Vermont vs. New Hampshire: What's The Beef?
Call us rivals, or frenemies...But where does this half-serious tension come from? Ian Harding of Los Angeles asked Brave Little State to break it down.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above if you can! But we also provide a written version of the episode below.
There’s this joke you might have heard: Why does Vermont make more maple syrup than New Hampshire?
The punchline is a little crude. It goes: When a sugar maker in New Hampshire finds a dead squirrel in their sap bucket, they toss out the squirrel and the sap. But in Vermont?
“In Vermont, the sugar makers, if they find a dead squirrel in their bucket, they take the squirrel out and ring it, and put the sap in the tank,” says Sandra Cary, a librarian at West Hartford Library. “That’s why there’s more maple syrup in Vermont. It's just so silly.”
Sandra has actually found herself in this situation many times — staring at a dead squirrel in a bucket of sap. She and her husband have a backyard sugaring operation at their home in White River Junction, which is right on the state border.
She says it’s usually dead mice she finds, not squirrels. Either way, this idea that thrifty Vermonters would hold onto a bucket of sap after finding a dead creature floating around is not true, according to Sandra.
“That's not true. We wouldn’t keep the sap,” she says.
But Sandra is not surprised to hear these sort of jokes poking fun at Vermont, or back at New Hampshire.
If you grew up around here, you’ve probably heard them too. That was the case for Meredith Bay-Tyack. She’s from Landgrove. It’s a small town of 100 or so people in Bennington County, not particularly close to New Hampshire.
“It was so common, I can’t remember specifics, I just remember it was like part of the air,” she says.
Her community was proud and protective of their Vermont identity. Meredith thinks that’s why she heard these constant barbs throughout her childhood.
“Like, ‘Oh God, she’s going to New Hampshire. Oh, Why would you go there?’ You know, ‘Oh, the whole state is paved over,’ or something like that,” she recalls.
And this rivalry really stuck with her. So much so that all throughout high school, she kept a secret from her friends.
“I grew up in Vermont. But I was born in New Hampshire. And I remember not telling people that. Literally saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I was born in Vermont,’” she says.
Meredith does not lie about her birthplace anymore. These days she lives in Winooski and tries to make sure her two kids don’t buy into tropes about New Hampshire or anywhere else.
But those jokes and myths that she heard nonstop growing up are still floating around. And it’s not just arguing about who has the best maple syrup. When we asked you, our audience, to weigh in on this dynamic, you shared a range of cross-state slights, from "[I] always just had a feeling Vermont was just better than New Hampshire," to "Vermont? That’s the desert of spirituality," and, "Don't go to Vermont, because in Vermont, you can't do anything. Because they have too many rules. But here you can do whatever you want."
What’s this thing with New Hampshire?
This story was born from a question posed by Ian Harding. He grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and has been coming up to New Hampshire every summer since he was a kid.
“I've always loved, sort of from afar, New England in general, but like, in some strange, fantastical way, Vermont, which I've literally only driven through,” he says.
Ian never thought much about Vermont having its own, separate identity. “It just felt like a continuation of New Hampshire in my mind,” he says. “Which I know — we'll see if there are Vermonters that will listen to this and be like, 'What?' You know, and spit on the ground.”
It was only recently, after talking to friends who grew up here, did he realize he might be missing something. So he wrote to Brave Little State with this question:
“What's the beef with New Hampshire? And is the feeling mutual?”
Ian is an actor who ended up in Los Angeles, California, by way of the entertainment industry. And he’s landed some pretty big gigs, like starring in the teen-thriller Pretty Little Liars, and a couple movies, too.
And just like the show, Ian’s thoughts on Vermont and New Hampshire are popular. How on their face, the states don’t seem that different. That’s especially true for people outside the region. Another famous guy from California — Robert Frost — said basically the same thing.
"Anything I can say about New Hampshire will serve almost as well about Vermont,” he wrote in a poem entitled New Hampshire, from 1923.
There are some locals who might actually spit on the ground at this. Perhaps you, reading this, are fired up for a debate about taxes, environmental policies, school funding or abortion laws.
But this story won’t be focused on those things. Because comparing the states point by point is not actually the focus of Ian’s question. He’s asking about the beef with New Hampshire, and whether the feeling extends both ways. While that friction might be rooted in some real differences, this competition is subjective, and it connects to how we define ourselves as Vermonters or Granite Staters.
This subjective rivalry is only possible because we think of Vermont and New Hampshire as two fundamentally different places. And that was not always the case.
Sherry Gould, an Abenaki basket maker from Warner, New Hampshire, has spent a lot of time reflecting on this. She says for her ancestors, there was no magic line dividing New Hampshire and Vermont.
“The border is very different for us, I think, than it is for the mainstream public,” Sherry says.
“It encompasses all of New Hampshire, most of Vermont, northern Massachusetts, like down as far as Route 2, a little bit of western Maine and southern Quebec,” she says. “That was just traditionally the homeland for today what’s known as the Abenaki people.”
The actual line that divides Vermont and New Hampshire today, the Connecticut River, served a totally different purpose a few hundred years ago: It was a great way to get around by canoe.
“It was never the boundary for us, for our people,” Sherry says. “It was just the highway.”
But the Connecticut River did end up being an early beef for European colonizers. Back in the 1600s, a royal charter said that New York’s territory went all the way up to the edge of the Connecticut River. As soon as New Hampshire became its own colony, in the mid-1700s, this brash new governor named Benning Wentworth didn’t listen to what some king back in England had to say.
“So they quickly tried to grab the land in Vermont, and give grants to New Hampshire folks, and the New Yorkers wanted it for themselves,” says David Watters, a state senator from Dover, New Hampshire. He’s also a former English professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of New England.
Out of all the squabbling for land, the republic of Vermont was born. It took a few years to join the United States, but in 1791, Vermont finally made the cut.
Fast-forward to 1933, and the states were still arguing about the border and where exactly along the river the line fell. Vermont sued New Hampshire. The rub was over which state had the right to tax power plants along the western shore.
The case made its way up to the Supreme Court. To settle the dispute, the judges went back to colonial documents, declaring the boundary at the low tide line on Vermont’s side of the river, where it remains today.
Are Vermonters bitter that New Hampshire’s border comes all the way across the river to our shore? Maybe.
This era, when power plants started popping up along the river, was when separate identities of Vermont and New Hampshire really started taking shape. Because for years, the states had been tough to distinguish. After all, they were the same size, with roughly the same population of mostly farmers.
Then there was a big shift.
“For New Hampshire, I think industrialization really kind of set the states on different economic and political paths,” David says. “In Vermont, agriculture held on a lot longer.”
Vermont developed this reputation of small, tight-knit communities. Think Back-to-the-landers in the 1960s and ‘70s, when all the hippies came here.
And in New Hampshire, partly because of the rise and fall of big mills and factories, a more libertarian political identity emerged, with an emphasis on letting people do as they please without the government or anyone else getting involved. Think “Live Free or Die” and no income taxes.
Even David, a New Hampshire state senator, says these political differences can sometimes be a pain in the butt for his job.
“As a legislator, I'm looking with envy at some of my colleagues over in Vermont, what you are getting done and wishing that we could get some of those things done,” he says.
“But I love my state, don't get me wrong. I like our cranky individualism. I mean, I feel that very much myself. I think New Hampshire is a place for a lot of people, they want to be left alone, and they want to go their own way.”
'Freedom and Unity'
Becca White says that is not the political reality in Vermont. She’s a state representative for Hartford, a town that borders New Hampshire.
“We have such different expectations of what government should do,” she says. “That's within parties, like Republicans and Republicans on either side have very different perceptions than Democrats or Democrats on either side.”
Becca ended up in state politics because she loves Vermont. She's felt that way her whole life. Like, right after she turned 18, she got her one and only tattoo: “Freedom and Unity,” the Vermont state motto, written in block letters across her shoulder blade.
“I would never not get this tattoo,” Becca says. “The only thing I would change is making it bigger.”
The state motto is so meaningful to her because she says a lot of what makes Vermont special helped her get to where she is today. Growing up, she qualified for free lunch, health care, and financial aid for college — all part of Vermont’s social safety net programs.
And her community looked out for her. “Whether it be the lunch ladies who like, truly wanted and were invested in me and my family and knew me,” Becca recalls, “I feel like I lucked out in where I grew up.”
Even if you didn’t grow up in Vermont or New Hampshire, you can feel some of the states’ differences as soon as you cross the border.
Sherry, the basket maker from New Hampshire, remembers a time back in the 1990s when she was invited to dinner with her husband at this fancy restaurant in Norwich. He wasn’t too keen to go.
“Vermont had just passed the strict smoking law ban and my husband was a smoker,” Sherry remembers. “And he said, ‘Let me see if I have this straight. You want me to cross the border into the Socialist Republic of Vermont, and I can't even have a cigarette?’”
Starting in 1995, Vermont banned smoking in all restaurants, hotels and places like libraries and grocery stores. It was the first state in the country to enact this sweeping legislation. That’s pretty on-brand.
More recently, the states responded to the pandemic in very different ways that are still playing out today.
“The extent to which the state government stepped in and regulated people's behavior in New Hampshire versus Vermont was really, really different with the pandemic,”says Sarah Gibson, a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) who lives in Concord, New Hampshire.
“For a long time New Hampshire did not have a mask mandate, we did not have the same kind of rules on indoor gatherings, nor on out-of-state travel and self-quarantine,” Sarah says.
Is the feeling mutual?
Despite working in New Hampshire, Sarah is a Vermonter at heart. She’s originally from Shrewsbury, a town in Rutland County near the Killington ski resort.
“I grew up in a place where every summer there was a big puppet troupe that came through and performed in the meadow near my elementary school and we all ate gingerbread,” she says. “Those are strong memories.”
As a kid, Sarah says she had this vague sense of New Hampshire as this place with ugly development and sprawl.
“These things called suburbs, and big highways were in New Hampshire but didn't seem to be in Vermont,” she remembers.
She recalls an active animosity towards New Hampshire. But now that she lives there, she says the feeling doesn’t seem to go both ways.
“There are mountains. The leaves change. There's maple syrup. It's very white. And there are a lot of towns without stoplights. Just call it a day.”
“People in New Hampshire don’t give a sh-- in the same way that Vermonters love to make statements and roll their eyes about ‘Live Free or Die’ on our license plates,” Sarah says. “People here… they just don’t have a superiority or really inferiority complex about Vermont in the same way that Vermonters do about New Hampshire."
David Watters, the New Hampshire state senator, has had the same experience.
“I don't think people think much about Vermont at all,” he says. “Other than the kind of stereotype, perhaps, of cows. Bernie Sanders riding on a cow.”
Not that different?
The idea of New Hampshire not caring enough about Vermont to have a gripe with us might be the biggest insult of all. But the rivalry between the twin states is not completely one-sided, if you ask Jere Daniell.
He’s a nearly 90-year old historian from Hanover, New Hampshire. And he’s been thinking about the rivalry literally for decades.
Jere lives in New Hampshire, in a house with a lavender door that’s walking distance from Dartmouth College, where he used to teach history. He and his wife moved there in the 1960s.
After he retired, Jere would go around to towns in New Hampshire and Vermont giving lectures in church basements, at historical societies, and gardening clubs on whatever topic local history communities might be interested in.
One request that kept coming up was the very question that Ian Harding asked.
“They wanted to know, ‘What's this thing with New Hampshire?’” Jere says.
He showed me a thick filing cabinet folder filled with newspaper clippings, lecture notes, and handwritten letters from students over the years.
The folder had a lot of the things mentioned above: The Supreme Court case, industrialization, tax structures and politics.
But Jere says in recent years, a lot of these distinctions have narrowed. He thinks the states are nowhere near as different as we like to pretend. Basically, the two states have a lot of old people who mostly aren’t very religious, and towns have a big say in making their own decisions. He says the rivalry is mainly a form of entertainment.
Sarah Gibson, from NHPR, summarizes the two states like this:
“There are mountains. The leaves change. There's maple syrup. It's very white. And there are a lot of towns without stoplights. Just call it a day.”
Thanks so much to Ian Harding for the fantastic question.
This episode was reported by Lexi Krupp and produced by Myra Flynn. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane with editing help from Angela Evancie. Digital production by Myra Flynn and graphics by Elodie Reed. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to: Christiana Martin, Vera Longtoe Sheehan, Anna Ste. Marie, Ryan Chartier, and everyone who left us a message for this episode — including Tess in Waterbury and TJ in Burlington.
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