Where Do The Terms 'Woodchuck' And 'Flatlander' Come From?
Where did these unusual labels come from, and what do they evoke today? A question about blatant stereotypes, and the Green Mountain lingo we use for them.
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People-powered journalism project Brave Little State is teasing apart the meaning of these terms after receiving a question from Ryan McLiverty, of Woodstock:
“What is the history behind the terms flatlanders and woodchucks, and what do those terms evoke today?”
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Ryan is in graduate school in Rhode Island, studying cybersecurity. While he grew up in Vermont, he’d never thought of himself as a woodchuck (which, to be clear, is not in this instance referring to the large ground squirrel).
“I had not even heard the term woodchuck until relatively recently,” he says.
The word flatlander, however, he’d heard plenty over the years.
Ryan was talking about all of this recently with his girlfriend’s family. They mentioned a guy they know who moved to Burlington four years ago.
“And people still call him a flatlander,” Ryan says. “And he has been really confused, because he doesn't know what he has to do in order to get rid of that label, or if it will ever go away?”
He adds: “What if someone from Colorado — like, would you still call them a flatlander? And I feel like if you ask a Vermonter, they'd probably say, ‘Yes, you're still a flatlander.’ Which is funny.”
Ryan is also wondering about what connotations this term might have during the pandemic, which has brought heightened awarness of recent transplants and second-homeowners.
“Seemed like recently, there was something in the way people were saying it during the COVID outbreak that was a little more real, it was a little bit more ill-tempered,” he says.
Etymology and other origins
The origins of the nicknames flatlander and woodchuck appear to be intertwined. But woodchuck came first, so we’ll start there.
In terms of etymology? Sciuridae is the word scientists use for the family of small- and medium- sized rodents that include: squirrels, chipmunks, marmots and … woodchucks!
Which are what people in the Northeast call groundhogs. But to clarify, woodchucks are not the same as gophers.
Some people call woodchucks land beavers and whistle-pigs, but I’ll be honest, I have never in my life heard anyone say, “Hey, look at that whistle-pig,” or, “Isn’t that a cute land beaver digging up that hillside?”
To find out about the stereotypical woodchuck that Ryan was curious about, I made some calls.
Some of what I heard:
“In Vermont, the term woodchuck means someone who was born here.”
“...Second- or third-generation Vermonters.”
“Basically redneck or hillbilly…”
“...A country person who, who literally chucked wood. I mean, they heated with wood.”
“Woodchuck is somebody that is very comfortable with machinery and guns and trucks.”
“Someone who, either real or perceived, has some sort of a relationship with the land.”
“...Grow their own food if they can, do their own plumbing, do their own wiring, do their own heating. In part because, well, when I first moved here, there wasn’t anyone else to do it.”
That last voice belongs to Jeff Danziger. He draws woodchucks and flatlanders in his cartoon series “The Teeds.” I also spoke with Caleb Smith, a dairy farmer from Danby, and Liz and Tom Slayton — Tom was the longtime editor of the now-defunct Vermont Life Magazine.
In addition to a lifestyle, woodchucks — if we’re going to generalize some more — also have a look.
According to Vermont historian Paul Searls (we’ll hear more from him later): “Well, I guess there would be a chainsaw in your hands and a flannel jacket … Blue jeans and work boots.”
By the way, underneath all those practical clothes? Woodchucks also seem to be mostly white and older.
“I did a story once trying to figure out the origins of the word woodchuck, and wow, I never came to a conclusive answer,” says Tom Slayton, the longtime magazine editor. “But as I was researching the story, I happened to see my sister and her boyfriend throwing firewood into a truck, and I said, ‘Look at them, chuckin’ that wood. Wait a minute…’”
In my own research, I learned the term woodchuck is not exclusive to Vermont. Some people in rural upstate New York also use the word to identify themselves. But as far as Green Mountain woodchucks go?
“I could think of it as a badge of Vermont-ness, I guess,” says Al Boright, who was born in Barre and has family ties in Vermont that go way back. “It’s OK not to have it, but I think it's something to be cherished.”
Al is retired now and lives in Middlesex, but for more than 30 years, he provided legal counsel to the state Legislature, and he went to Harvard.
Because of that, he admits he’s probably only a partial woodchuck: “I've been polluted from my pure woodchuck-ness.”
But Al told me he can still access his inner-woodchuck. He’s done it on stage for years in musical parodies, like in a classic number from "Woody and the Woodchuck," a show he performed with George Woodard.
“I've been in three shows that have been named for woodchucks, and probably 15 that have the word groundhog in ‘em,” he says.
Al told me that one of the things he loves most about the woodchuck caricature is the traditional Vermont accent. The same one his dad, his uncle and many of his cousins had.
I also asked Al to tell me what else came to mind when he thought about being a woodchuck. He told me, in character:
“Well, there's a big Vermont connection that goes back multiple generations, in most cases,” he says. “There's a clothing aspect to it. It can't be too snappy-looking. It can't be nothing that’s been bought too recently. There is a general attitude towards life about — you want a lot of it, but you don't need a lot of stuff to get through it. There’s sort of a lack of B.S. and a lack of false friendliness. That kind of thing. And they’re good to their neighbors… How's that, for starters?”
Al Boright says he’d be pleased to be called a woodchuck. Honored, even.
But the word can just as easily be a diss.
Again, Paul Searls, a history professor at Northern Vermont University:
“Rural Vermonters in some cases can refer to each other as woodchucks. But if someone from outside their community or who looks different from them calls them a woodchuck, they'll feel resentful.”
He says the term’s meaning can also depend on where you live.
“People in Burlington think that everyone outside of Chittenden County is a woodchuck, and the people in Montpelier and Barre think that people in Plainfield are woodchucks,” Paul says. “And people in Plainfield think the people in Groton are woodchucks, and people in Groton Village think the people in rural Groton are woodchucks. I mean ... it's a really very old term.”
Which gets at Ryan McLiverty’s question about where the term woodchuck originated — something Paul Searls says he’s tried to figure out.
Here’s one story:
“I know this, that Sen. George Aiken, who was a longtime important political figure in the state, once told a story that Calvin Coolidge, when he was governor of Massachusetts, used to drive up from Northampton to Plymouth, his house in Plymouth," Paul says. “And he was very taciturn. He would never say anything. But in all those trips, one time, he all of a sudden was startled in the back seat. And when they got to his house in Plymouth, he said one word, which was, 'Woodchuck!' He apparently had seen an animal. And it was the only one word he ever said on those trips. And George Aiken speculated that maybe that was where the term woodchuck came from.”
But we can’t be sure.
Labels in a time of change
So how did the terms woodchuck and flatlander get popularized? Paul Searles says it helps to understand a pivotal time in Vermont’s history: the 1960s and 70s.
“The old economy was in rapid decline,” he says. “The number of dairy farms was plummeting.”
Traditional industries like lumber, quarrying and a lot of manufacturing were going out of business. At the same time, the back-to-the-land movement was taking off, and Vermont became a haven for hippies and communal living.
Paul Searls says Vermont was also aggressively marketing itself: “They launched a program, for instance, in the 1960s called ‘Beckoning Country.’ Vermont was ‘the beckoning country’ and it was so successful, it brought so many people up, they had to cancel it.”
The interstate highways were being built at this time as well, so it was easier for people to get to Vermont.
“And so all those things collided by 1970 to make it a case where a lot of Vermonters were economically hurting,” Paul says. “And also a lot of outsiders had a great deal of interest in moving to Vermont, acquiring Vermont land as second homes or simply coming up as tourists.”
Almost in defiance, Paul Searls says, this is when you began to see bumper stickers in the state that said, “I’m a woodchuck.”
“And it became a term that people began to use proudly,” he says.
Paul says the state began enacting new environmental and developmental regulations, changes that many longtime Vermonters struggled with. Resentment began to fester.
“This is Vermont's great paradox," Paul says. "Which is, I mean, for a lot of native Vermonters, if Vermont had not taken huge measures in order to regulate development, then a lot of Vermonters would have said, ‘Oh, this state's changed too much, it's just like New Jersey, I liked it the way it was.' But if you do a whole lot of regulation and planning, then they say, ‘You're telling me what to do with my land.’”
Hence the name-calling.
'It's not a compliment'
Dahan Mohamed was born in Troy, New York and moved to Grand Isle, Vermont in 1990 when he was 18. He remembers when a group of friends he and his brother were getting to know teased them about being flatlanders and not knowing anything.
Dahan says the term didn’t really bother him, since his mother’s family had actually early settlers in the area and had only recently moved out of state. But the meaning of the word was clear.
“It’s a slight, it’s not a compliment to you, but when it’s followed up with a good belly laugh and stuff, it’s hard not to laugh with them and they kind of laugh with you,” Dahan says. “But I just think it’s the way of a Vermonter saying, ‘Yes, I’m a Vermonter, and you’re not.’”
I mentioned to Dahan what our question asker Ryan Mcliverty had wondered, about the word flatlander taking on more negative overtones during the pandemic as more second-homeowners have moved into the state. Dahan didn’t think so. He’s been selling real estate in and around North Hero for 20 years.
“I do work with a lot of first-time home buyers, and people coming from other areas to purchase here in Vermont, and I can tell you that word just doesn’t come up,” he says.
Among his clients, he says no one has asked him about it or mentioned hearing it.
If it’s still being used in Vermont, Dahan thinks it’d be in more rural parts of the state, and by people within an old-boys network.
As I talked to people for this episode, a number of them mentioned Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, a member of one of Vermont’s oldest old-boy networks. He didn’t actually say the word flatlander, but in 1770 he argued in court that “The gods of the valleys are not gods of the hills.”
Some 240 years later, Caleb Smith got a taste of that when he moved to Danby and started farming. He had hired a local old-timer to help move his herd.
“I heard through the grapevine that he was talking down at the store, how I was a flatlander and didn't know what I was doing, and I would soon be out of business,” Caleb says. “He was corrected by a friend of mine who’s a neighbor who said, ‘Well no, he’s not a flatlander, he’s a hillbilly.’”
Caleb was born in South Carolina, but he spent his formative years in the mountains of North Carolina.
“And going back to the story, I don't know that I necessarily feel like a 'hillbilly from the holler,' either,” he says. “In North Carolina, there was a similar differentiation, and you would talk about people, they’re from 'down east.'”
So in North Carolina, you’re from down east. In Wisconsin, where I’m from, we looked down at people from Illinois — but the terms we used I couldn’t say on the radio, not even on a podcast. I hear people who live on Martha’s Vineyard call non-islanders wash-ashores … Every place seems to have its own putdown for non-natives.
In typical New England fashion, the word flatlander, as far as putdowns go, feels pretty tame.
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Thanks to Ryan McLiverty for the great question, and to Jeff Danziger, who drew us a special woodchuck v. flatlander cartoon for this episode.
You can ask your own question about Vermont at bravelittlestate.org, sign up for our free newsletter and vote on the question you want us to tackle next. You can also find us on Instagram or Twitter at @bravestatevt.
This episode was reported by Nina Keck and edited by Angela Evancie. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed, and we have engineering support from Peter Engisch. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to John Dillon and Paul Carnahan.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from VPR sustaining members. If you’re able to make a gift, you can do that at bravelittlestate.org/donate. Or just spread the word about the show.