run the paper. And they thought it was going downhill.

Josh Crane: So, they helped her. Of course they did, right?

No, they did not.

Steve Taylor: So, they came up with the idea: “Let's go start our own newspaper.”

Josh Crane: Alan and Jim went to Lebanon, New Hampshire, about 20 miles north of Claremont, and rented space in an old car dealership. They acquired a printing press. And they signed on with the Associated Press wire service. All that was missing was a name. And a defined coverage area.

Steve Taylor: Well, first they said, “Well, we’ll call it the ‘Tri-Towns’” — meaning, White River Junction, Lebanon and Hanover. Well, that didn't really do it. Then they thought, “Well, the Eagle back in Claremont had always called their territory the ‘Twin State Valley.’” So they said, “Aha, we'll call the territory we're going to carve out out of their territory, we're going to call it the ‘Upper Valley.’”

Josh Crane: The Valley News was born.

Steve Taylor: So, but what ensued then was a newspaper war between the Eagle of the Twin State Valley and the Valley News of the Upper Valley.

Josh Crane: It was a war over territory, and it was also a war over the character of the region. The Eagle was operated by Rhoda Shaw Clark, a widow raising five kids. And it was based in Claremont, an old mill town.

On the other side, the Valley News was geographically and culturally more closely aligned with Dartmouth College. And they had a noticeably more progressive editorial page.

According to Steve, some probably viewed the phrase “Upper Valley” as an elitist dig at the working class paper down the river.

Steve Taylor: What it connotes to them is people in Hanover and Lebanon look down their nose at Claremont, a tough, old industrial town.

Josh Crane: This war went on for about five years. Competition was fierce. But at the end of 1960, the Claremont Daily Eagle waved the white flag, so to speak. They were losing too much money, and decided to stop selling papers in Lebanon, one of their biggest markets.

It wasn’t really about the quality of the journalism. There were larger economic forces at play. Claremont’s heyday was in the past. Hanover and Lebanon, home of the Valley News, were gaining prominence.

Steve Taylor: Dartmouth College was rising to become a national institution. And then, of course, the medical center, that was beginning to grow.

Josh Crane: The Valley News rode the economic wave. They started to turn a profit, momentum that continued in 1965 under the purview of their new news director: a young man by the name of Steve Taylor.

Steve Taylor: So, that's what I did for just under eight years, a great experience. And we were catching the wave, really, a tsunami of the interstate highways being completed. And that attracted all kinds of activity.

Josh Crane: The Valley News won the newspaper war, and their regional moniker also won out.

Steve Taylor: Pretty soon, you noticed in the phone books, there might be eight or nine “Upper Valley” listings for businesses and not-for-profits calling themselves “ the Upper Valley this” and “the Upper Valley that.” And that, that has happened over the, over the last 50 some-odd years. It keeps growing.

Josh Crane: There are a handful of businesses that play off the name “Twin State” — car dealerships, plumbing companies and the like. But here’s the real difference: I’ve never met anyone who would say they live in the “Twin State Region.” No. They live in the Upper Valley.

Today, the phrase “Newspaper of the Upper Valley” dons the top corner of every Valley News front page. Green Valley News mailboxes are ubiquitous on residential roads around the region. They did make some recent cuts — but they’re still delivering local and national news, six days a week.

Meanwhile, the Claremont Daily Eagle morphed into the Claremont Eagle Times. It briefly shut down in 2009 before being purchased by a Pennsylvania-based news group. As of 2022, it’s operating under new, local ownership. Their website still states proudly: “Serving the Twin State Valley.”

A sign reads "Eagle Times" in front of a building.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
The Claremont Daily Eagle morphed into the Claremont Eagle Times and was later revived by a new owner, in 2022.

At some point during my conversation with Steve Taylor, one of his sons walks in. He and his wife operate a smokehouse across the road.

Steve Taylor: Yes, Bill?

No, no. This is Josh Crane from Vermont — Vermont Public Radio, dammit. Anyway. So, we're talking about Upper Valley, where that stupid term came from. 

Bill Taylor: Oh.

Steve Taylor: Mhm. What are you doing?

Bill Taylor: I was just checking your wood supply.

Steve Taylor: Yeah, good. I think I’ve got enough.

Bill Taylor: Alright tonight?

Steve Taylor: Yeah I’m good. Yep. Alright.

Bill Taylor: Get back to it.

Steve Taylor: See you soon.

Josh Crane: Upper Valley, this phrase — you called it a stupid phrase.

Steve Taylor: Well, if, I mean, if you look at it hard, I mean, you're trying to say it's as high as you can be, but you're not. If it's upper, it should take in Coos County and Essex County and Caledonia, and all that country. That's the “Upper Valley.” I mean —

Josh Crane: So, we're, I guess, more technically, like, the “Middle Valley.”

Steve Taylor: Yeah. But in proportion to the whole length of the river, you’ve got all of Connecticut and you’ve got all of Mass. So we're probably 60%

Josh Crane: Upper Middle Valley.

Steve Taylor:  (laughter) Yeah, right. You’ve got it. Yeah.

an old man stands and looks at the camera
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Steve Taylor has spent his whole life in the Upper Valley.

‘Imagined territories'

Josh Crane: So, yeah, “Upper Valley” is not a geographically accurate phrase. But in the 70-some years after those Ivy League upstarts first established the Valley News, it's come to mean a lot more than a newspaper circulation area.

Garrett Dash Nelson: Both individuals and institutions refer to themselves as being located in the Upper Valley. 

Josh Crane: This is Garrett Dash Nelson. I track him down at a work retreat.

Garrett’s the president of the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library. He’s a regional expert. As in, he’s spent much of his scholarly career thinking about the concept of a region.

Garrett Dash Nelson: Unlike a state or a municipality, you don't pay taxes to your region. You don't vote, necessarily, in a regional government.

Josh Crane: He says regions are based more on the natural landscape or culture than any political borders. Take the Midwest, or Eastern Europe. You probably have a general idea of where these regions are located, though probably not the specific borders.

Garrett Dash Nelson: All these sort of slightly hazily defined geographic terms, which, you know, are pointing at real units on the map, but are also very much determined, sometimes over-determined, by a sense of like cultural connection.

Josh Crane: Garrett says we’re constantly defining the places we live and the places other people live, and making sense of ourselves based on that map. Sometimes, our geographic identities do correspond to political boundaries — like, maybe you’re someone who strongly identifies with being a Vermonter or a New Hampshirite. But often the places we identify with are more vague: the Northeast Kingdom. The Seacoast. Western Mass. The Upper Valley.

Garrett Dash Nelson: We're making up these imagined territories all the time and assigning characteristics to them. 

A smiling man in a sweater sits in an arm chair in an old house.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Garrett Dash Nelson runs the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library.

Josh Crane: Earlier in his career, Garrett did a postdoc at Dartmouth College. He was already interested in studying how regional definitions evolve over time. And so, when he moved to the Upper Valley, he kinda accidentally hit the geography jackpot.

And he had much of the same curiosity as David Watts, today’s winning question-asker.

Garrett Dash Nelson: So I started looking into it, right? Like, what, what exactly do we mean? What is this region? What's, what's in and what's out?

Josh Crane: Garrett devised an experiment. The first thing he did was ask people to look at a map of the larger area and then draw their boundaries for the Upper Valley onto that map. After collecting 150 of these, he aggregated all the responses together.

It’s basically a cluster of dots — each dot representing one town that showed up on the user-drawn maps. Darker red dots symbolize towns with more consensus, and fainter red dots are the more unusual inclusions.

Garrett Dash Nelson: Really, the only kind of consensus was that the four core towns of Norwich, Hanover, Lebanon and Hartford were definitely in the Upper Valley.

Josh Crane: Those are the darkest red dots on the map, right in the center of the region.

Garrett Dash Nelson: Every concentric circle out from that, there's like, a little, little less agreement about whether you're in or out. 

A map shows a bucnh of red dots overlaid on a map of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Garrett Dash Nelson
Geographer Garrett Dash Nelson asked people to draw their own boundaries for the Upper Valley. He then mapped the data. The darker dots on the map show towns that more users identified as the Upper Valley, while the lighter dots were less popular.

Mapping the Upper Valley

Josh Crane: The Upper Valley as a geographic area is ill-defined. The Valley News includes 46 towns in its circulation area. Vital Communities, the Upper Valley non-profit, includes 69 towns in its service area. And if we go off of the only area of consensus from Garrett Dash Nelson’s geography experiment, the Upper Valley includes just four towns: Hanover and Lebanon on the New Hampshire side, and Norwich and Hartford on the Vermont side.

We over at Brave Little State decided to test the region’s borders out for ourselves. And by “we”... Hello, hello, Associate Producer Burgess Brown.

Burgess Brown: Hey, Josh.

Josh Crane: Last week, you and I ventured out to opposite ends of the Upper Valley — or, at least, what we thought those ends might be.

Burgess Brown: Yeah, we went off of the service map for Vital Communities, which cast the widest net in terms of the size of the Upper Valley.

Josh Crane: That’s right. We basically tackled either end of a 90-mile stretch of the Connecticut River.

Burgess Brown: I snaked my way across the northern edge on the Vermont side.

Josh Crane: And I took the southern portion.

Alright. Burgess, let’s start with you. What did you find on your geographical definition expedition?

Burgess Brown: So, I started off in South Ryegate, a small village in Caledonia County that straddles the Wells River. I drove a few laps of town before I could find signs of life.

Burgess Brown: Hi.

Cindy: Hi! 

Burgess Brown: How are you? 

Cindy: Good. How are you? 

Burgess Brown: I'm doing OK. 

Cindy: What can I help you with? 

Burgess Brown: I stopped in the South Ryegate post office to talk with Cindy behind the counter. She agreed to chat with me after I assured her there wouldn’t be any tough questions.

Burgess Brown: So my first question is really easy, is, are we in the Upper Valley, right now?

Cindy: (pause) I consider myself Upper Valley. 

Burgess Brown: You do? 

Cindy: Yeah. Yeah, I think we'd have to be the Upper Valley.

Burgess Brown: What's the hesitation? 

Cindy: Well, cause Lebanon considers to be — when you see the newspaper or something — it’s the Upper Valley. But we're in the whole valley.

Burgess Brown: So this, so you'd say this is maybe the outskirts of, of—

Cindy: Probably. Yeah.

Burgess Brown: Next, I set a course for Gramps Country Store in West Topsham. Becca and Kayli were working the register, and they were even less confident of Upper Valley geography than Cindy was.

Kayli: I guess that's a really good question. I guess I'm puzzled about it too. (laughter)

Burgess Brown: Well, OK. Are we in the Upper Valley now? Do you consider this the Upper Valley.

Becca: Yes.

Kayli: (laughter) I think so. 

Burgess Brown: Then Ann, a customer, walked in and shared a very confident take.

Ann: It’s stupid because the Upper Valley is lower, lower than any other valley in the whole state. Isn’t that stupid?

Kayli: Wouldn’t the Upper Valley be like Claremont, Springfield, kind of in that area?

Ann: The Upper Valley is the Northeast Kingdom. That’s where it should be, but it’s not. I always have wondered who named it that. It was obviously somebody who didn't live here.

A country store with a Pepsi sign.
Burgess Brown
Vermont Public
Gramps Country Store in West Topsham sits in the gray area of the Upper Valley.

Josh Crane: Well, Burgess, it sounds like we had a pretty similar experience. I started my afternoon in Westminster, a farming community in Windham County, Vermont.

Josh Crane: Hi there. Can I ask you a question? 

Josh Crane: I intercepted longtime resident Elma Beals outside the town offices.

Josh Crane: Very simple question for you: Are we in the Upper Valley?

Elma Beals: Yes.

Josh Crane: So how far does the Upper Valley go to?

Elma Beals: (laughter) I really don't know. 

Josh Crane: Linda Fawcett, librarian at Westminster’s Butterfield Library, had a different answer.

Linda Fawcett: No. No. We’re in Southern Vermont.

A woman sits on her laptop at a desk, surrounded by books.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Linda Fawcett is the librarian at Westminster’s Butterfield Library. She considers Westminster Southern Vermont.

Josh Crane: I traveled over to the New Hampshire side, and inched a bit further north, to Claremont. That’s where I ran into a woman parked on Pleasant Street, near the offices of the Claremont Eagle Times. She beckoned me over to the driver’s side window of her well-loved ’95 Corolla, curious about my recording equipment.

Josh Crane: I’m making a radio story. You want to be in it? 

Athena Brehio: What’s it about?

Josh Crane: Um, I'm going around asking people if we're in the Upper Valley.

Athena Brehio: Oh.

Josh Crane: This is Athena Brehio. She works for the addiction recovery center across the street.

Josh Crane: What do you think?

Athena Brehio: Kinda. We’re in the Connecticut River Valley.

Josh Crane: What is the Upper Valley?

Athena Brehio: I would say Lebanon, Hanover. I don't know, we’d be the lower Upper Valley.

Josh Crane: We’re in the lower Upper Valley.

Athena Brehio: (laughter) Yeah.

Josh Crane: I like that.

Athena Brehio: It's not quite the Upper Valley. We're close, we're close. You can get there in 20 minutes.

Josh Crane: What do you think is the reputation of the Upper Valley?

Athena Brehio: Um, expensive? Like, you know, turn up your nose, “upper”? (laughter)

Josh Crane: Oh, yeah. Like “upper” in the other meaning of the word.

Athena Brehio: Yes, in the other sense. Like, you go to Hanover. And I drove this car in Hanover. And I was like, “Oh, my goodness.” You know? It's just a whole different vibe, cause the college is right up there, you know?

A woman is smiling in an old car, in front of a building with a marquis.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Athena Brehio says the reputation of the Upper Valley is that it's "expensive."

Josh Crane: After gallivanting around the outer edges of the Upper Valley, I returned to geographer Garrett Dash Nelson’s mapping experiment — the one with all the user-drawn borders of the Upper Valley.

In addition to asking people to draw borders, he also asked people to submit a written explanation of why they drew the borders where they did.

Garrett Dash Nelson: Quite a few responses referring to the sort of snobbiness of the Upper Valley, seeing it as a more kind of elite region, probably driven by the presence of Dartmouth, or, you know, a handful of relatively wealthy municipalities that are at the core of that area. Some people talked about the term kind of deriving back to the circulation area of the Valley News.

Josh Crane: Culture. History. Class. It’s all there in how Garrett’s respondents imagine this place. And it matches a lot of the responses Burgess and I got out in the field. The Upper Valley is a vibe. A sensibility. And what, exactly, that vibe or sensibility is depends on who, exactly, you are.

Meanwhile, Garrett says people's relationships to the places they live have changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic. And, in this case, that might mean more people identifying with the concept of the Upper Valley than ever before.

Garrett Dash Nelson: As we've become formally de-spatialized in certain ways, we've also come to, like, prize or crave this sense of regional attachment.

Josh Crane: Perhaps leaning into the Upper Valley identity is a way to reclaim something we’ve lost, or emphasize something we previously took for granted.

‘Micro’ areas

Josh Crane: Up to this point, we’ve been discussing the Upper Valley as a region. But imagine, for a minute, that the Upper Valley is actually one large city, and all the small towns in the area are different neighborhoods of that city.

Rob Gurwitt: If you think about how you live in a city, you don't just stick to your neighborhood. 

Josh Crane: Rob Gurwitt has lived in the Upper Valley for 25 years. Every weekday morning, he publishes a newsletter called Daybreak, featuring key news items from around the region. Which means he thinks a lot about what the Upper Valley is, and where it is.

And this “region as a city” thing is his idea. He says it’s one of the best ways to really understand this place.

Rob Gurwitt: You go from neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on whether you're going to a particular restaurant you want to eat at, or there's a store across town that you want to go to, or there's a music venue on the far side of the city that you want to see. And that's, that's how the Upper Valley works. 

A screenshot from a newsletter reads "Daybreak" over layers of mountains at dawn. Below, it says: "Good morning, Upper Valley!" in all caps.
Every weekday morning, Rob Gurwitt sends out Daybreak: a newsletter featuring stories from around the Upper Valley.

Josh Crane: To back this up, Rob points to the idea of “micropolitan areas” — “micropolitan” as opposed to “metropolitan.”

Whereas metropolitan areas are mostly urban and suburban, “micropolitan” describes a cohesive cluster of smaller cities and towns that operate like a rural ecosystem, away from the gravitational pull of a major urban center.

The U.S. Census Bureau follows more than 500 of these micropolitan areas around the United States. As a whole, they account for about 14% of the national population.

One of them’s labeled the “Lebanon New Hampshire-Vermont Micro Area” — basically, the Upper Valley. And here’s the detail that really brought it all home for me: According to the data, this is the most populous micropolitan area in the entire country, with a population of well over 200,000 people.

The caveat here is that the Census’ definition of the Upper Valley is the broadest I’ve seen.

Still, that’s more people than live in all of Chittenden County, but without a population center like Burlington. Meaning, the hundreds of thousands of people in this region really are spread out in a series of small towns, each one like a separate neighborhood. You might call White River Junction the “theater and arts district.” Lebanon the “shopping district.” Hanover the “college district,” and so on and so forth.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand the Upper Valley and the whole remote cosmopolitan thing — this information is your validation. Nationally speaking, the Upper Valley is truly a geographic and cultural outlier.

Rob Gurwitt: But what that also means is that, you kind of wish more people knew about it, just so we could share it. I mean, there's, there are lots of really good restaurants. And there's lots of really good art and performing arts. And there's lots of really interesting people. And there are really excellent bookstores. But the political and media attention in both states is elsewhere. It's up in the Burlington area or Montpelier in Vermont, and it's really over in Concord and Manchester and the Seacoast and the southern tier in New Hampshire.

All this means that in lots of ways, the Upper Valley has to rely on itself to make its own fun.

Josh Crane: “The Upper Valley: Making its own fun since 1952.” Maybe we just need a slogan? 1952, by the way, is the year the Valley News first started circulating.

People with ski boots sit around a bonfire, with a wooden building in the background.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
A local ski club roasts s'mores at Green Woodlands — a place this reporter fondly thinks of as emblematic of the Upper Valley.



This episode was reported and produced by Josh Crane. Editing and additional production from Burgess Brown and Sabine Poux. Angela Evancie is our Executive Producer. Theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Sophie Stephens, Mark Davis, Bill Kane, Pat Boerum, John Lowe, Richard Hastings and Kat Blanchard.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

Corrected: February 26, 2024 at 1:35 PM EST
An earlier version of this story said that the Claremont Eagle Times shut down in 2009 and reopened under new ownership in 2022. The Eagle Times briefly shut down in 2009 before reopening later that year under new ownership. It was sold again in 2022.
Josh Crane is part of Vermont Public's Engagement Journalism team. He's the senior producer and managing editor for Brave Little State, a podcast based on questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by the audience, and runs Vermont Public's Sonic ID project.
Burgess Brown is part of Vermont Public’s Engagement Journalism team. He is the associate producer for Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.