For the free-thinkers and radicals who moved to Vermont in the 1960s and 1970s, the past may be obscured in a cloud of … wood … smoke. But what does the present look like?
That’s the question Judy Pond of Norwich put to Brave Little State.
Brave Little State is VPR’s people-powered journalism podcast: We collect your questions about Vermont, our region or its people, and then put those questions up for a public vote. Judy asked this month’s winning question:
“Where are all the aging hippies that moved to Vermont during the '60s and '70s, and what are they doing now?”
To find an answer, we seek out said "aging hippies," and ask them what’s changed about their lives — and what’s stayed the same.
Meet our winning question-asker
Before we get started, let’s get to know our question-asker Judy.
“When I came here," Judy says, "I guess I thought I was going to grow all my own food forever and have a lot of animals. ... And that's pretty much gone by the wayside. You know, I have a garden.”
Judy is allowed to ask about “aging hippies” because she is one: She moved to the town of Sharon in 1968, after getting her master's in linguistics from Brown University.
“It was ... before [the] Kent State [shootings],” she recalls. “After [the assassination of] Martin Luther King.”
Not long after that, Judy and some friends started an alternative school.
“It was just a little school. ‘Oh,’ we thought, ‘This is exciting,’" she says. "And we paid ourselves $100 a month when we could afford to do that.”
In 1971, Judy built herself a tiny house in Norwich. Before “tiny houses” were a thing, of course.
“I went to the library and got a book called Modern Carpentry,” she says. “And I didn’t know what I was doing, but everybody was helpful and gave advice and it turned out great.”
The alternative school didn’t last very long, but Judy stayed in that house (though she had some additions built) for more than 40 years. She also stayed in education, mostly as a middle school teacher: “Eighth grade. Some high school, for 45 years altogether. And I retired nine years ago.”
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So what’s Judy’s answer to her own question? What’s she up to these days?
“Now I’m somebody I had no idea I would become,” she says, lighting up. “I am a violinist.”
She’s been practicing with a recording of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major for two years.
“I call myself an adult-onset violinist, and I spend a lot of time in New Hampshire at the Upper Valley Music Center, which is just a wonderful place in Lebanon,” Judy says.
Judy says the formative mindset of her hippie years was this sense that if you found the right book or mentor you could learn how to do anything — like build a house or play the violin.
“So I'm interested in whether other people from that era have maintained some of those attitudes about how we can all learn to do whatever we want and where it's taken them,” she says.
As we are wont to do, we collected some of your stories to help answer this question. Take a listen:
Thanks to everyone who shared their stories with us!
"Hippies, dreamers, freaks and radicals"
Now, if you’re not familiar with Vermont’s back-to-the-land movement — or hippie invasion, as some called it — here’s some quick background.
“The back-to-the-land movement was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Rutland writer Yvonne Daley.
Yvonne is the author of a brand-new book about this era called Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks and Radicals Moved to Vermont.
We’re talking about a lot of hippies, dreamers, freaks and radicals — an estimated 40,000 between 1970 and 1980. Including Yvonne, whose Massachussetts accent earned her the hippie nickname “Boston.”
By Yvonne’s count, there were “at least 75 recognized communes in the state in say the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and far more that, you know, were operating under the radar.”
The clothing was whimsical, but the philosophies of the counterculture were no joke.
“We were very disillusioned with the assassinations of our president, President Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Yvonne says. “And then came the war. And all of a sudden, our brothers and people that had gone to high school with us were being sent to war in a place called Vietnam.
“So, it had something to do with opposition to the war. It had something to do with an experimental lifestyle of trying to almost blow apart a lot of stereotypes, whether it was the nuclear family or how to raise your children.”
And back-to-the-landers specifically were interested in what Yvonne calls the “old ways.”
“The idea that you could grow your own food, that you could make your own clothes, that you could harvest your own wood,” she explains. “We found that that was already in existence in Vermont.”
By the way, when Yvonne says “we,” she means mostly well-off, educated white people.
“It didn't occur to us as much then how privileged we were,” she says. “We were rejecting comfort.”
This part of Vermont’s history is very well-documented. You can explore the Vermont Historical Society’s 1970s Counterculture Project, which has more than 50 oral history interviews available online. You can also check out Yvonne’s new book Going Up the Country (and some of the folks from her book appear in this episode).
Profile by Angela Evancie
Picture a young woman in the 1970s. Long brown hair and a definitive counterculture style.
Marilyn Skoglund's wardrobe in those days included a fringe tablecloth and a down vest with a sheriff's badge on it. She has a collection of photos of herself from around the time when she lived in the orbit of Goddard College, in Plainfield — she came here with her husband Duncan in 1973.
“Duncan was teaching painting and printmaking and drawing at Goddard College. And I had this adorable little baby,” she says. “We rented this fabulous little tiny shepherd's cottage in the middle of this 500-acre dairy farm. No insulation, wood heat. But the farmer was fabulous. I mean, I'd go dip raw milk out of the bulk tank, and, you know, he'd give us a chicken once in a while. And it was a lovely way to live."
It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and Marilyn and her fellow hippies wanted to make art, reject materialism and live sensibly.
“... Do well by our neighbors and honor the earth and all of those lovely ideals that we all came with back then,” she says. “To give you an idea of how much of a hippie culture we had embraced, I was playing the autoharp at that point and I had hand-made a sheepskin autoharp case which we would tuck our daughter into on the floor while we played music at the grange.”
But, that was then. And now? That raw milk-drinking, autoharp-playing hippie mama is an associate justice on the Vermont Supreme Court.
On a recent spring day, sun is pouring into the windows of Justice Skoglund’s chambers in the Vermont Supreme Court building in Montpelier. But her honor is deep in her work.
“So far this morning I've answered emails about meetings that are scheduled and reviewed another justice's circulation of a proposed draft opinion,” she says. “And now I'm focusing on getting ready for term, just reading briefs. … I love this part. I learn something every month. I'm just learning something in the very case I'm reading now about unemployment law that I didn't know before. So it's a great job. It's just never boring."
Justice Skoglund was named to Vermont’s Supreme Court in 1997 — the second woman to ever take a seat on that bench.
Before that, she was on the district court, “and family and civil. And before that I did 17 years at the Attorney General's Office,” she explains.
It sounds like a fairly standard resume, until you get to Skoglund’s degrees. She only has one of those: a bachelor’s in sculpture and art history.
“I do believe I'm the only Supreme Court justice in the country that never went to law school,” she says proudly. “I could be wrong on that, but I don't think so.”
Here’s how it all happened: Back in the 1970s, the young hippie Marilyn Skoglund decided that she wanted to pursue law because she liked reading and writing. She also needed a steady income.
“You know, when you marry an artist, at some point it dawns on you that one of you has to actually earn a salary,” she jokes.
Unfortunately, Marilyn’s bachelor’s degree in fine arts didn’t make her the strongest candidate for law school. She took the LSATs and applied to schools, but her applications were rejected.
But she wasn’t deterred. Like our question-asker Judy, Marilyn took it upon herself to learn the skills she wanted. And she took advantage of a unique Vermont law that basically lets aspiring lawyers learn on the job.
“They call it office study now. Back then it was the reading for the bar, reading for the law. ... It's one of the wonders of Vermont that you can apprentice yourself for four years, don't go to law school, and then take the bar along with everybody else," Skoglund explains. "And if you pass, you can be an attorney. And that's exactly what I did.”
Today, Justice Skoglund is the longest-serving justice on the high court, and she’s ruled on watershed Vermont cases, such as the one that eventually led to Vermont’s civil unions law.
Oh, and she’s also now living in a house, not a shepherd's cottage.
“Let me tell you, I still walk past that thermostat on the wall and go, ‘Hi. Love it. Do your job!’” she says. “After 11 years of heating with nothing but wood, I love my thermostat.”
But she carries those years with her. If you listen closely, the language Justice Skoglund uses to talk about her work echos back to the values hippies placed on things like communal harmony and art.
“I just fell in love with the law,” she says. “It is so logical. It outlines how to live in a society of individuals without bothering everybody else. It's just an amazingly wonderful art form.”
There are more overt connections, too. Justice Skoglund’s office is just about as bohemian as a chambers could possibly be. She painted the walls herself — a stately blue. Above her bookshelves there’s a mounted head of a smiling boar she calls Emmett. It’s flanked by two framed photos: one’s of President Harry S. Truman and the other’s a signed photo of the comedian Lily Tomlin.
Meanwhile, Justice Skoglund has transformed the lobby of the Supreme Court into a giant art gallery, with rotating exhibitions of Vermont artists, “because the walls were just perfect to display art, and so I can keep my finger in knowing who's in Vermont, who's painting what, who's seeing what.”
On the day Brave Little State visits, the paintings of Castleton artist Tom Merwin are splashing pinks and oranges and blues across the walls of the lobby.
“And the best thing about that project down there … is when I can come to work and see staff standing in front of a painting and talking about it,” Skoglund says. “They're not afraid of art anymore because it's around them all the time. And I think that's great.”
And Skoglund says her own experience as an artist broadened her perspective as a judge, especially when it came to cases involving families living in poverty.
“You know, I actually think having a fine arts background made me a much better trial judge. I understood poverty,” she says. “I don't know if my colleagues had this perspective or not but when people in, like, parentage actions would claim, you know, ‘The house was messy.’ Well, hello. I lived in a house with wood heat and two rooms, uninsulated. It was messy at times."
Skoglund recalls a case where it was being argued that a father wasn’t sending "appropriate snacks" with his children to school.
“And I stopped the therapist who was testifying on the stand and I said, 'You know, doctor … I want to warn you, you're testifying in front of someone who once had nothing to send with her kid to school. So she sent a coconut and a hammer for a snack.' And he looks at me like, you know, you're going to be certifiable at any moment … I mean, I was doing the best I could. By [that] time my husband had left, I started work at the AG's office and earned $7,000 a year I think.”
Those experiences shaped her worldview, but Justice Skoglund says her hippie-ness only goes so far.
“I think that the hippie background is just enforcing a humanist kind of approach to life. But my first allegiance is to the law. I took an oath. I take that so seriously,” Skoglund says. “I have issued decisions that I hated but it was what the law required. So ... I'm not an activist judge. I seem to think of myself as being a middle-of-the-roader. I will be highly protective of individual rights and freedoms. But I will also read what the law says and not try to bend the legislative language to fit a result that I would like to see.”
Profile by Nina Keck
If it’s spring in Vermont and you want to cook fiddleheads or wild ramps, Greg Cox is your man.
Greg is the owner of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland, and you can find him at the Rutland Farmers Market on Saturdays. (He recommends chopping ramp greens and sautéing them with some butter and olive oil.)
In Rutland, everyone seems to know Greg Cox. He’s kind of like farmers market royalty — because he helped turn what had been a sleepy on-again, off-again Rutland market into a not-to-be missed weekend party that brings upwards of $5 million into the local economy every year.
“It’s become a point of pride for Rutland,” Cox says. “And so everybody comes out … and we’ve gone out of our way to include everybody – from, you know, the economically challenged all the way up to ... nurses [and] doctors. Everybody comes.”
Which is just the way Greg likes it. Because while he’s a businessman, farmer and father, he’s also a back-to-the-land revolutionary who believes equality and respect are more important than profit.
“I am still a hippie,” he says. “I will die a hippie, yes.”
Greg was born in the Bronx in 1950. He remembers helping out in his grandmother’s vegetable garden as a child and believes that’s where he became fascinated with how things grow.
Greg says his parents wanted him to go to college and become a teacher, but he had other dreams.
“I was always working, and I always saved my pennies, and I was going to buy a big tract of land and move to Canada,” he says, laughing. “And so Vermont was pretty damn close.”
By enrolling in Johnson State College in the fall of 1968, Greg was able to please his parents and get closer to Canada.
But it was a volatile time. Greg’s older brother fought in Vietnam, and he urged Greg to avoid the war at all costs.
Greg did – but he admits his parents, who’d been through World War II and the Korean War, struggled with Greg’s long hair and counterculture ways.
“They were not very happy, not very happy at all! They didn't understand it,” Greg says. “And I was involved in a lot of protests and just, I wanted to change the world. I just really wanted to change the world. … But, you know, we were doing drugs and we were listening to loud music, but I was a Boy Scout leader, I volunteered on an ambulance. You know, I was involved. But, I just — I was driven by my value system to change the way people treated each other.”
Greg says he learned another important set of values from the old-time Vermonters he befriended when he got to Johnson. Volunteer firefighters and farmers who’d lived in the Green Mountains for generations fascinated him.
“They were like modern-day Native Americans. They had a value system and a connection to the cycles of the earth that were just amazing,” Greg says. “I mean, cycles of the mountains … maple sugaring and wild-crafting and boy, I learned so much from these folks. And it wasn't long before I was like, boy, I want to become just like them.”
But getting there took Greg a while. After college he worked as a building contractor, a caretaker farmer, a ski bum at Killington and even an adjunct professor. But his passion was always farming, and as soon as he could afford it, he bought an 80-acre farm in West Rutland where he now grows just about everything – organically, of course.
“We do a bent towards biodynamic, if you know what that is. So we try to view the farm as an ecosystem – you make it sustainable,” Greg says.
It’s why he has a large community solar array on his property that provides cheap local power to him and dozens of his neighbors.
And because he believes these values are important to pass on, Greg spends a lot of time mentoring new, young farmers. Three years ago he helped launch a program to help them bring their fruits and vegetables to seniors who couldn’t otherwise afford it. The program also provides summer jobs for at-risk youth.
“We actually bring them up to the farms and, you know, they get paid and they have a job and they get exposed to really neat people with a good work ethic,” Greg says, “and then they go down and pack the food. So it’s empowering to see folks that are benefiting from their labor.”
Greg’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. And in 2016, Greg Cox, a self-proclaimed radical hippie farmer — who never did finish college — was named Business Person of the Year by the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce.
“It was an honor,” he says. “And more important than that, it was the first farmer that was actually Business Person of the Year, because somehow farmers, ‘They're not really businesses.’ It’s like you're dismissed by the economists because you're a farmer, it’s not really a business.
“Yeah, so it was pretty cool. I think it was recognition of where Rutland is at the moment and understanding that we're the home of John Deere. We were one of the largest exporters of agricultural products to New York City and Boston. And so you need to build your future on who you are.”
Greg says that’s exactly what he’s tried to do his whole life: build his own career around the things he feels passionately about — and if possible, change the world along the way.
He says that’s the beauty of being part of the hippie generation.
“And I hope it happens again. You know, I hope some generation, whichever one it is, will take a look at the world the way it is and say, ‘We can make it better,’” Greg says. “And if they can do that and do a better job than we did, everyone — the earth itself — will be better off for it. Yup.”
Profile by Amy Noyes
If Vermont’s back-to-the-land movement had a power couple, it might have been Lois Eby and her late husband David Budbill.
Lois is an abstract painter, who uses ink and acrylics.
“I improvise on a line and then add color. But I don’t plan paintings in advance, so I let them happen once I establish a line or a color,” she says of her work.
David was a poet who famously wrote about hardscrabble Vermonters and his own love for chores such as planting a garden and heating with wood.
“Back up to it, hands behind your back, palms out, the warmth of the woodstove working its way into your body. Toast the back of your legs, your butt, turn around and warm the other side. This is heaven,” David wrote in a 2013 VPR commentary.
He died nearly two years ago, but his words about life in rural Vermont will outlive us all. And the story of the end of his life will hit home for many of Vermont’s aging hippies.
“One thing that I think is happening to our generation of people who moved to Vermont in the late ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s is that everyone is now aging, and now beginning to question whether they can stay in their places out in the woods,” Lois says. “We used to talk about that.”
These are things you don’t think about when you’re young. When Lois and David came to Vermont in 1969, they didn’t plan on growing old here. The plan was to spend a year here so David could write in relative peace.
“And we managed to save $5,000 between us, so we thought that was enough to live on for a year at that time,” Lois says with a laugh.
Someone hooked them up with a cheap place in Wolcott, just outside the Northeast Kingdom. And when a nearby piece of land came up for sale, they made it their own.
“And we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just build a house and we can store our books and then we can go wherever we decide to go,’” Lois recalls. “But, of course, we got involved in life and fell in love with where we were and hardly traveled at all, really.”
Lois had a studio in their new home, and David had a writing loft. And that place, which David fictionalized as Judevine Mountain, inspired much of her art and his writing — including this poem called “Horizons Far and Near,” which David read on VPR’s show Vermont Edition in 2010:
Although Lois says they didn’t come to be part of a movement, it’s easy to see how she and her husband fit in.
“I think David had interests that were very close to the back-to-the-land Movement, so he felt he wanted to heat with wood, cut his own wood ... He loved gardening,” she says. “And so growing his own food and cutting firewood was very much a part of the life that he, in particular, wanted. But we also just loved being off in the woods by ourselves.”
Lois and David raised their family on that Wolcott hillside and then settled into life as empty-nesters. But there eventually came a time when rural living and homesteading chores became too much.
David developed peripheral neuropathy in his feet, and then something even more devastating: a rare form of Parkinson’s disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP.
“It's such a difficult illness,” Lois recalls. “So he was becoming unable to even walk to the woods, let alone cut wood ... and then he couldn’t bring wood in. And he started falling a lot because of the PSP, and it was obvious that the disease was progressing. We didn’t know at that time what it was, but we just felt that things were becoming more and more difficult for us to sustain, and we were having to hire neighbors to do all the things that we loved doing.”
And those stairs up to the writing loft also became too difficult for David to navigate. So Lois and David left their “Judevine Mountain” home.
“David had never wanted to make any changes in the house or the life. So he didn’t want to see the wood stove replaced with any other kind of heat. And it would have been difficult anyway because of the falling,” Lois says. “It was a very, very hard disease to manage. So we decided rather quickly to move to Montpelier and to a place that was all on one level where he wouldn’t have to cope with stairs of any kind.”
David died in 2016. His ashes are buried in a Vermont maple box among that white pine stand in Wolcott, where he loved to be.
Lois still lives and paints in Montpelier. She’s active with local arts organizations and recently was the featured artist at an event at Bryan Memorial Gallery, in Jeffersonville. She’s also an active grandmother; her daughter’s family lives nearby.
And now she’s seeing friends facing the same decisions she and David had to make:
“I can see other people wondering, ‘Well, what’s going to happen when I can’t keep up the garden or bring the wood in?’ And it’s now a big question facing that group of people who love their places, as we did.”
David thought — and wrote — about such big questions when he was mourning the death of his father. And perhaps that prepared him to face his own fate.
In 2003 he collaborated with musicians William Parker and Hamid Drake to record some of his poetry for an album called Songs for a Suffering World. Listening to David’s words now, they somehow sound both heavy and uplifting. They’re also good advice for Vermont’s aging hippies — and all of us.
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Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund and from VPR members. If you enjoy this show, consider becoming one.
Editing by Lynne McCrea. Brave Little State’s theme music was composed by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode:
- “January Thaw” by Banjo Dan Lindner
- Bourrée from J.S. Bach's cello suite #3, performed by William Preucil
- “Arizona Moon” by Blue Dot Sessions
- “Steppin' In” by Pondington Bear
- “Lakeside Path” by Blue Dot Sessions
- “While We’ve Still Got Feet” by William Parker, Hamid Drake and David Budbill
Special thanks to Erica Heilman, Robin MacArthur, Robert Resnik and Kari Anderson.
Correction 9:24 a.m. 6/11/18 This post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Yvonne Daley's last name.