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From Woodstock, VT to Concord, MA: the birth of (one idea of) a nation

As a heatwave pummels the eastern US, here’s a fresh view of our impressions of visiting some charming cities and small(ish) towns from the South to New England.

Unlike in the West, most of the South and Northeast are geographically closer and have a higher population density. In about the same geographical space comprising California, one can travel across most of the US South and Northeast or check the remains of what constituted the Thirteen Colonies.

Tatum and Taylor left the city to relocate near Woodstock, VT; for under $200,000, they bought a fixer-upper home on a meadow bordered by a creek. They feel fortunate and know their new community, where they feel welcome

Designed before automobiles, many town centers improve my mood when I walk through them. Plus, the many Elm Streets, Maple Streets, and the like are a beautiful reminder of the beauty of deciduous forests across the region. One day, following Bill Bryson’s advice, among others, we’ll walk, not drive, across Appalachia.

Surrounded by blue: a college baseball match at Chapel Hill’s UNC

We started our road trip in Nashville, Tennessee, using a rental car with a Pennsylvania plate that suited our endeavor: we were flying back to California from Boston’s Logan airport, and Pennsylvania felt like the perfect average of what we would encounter in ten days (somebody would put it to me this way: Pennsylvania feels—both geographically and culturally—the most southerner that a northerner can be).

A gentle college town

Our trip felt different this time, as our oldest daughter just finished her junior year and will soon be applying for college, so Nashville turned into Vanderbilt land, and we relied on Wikipedia to read about the institution and its role in the cradle of Blues. Though we weren’t taking the Blues Highway down to New Orleans but the opposite way.

Two days after, we were visiting our kids’ cousins in Chapel Hill; our brother-in-law is a coach at UNC, which explains the light blue color and “Carolina” logo of some of the caps and workout clothes we use, which came in handy the night we arrived: the baseball team was playing a crucial match against a West Virginia team.

Walking across the small but charming town of Woodstock, Vermont

By the time we got to the Stadium, which is an experience on its own (small and packed, hosting people of all ages, everyone committed to smiling and rooting for the team as if it were an ad of an all-American clothing brand), things were getting hard for the home team. My brother-in-law tried to explain the basics of the sport, which I knew, but then, when everyone seemed nervous, all it took for the local team to win finally was to wait for one of the opponents to get to base a bit too late, as a local player received the ball and stepped right before the desperate player trying to get there.

All players formed a mêlée while caps flew in the air —one image I must have seen before since it was all too familiar; perhaps it’s the same way they did in professional baseball. That’s how my anthropological dive into an important match in college sports—at a place not far from Duke—finished. I asked about the UNC-Duke rivalry, and all I got was a couple of jokes I didn’t quite get. The rivalry is real.

A former small factory restored with care in Woodstock, Vermont

Between South and North-ish: From Chapel Hill to DC

There’s an old complicity between me and my brother-in-law, an older, charming gentleman from South Carolina with a contagious sense of humor and a Southern accent. Due to our respective unconventional accents, we barely understood each other years ago when we first met, which led to reminding each other of lost-in-translation anecdotes every time. Thanks to our relatives there, I have a privileged peek into a pleasant, barely mentioned college town that saw Michael Jordan and other sports figures explode before their professional careers.

Being a veteran coach in a sport I won’t mention, I asked him what he thought about gifted college athletes getting contracts, and he didn’t seem to see the upside of such a measure. “Education” seems out of the equation to those playing competitive sports for colleges fighting for much more than prestige. Economic incentives can attract funding, but things go too fast for some students who sometimes lack economic literacy.

Spotted in Woodstock, VT

The day after we arrived in Chapel Hill, I decided to explore the town once again, and, like in previous visits, I noticed how formal some people’s attires look compared to the college town where we reside in Coastal California. The town felt sleepy as classes had already ended, but the old homes with manicured gardens and big porches were, along with the sidewalks paved with red bricks, the only visible reminder that we still were in the South, for the local accent of most people doesn’t seem to match that of our relative.

Even if formally in the South, our next stop, DC, seemed to be a world apart from the crowds of youngsters who had gathered around central Nashville to celebrate a few days back. The neighborhood near Gallaudet University (an institution we knew nothing about) where we stayed was yet another experiment in the ongoing gentrification of the capital, as the few areas with rowhouses and low apartment buildings from the early twentieth century attract professional families capable of mobilizing resources for what will most likely be the most important purchase of their lives. The Northeast area of DC felt lively and dynamic.

A door from Woodstock, VT

Driving up the Turnpike

In family parlance, our day and a half in DC turned out to be an opportunity to find out more about Georgetown and its connection with political studies, American Catholics, and international students (including, interestingly, the current king of Spain, who briefly attended the school as any other student coming from abroad). But our daughters seemed more interested in the energy they saw on the street: the residential neighborhoods northeast of the capital combine a gentle density with mixed-use in several places, drawing pedestrians to the area and increasing the place’s attractiveness to teens and young families right away. Unlike the more impersonal, administrative core of DC and its sleepier residential areas, which feel more suburban, streets with brick rowhouses feel lively and charming; no wonder it isn’t affordable anymore to live there to most people in the area.

With only a few days left to cover a little over a thousand miles, we decided to speed our transition beyond the Mason-Dixon line, cruising across Chesapeake Bay’s porous frontier and driving up New Jersey’s Turnpike with little time to talk about the colleges in the area worth mentioning: at the latitude of Princeton and Penn, we knew we were in Ivy League territory.

Woodstock, VT; the town’s vernacular is quite consistent; homes are big and expensive to maintain

Traveling north across the East Coast, the landscape changes little, with similar species of towering deciduous trees following along the road, the weather getting gradually a bit less humid and the temperature a bit cooler. But our trip wasn’t interested in exploring how many of the most prestigious institutions in international education have amassed fortunes and land to the point of becoming driving forces in local economies and behaving like city-states from the Middle Ages, with their own political and economic clout —more hedge funds with “customers” than education centers trying to promote inquiry or academic experimentation.

After a brief stop in New York City, we decided instead to venture into Upstate New York, driving to the capital and past Woodstock and other landmarks, leaving behind the standardized urban continuum of the coastal megalopolis connecting DC to Boston. From a cabin near Lake George, we talked about some of the colleges in the area giving life to the gentle little towns where they are located, like Syracuse.

St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1826 (Woodstock, Vermont)

Woodstock, Vermont

It was another Woodstock that caught my interest a couple of days later. One arrives at Woodstock, Vermont, following a meandering road that cuts across picturesque rolling hills that combine mature forests with openings where there are working farms where old wooden barns have aged the way they should, animals roam as in a competition of picturesque American pastoralism, while other properties with passenger cars instead of at least one pickup truck at the door seem to have become the second home of New Yorkers and Bostonians.

After farms and forests, a few houses, and the English style, an old stone church’s tower informs the visitor that he’s going to enter the type of small town where one expects a lively main street, a few sumptuous public buildings, and many homes belonging to the place’s notables many generations ago.

We weren’t wrong, and past the stone church, we reached the center of the narrow valley, surrounded by old, well-kept homes, the old stone building of the public library on the other side, and a charming little square in the middle hosting what seemed a perpetually ongoing little market hosting some produce and crafts from the area, live music (a couple of old, languid chaps covering Neil Young, perhaps a sign of our proximity to the promise of Canada and its ruggedness), and a few people using the park’s tables and benches as improvised picnic spots.

Many homes from Woodstock share a natural, unpretentious charm

Witold Rybczynski, a Canadian architect, seems to have fallen prey to the place’s charm, describing it in the 1990s as we found it a few days ago:

“The overall plan seems to have been dictated by the site: a narrow, flat valley hemmed in by the sweeping curve of the Ottauqueechee River on one side and a small creek on the other. The green was laid out lengthwise on the narrow peninsula between the river and the creek, allowing for many plots to have rear gardens running down to the riverbank. … The builders of Woodstock were aware that important buildings needed important sites. The Episcopalian church is at the head of the green, the Methodist farther down, and the Congregationalist church artfully closes the vista of Pleasant Street where it dead-ends into Elm Street. … The pride of place, on the green, is shared by private homes on one side, and the courthouse and the Eagle Hotel on the other. Stores, banks, the post office and other businesses are located on two streets adjacent to but not actually on the green. This is a subtle sort of urban design, but it is design, design that proceeds not from a predetermined master plan, but from the process of building itself. A rough framework is established, with individual builders adapting as they come along. If Parisian planning in the grand manner can be likened to carefully scored symphonic music, the New England town is like … very restrained jazz. … [L]ike jazz, it involves improvisation, and as in jazz, this does not mean that the result is accidental or that there are no rules.”

Rybczynski, Witold. City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World New York. Scribner, 1995. pp.89-93
Middle Covered Bridge, Woodstock, VT. The area’s covered bridges were restored and rebuilt from scratch

The world of wealthy second-home owners

It looked, to put it some way, suspiciously “nice.” Maybe it’s just this area of town? —I speculated. So I ventured along the street, stumbling upon nicer and nicer houses, well-kept and unpretentious—but somehow big—New England heirlooms: the town’s central square, called the Green by locals, is surrounded by old dream homes in Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival styles. I soon spotted one, two, three covered bridges that connected the old town to the not-less-charming homes on the other side of the Ottauquechee River. Either Vermont was an unsung paradise of low-density, wealth and urbanism best practices, or Woodstock-Vermont hid some secrets.

And a secret it hid: it took me a quick search to find out that the town (population 3,005, including the old center and the additional hamlets of South Woodstock, Taftsville, and West Woodstock) has long been a favorite destination to “second-home owners from cities such as Boston and New York.” More interestingly, the trend had not begun a few years ago, as one can sense when walking through its old streets and observing the many trees, the beautiful covered wooden bridges, the carefully restored mills and old buildings, the well-kept public library and courthouse buildings.

A bicycle carrying children heads to the town’s main square (“The Green”) after crossing the Middle Covered Bridge

The story of Woodstock wouldn’t have been much different from that of other perpetually languishing New England small towns too far from cities to become commuting towns and too undistinguishable to break through as destination towns for wealthy owners of second homes, preserving their rural feel —and lacking the economic force to keep its population above the replacement rate. But, after World War II, the Rockefeller family “discovered” this “other” Woodstock (being one rural Woodstock, NY, the one that gave the name to the iconic concert, much closer to Manhattan). Not surprisingly, Nelson Rockefeller attended Dartmouth College. Decades back, in 1934, Laurance S. Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., married Mary French, whose family had cherished the place for generations.

Woodstock has preserved its charm over the centuries. On the surface, it has changed little since the nineteenth century, though it now lives off a monoculture disconnected from the surrounding farms and the power provided by the old mills that inspired the initial colonial settlement. The town attracted manufacturing facilities early on thanks to the river waterfalls powering several mills at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; it produced scythes and axes, woolens, carding machines, guns, carriages, saddles, luggage trunks, leather goods, and much more. It reached a population of 3,041 in 1859, roughly the same as today —only today, there’s no other activity than tourism that serves visitors and second-home owners.

Middle Bridge, Woodstock, VT

How Woodstock, Vermont stayed (nicely) frozen in time

Though Woodstock was remarkable way before the Rockefellers put an eye on it: in 1889, Henry Swan Dana, another graduate of Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire, where the university is located, is a mere 20 miles away), born in Woodstock in 1823 and a local lawyer, published a book about the place: The History of Woodstock, Vermont 1761-1886. According to a review in the Battleboro Phoenix, which appeared right after publication:

“…it is the most complete and comprehensive history which has ever been written for any Vermont town, as it is also the largest, handsomest and most elegant in its mechanical execution and outward appearance. Perhaps these facts are largely due to the primary fact that few towns have so much history to be written as has Woodstock, or bear upon its records the names of so many men who have made their mark in state and national affairs.”

From a random walk across Woodstock, Vermont, in early June, 2024

The book dedicates special attention to one of those bigger-than-life characters that, while living in the calm, never-changing Woodstock after retiring, had helped forge a much more dynamic and ever-transformative America: Frederick H. Billings, an influential figure both in the East and West Coast, from where he amassed influence as a lawyer, a financier involved in the California Gold Rush, and a politician. He was born in Royalton, a town 20 miles north of Woodstock and halfway to Vermont, the town where the Vermont General Assembly moved in 1807 after meeting first in Woodstock.

Billings moved to California during the Gold Rush, founding a law firm that grew to handle land title cases, and then succeeded in funding several ventures. He used his influence in California to prevent the State from seceding, though he didn’t leave business: a major investor in the Northern Pacific Railway, he was credited for rescuing the company after the financial crisis of 1873. Instead of staying in California, he moved back to Vermont, where he became the governor in 1872. However, at the end of his life, when his health deteriorated, he held but one dream: to retire to his home in Woodstock, where his family had relocated when he was 12. He could have chosen San Francisco, Boston, or New York, though he only wanted the charming tranquility of a town with a little over 3,000 neighbors.

Socializing at The Green, Woodstock’s central square

Yet Billings wasn’t a sentimental old man returning to the comforts of idealized childhood memories: in 1869, at the peak of his power, he had purchased the former estate of George Perkins Marsh, an influential author and pioneer conservationist and author of a pioneering volume on ecology, Man and Nature. Marsh’s property was conveniently located in Woodstock, so Billings bought the place to dedicate his late years to practicing Marsh’s conservation ideas in his own homestead.

Vintage Vermont for purists

The house where Dana was born is now occupied by the Woodstock Historical Society, an homage to his commitment to his birthplace. In a way, Dana’s book became a loyal portrait of the Puritan life and pace of small-town life in New England —or at least the type of life “insulated from many of the harsher realities and effects of those years of rapid industrialization on a national scale,” as the book’s epilogue explains.

In more than one way, the intermingled lives of Frederick Billings, George Perkins Marsh, and Henry Swan Dana could have been chosen by the American collective subconscious to sing what the new country was to offer to the world. Instead, the American public decided to symbolize such works with one elevated archetype: that of the transcendentalist authors equally attached to their own Puritan small town of Concord, Massachusetts. The place of Emerson and Thoreau.

Across The Green: the public library’s sumptuous building

Many reasons prevented Woodstock from growing larger, such as the technological innovations that allowed factories to power their machines without the need for river rapids and the mighty magnets of Boston, New York City, and other industrial centers in the region. And so, against all odds, the small town didn’t only stay as it had matured at the end of the eighteenth century but, thanks to the investment of philanthropists like the Rockefellers, it was restored to its former splendor (if not beyond it, adding some pretentiousness to a rather austere original elegance). To understand how the town may strike visitors interested in patina and vernacular architecture, the New York Times ran an article on June 7, 1998 about the town titled: Vintage Vermont, For Purists.

“Woodstock itself, with tree-shaded streets of 19th-century buildings in red brick and white clapboard, spired churches and neat town green, remains a draw to visitors. The two main streets are home to boutiques, art galleries, antiques shops, restaurants and historic houses converted into bed-and-breakfasts. It’s a good idea to leave the car parked at your hotel and to tour the town on foot (the meter maids of Woodstock are in top form).”


“ON Aug. 15, 1934, Laurance S. Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., married Mary French, whose family had long ties to Woodstock, Vt. The couple said their vows in the stately clapboard Congregational Church that stands less than a mile from her family’s estate. As a couple, the Rockefellers would spend the next six decades using their prodigious energy, their interest in history and conservation, and their considerable wealth to help make Woodstock what Mr. Rockefeller thought of as ‘one of the six most beautiful towns in America.’ The couple rebuilt the famous Woodstock Inn, acquired a nearby ski slope, gave millions toward historic preservation, donated land for recreational use, established a working farm and museum on property that had been owned by Mrs. Rockefeller’s grandfather, Frederick Billings, a railroad baron, and buried the power lines in the center of town. But the couple’s ultimate gift to the public is a new national park — Vermont’s first.”

Vintage Vermont, For Purists. Marialisa Calta, The New York Times, June 7, 1998, Section 5, page 13
Inside Woodstock’s public library, well stocked for a population of around 3,000 people

A fixer-upper a few miles from Woodstock

Like many picturesque little towns that preserved their original charm, Vermont’s Woodstock fell prey to an old Faustian bargain celebrated by many traditionalists interested in urbanism: it chose stasis—the calcification of places frozen in time—over the dynamism of experimentation and growth —by comparison, other towns in the area that attracted more factories grew larger; it’s the case of Manchester, New Hampshire, and many other towns and small cities.

However, keeping a place’s beauty stuck in a time that never quite existed comes at a price: people from Vermont can’t afford to live at a place that long ago became too expensive to people with local incomes, whereas many of the homes lack people living permanently, which affects the local economy, favoring population aging and, ultimately, stagnation. Charming to visitors but unwelcoming to those willing to stay and raise their families there. This explains why most of those willing to stay year-round work in and around the economic activity generated by the purchasing power of second-home owners and seasonal visitors like skiers, hikers, and tourists attracted by heritage.

We also visited Kirsten’s maternal grandparents’ grave in rural western New Hampshire (Maslen last name)

We left Woodstock reluctantly: it’s indeed a beautiful little town (and, after diving into a copy of The History of Woodstock that the well-stocked library had, I felt I needed to pay a visit to the local cemetery to pay my respect to some of the people I was skim-reading about. But we had an appointment not far from town: Tatum and Taylor, a young couple who had met when attending Williams College, had bought a little fixer-upper not far from the exceptionally expensive (at least to Vermont standards) Woodstock, for which they had paid under $200,000.

It was a charming property of several acres between a local road and a meandering creek that served as a property line. Both lacked a rural background (Tatum is from Brooklyn, while Taylor grew up in Pennsylvania). But their respective inner-city upbringings didn’t deter them, and they decided to turn the little fixer-upper around, have a little garden, and rent a campground by the creek to the many visitors the area attracts. Their baby son Rafael is a native Vermontian, and they are glad they relocated: they know their neighbors, and they feel not only welcomed but also “a part of the community.” They call their small welcoming place Full Joy Farm.

Somewhere in New Hampshire

When we chatted with them, a gunshot went off somewhere across the valley:

“That’s a shot, but, unlike near the place in Brooklyn where I grew up, I know exactly who used that gun and what for [one of their neighbors is an avid hunter).”

Woodstock to Concord

Our trip was ending just before we read the news about an imminent heatwave in the region, which we were about to miss. The weather had been pleasant all along our itinerary from Nashville to our last stop before taking a plane back to the Bay Area at Boston’s Logan Airport: Concord, Massachusetts, the small-town home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlett Letter’s author), Bronson Alcott (famous educator), and Margaret Fuller.

We arrived at night after a demanding day involving meetings and some driving. I decided to walk at night to Emerson’s house. As I crossed the nearby meadow, a few sparks of fireflies here and there illuminated the bushes in between beautiful heritage houses. For a moment, I felt that the transcendentalists were talking, and I wanted to listen. I felt grateful for the moment and kept it to myself, but then I thought of this article. And here it is.

Visiting the farm inhabited by Kirsten’s maternal ancestors after the Great Depression (rural western New Hampshire)

Concord grew from a modest population in the 19th century, right when the mentioned figures created an intellectual movement that declared intellectual emancipation of the new country from a European conceptual guardianship to a current population of over 17,000 people. Despite the relative growth, Concord’s population is still very modest, and its rich heritage is fundamental in keeping the place from growing larger. Anybody curious about housing prices there has only to visit Zillow or Redfin to find out why Concord feels prohibitive to most people in Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest and most dynamic US States.

Like Woodstock, Concord is a charm to visit, especially if one is blessed with almost pleasant weather, a lack of crowds but somehow people around us at its charming commercial center, and the freedom to wander around, going from Thoreau’s Walden Pond place to Emerson’s and Louisa May Alcott home, walking along streets with names such as “Thoreau” and “Walden.” To enthusiastic readers of Thoreau and Emerson like Kirsten and I, there’s no complaint about it.

Random street in Concord, Massachusetts

Yet I couldn’t help but feel driving parallelisms between Concord and Woodstock: when you freeze picturesque places in time and prevent them from growing, you’re basically creating a very expensive museum that becomes prohibitive for locals to live on and also crowded with affluent visitors who often feel entitled to walk around as if the place were theirs.

The American Scolar(s)

There’s no easy answer in trying to preserve a place’s historical significance, intellectual heritage, and natural beauty while at the same time preventing it from gentrifying to the point that locals are outpriced by wealthy second-home residents from the Boston area and beyond.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, Concord, Massachusetts

As we walked through town, I could recall some passages from Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

“As we passed under the last bridge over the canal, just before reaching the Merrimack, the people coming out of church paused to look at us from above, and apparently, so strong is custom, indulged in some heathenish comparisons; but we were the truest observers of this sunny day.”

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau, 1849

As for our daughter’s dive into the world of college applications, I found it interesting that the parallelisms between Concord and Woodstock are deeply related to college affiliations. Eminent people from the small town in Vermont had attended or were somehow related to Dartmouth, the small Ivy League from western New Hampshire, whereas the Concord heavyweights were Harvard lads.

Emerson’s home, mid June 2024

Though Harvard was a whole different thing at the time of Emerson’s lecture The American Scholar, the true American declaration of independence from Britain and the European canon:

“Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office—to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, a lecture he gave to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837

Both Thoreau and Emerson favored more individualistic and experience-based learning and believed that paternalism created highly dependent adults. But these things matter to only a few people nowadays —and they are a matter of a (possible) future article.