When my conversation in the Cambridge, VT town offices with Marguerite and George had concluded, I asked them to point me toward the center of the Village of Cambridge. The truth is, I was staying in the Village of Jeffersonville and, though both villages are part of the Town of Cambridge, I wanted to be sure that I had soaked up as much Cambridge-ness as possible.
With that, my destination was set. I was heading for the Cambridge Village Market. I nosed around a bit, before deciding to buy a loaf of maple bread, which would give me the opportunity to chat with the woman staffing the cash register, Mary.
It would be hard to be more of a Cambridge native than Mary. She was born in a one-doctor/one-nurse hospital that used to exist in town, and she has lived in Cambridge ever since.
Mary describes Cambridge as a “small community. Everyone helps each other.” She said that she used to feel that she knew everyone in town, though the town has grown. Her perspective is that “most everyone who likes living in the town is friendly” but she expressed concern that some newer residents are coming from other regions and “can’t stand the smell of a farm.” That said, nearly every customer and Mary knew each others’ names, and she frequently anticipated a request they would make for a product kept behind the counter.
Mary told me that she has traveled all over, but “this has been home and always will be home.” Her mother’s family also comes from the area, though her father’s family moved south from Newfoundland.
I mentioned I had visited Smuggler’s Notch the day before, and Mary told me she worked there for 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s, when she was one of many local employees. She notes Cambridge’s ongoing connection to Smuggs and said that folks staying at the resort are often sent over for groceries.
I stood aside each time Mary needed to help a customer, and the market’s owner, Bruce, checked in to see if I needed anything. I assured him I was fine, but it did make me feel a little guilty for taking Mary’s time and I thanked him on my way out. My conversation with Mary came near the end of my visit to Cambridge, VT, but her deep knowledge of the area gave me context for my previous chats and a few landmarks to visit as I headed home.
This is my final post on my conversation back in September with Marguerite Ladd and George Putnam, of the Cambridge, VT government. (You can read the first post here.) On my first trips to New York and Maine, the subject of politics came up in subtle ways, but I never raised it myself. In Vermont, I decided to dip a toe in, and found it was a good place to do so.
First, I needed to be brought up to speed on the Vermont Town Meeting tradition, which George explained takes place once each year, in March, on a declared state holiday. The agenda for a town meeting includes the election of officers, the town budget, and questions from the town. In Cambridge, the election of officers is conducted through open discussion, not by secret ballot. The regional newspaper offers coverage of the meetings and those who can’t attend can watch the livestream from home. (You can, too. Check it out.)
George said that “One of the good things about town government is there’s very little politics in it.” There are no traditional political parties involved when folks run for the selectboard, which can include three or five members. In 2019, George said there were four good candidates for open positions. They didn’t campaign ahead of time but, instead, “stood up and explained their positions.” George, himself, has written quite a bit about town government, as he has learned about it from the perspective of a selectboard member.
Marguerite noted that the candidates’ positions don’t necessarily line up with the national parties, and George said that local views in town are “a mix, where it comes to state and national politics.” Still, it seems that Cambridge, Vermont is a place where civility can rule. Note that the two candidates for an open seat in the Vermont House made news in 2018 with their respectful campaign and the fact that they joined together for a musical duet following a debate. (Lucy Rogers ultimately prevailed.)
Finally, Marguerite answered my last question from our conversation. Perhaps her description of Cambridge’s residents gets to how the politics remains civil.
How would you describe Cambridge?
To me, it’s a unique mix — and maybe by unique, I mean the actual ratio — of traditionalists and people who are forward thinking. And maybe that’s the magic ratio. They’re all passionate about their beliefs but also share that common goal of a high standard and quality of living that’s equal for all. What that means to them is different for different people, for sure, but somehow it merges into a good median of what needs to happen to keep Cambridge sustainable and keep it growing, with moderate growth being key there.
In the end, everyone is searching for that quality of life. Being able to live in a place you love, do the stuff you love, and have neighbors who aren’t crazy. Somehow it shakes out that, even with all the different viewpoints, that’s what makes Cambridge what it is, and also that it can thrive. Even if they wouldn’t say out loud they’re working together, I think that common denominator is there at the core of it.
This post has been long in coming, which I regret since Marguerite Ladd, the administrator of the Town of Cambridge, and George Putnam, the selectboard chair, were incredibly generous with their time. Marguerite has been in her newly created position for about a year, coming from finance work in New York but with her roots in Vermont. George is a long-time Vermonter and has retired from a career with the farm credit system. The Switchel Philosopher is his blog that asks, “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?” (Not familiar with switchel? I wasn’t either.)
The elected selectboard meets twice each month, and goes deep into the running of the town. (Minutes from a recent meeting can be found here.) There’s also an annual town meeting each March, attended by the citizenry. (Minutes from last March’s meeting can be found here.) Marguerite and those in other permanent staff positions follow through on and carry out decisions made by the selectboard and town meeting. As I noted right after my visit, the Town of Cambridge, Vermont includes two incorporated villages, Jeffersonville and Cambridge. This sounds like a similar arrangement to what we found in Cambridge, NY, but there the village didn’t fit completely within the town. The administrative lines are more clearly drawn in Vermont.
My conversation with George and Marguerite was wide-ranging, including what folks in Cambridge call themselves. Though the town is believed to have been named after Cambridge, MA, there’s no special name for the town’s residents. Nonetheless, George said that “most people identify with the town rather than the villages.” He said that towns are Vermont’s common administrative unit, and some towns include incorporated villages while others don’t. An incorporated village can assess taxes and create municipal services.
I started our conversation by asking what is going well in Cambridge. Marguerite immediately summed it all up by saying, “Everything.” She continued, “Cambridge is trying to do all the ‘right things,’ and looking for an equitable quality of life for everyone.”
George added, “There is a great mix of people here. There’s good volunteer engagement, both in town government and other organizations, like the rescue squad. The population is growing slightly, and moderate growth is a nice place to be. Many towns in Vermont are shrinking.” He further pointed out the unmissable. “There is great scenery, with mountains and rivers.” Marguerite said there’s a very active bike culture, along with paddling, hiking, and snowmobiles. “Vermont needs that four-season utility of its resources.”
Something I’ve enjoyed while talking to Cambridge leaders is when our conversations wander to critical municipal issues that I know little about. Marguerite noted, for example (and I hope I have this right), that Cambridge has the most road mileage out of all the towns in the county. This is a big issue if snow removal is part of the annual routine. There are several state roads that the state plows, and then the town plows the rest, including in the villages of Cambridge and Jeffersonville.
I’ve mentioned before that I have had more discussions of wastewater treatment on these trips than I ever would have imagined. In this conversation, I learned that the village of Cambridge has a public water supply, the Village of Jeffersonville has a public water supply and a sewer system, and the rest of the town offers neither. Unless they live in one of the villages, everyone is dependent on wells and septic systems. Unlike in Cambridge, NY where wastewater treatment was a major issue, George called it a small issue, though he said that “sewers aren’t the bottleneck [to development], but the water is.” The Village of Jeffersonville needs to expand its water sources and, they said, find ways to protect those sources.
I also raised the topic of broadband. George said that “Some towns around Cambridge have broadband committees. We’re in the process of organizing an economic development committee and looking at bringing broadband to town.” The telephone company provides DSL access but Cambridge is “not served by any of the large cable companies.” There are two smaller companies — Stowe Cable, and Mansfield Community Fiber — and the town wants “to work with those two companies to wire up the town with fiber.” He continued, “A lot of people want to work remotely and can’t do that,” though he pointed out that there is “better cell coverage than in many rural towns.” Marguerite added that realtors report that potential buyers routinely ask about internet access before they consider buying a house or property.
I told Marguerite and George that I had spent the previous afternoon at Smuggler’s Notch, the ski resort, which George called “good neighbors.” He said, “They employ a lot of people seasonally. Some retirees work there in the summers, leading hikes. And all the tourists lead to spin-off business, like lodging.” Marguerite explained that Smugg’s helps Cambridge’s “grand list,” the list of property in town that may be assessed taxes, especially because many of the condos at Smugg’s are second homes, used in the summer or during ski season. In Vermont, “If it’s not your main residence, it can be taxed a little higher. It helps the town have those services that other towns might not be able to afford with this population.” She also noted that “A lot of people who work there are on our committees and volunteer here. It’s clear they value the town.”
I still have so much to share from my conversation with Marguerite and George that I think it will be best to finish my report in a second post. I’ll be back soon.
During a walk in Cambridge, VT, I came across a large field with two silos in it, each painted with a different design.
I learned later that the area used to be the site of a lumber mill that closed in 2002 and that one silo was used to store sawdust, which could be used on farms in barns or for other purposes, and the other housed a kiln.
Though I stumbled upon the silos while walking around Cambridge’s Village of Jeffersonville, the field is alongside two major roads, giving the silos the opportunity to be viewed by many Vermonters every day.
The project was supported through a grant received by the Cambridge Arts Council. Here’s a photo from their website of Sarah Rutherford as she worked.
I love the idea that there was contentious discussion of the future of the as-yet-unpainted silos. One of the Cambridge Arts Council members who worked on the project is quoted saying, “I have lived here all my life and have never seen such deep community involvement. Because of the controversy, people have become engaged in thinking about what we want for our town. People are talking about art and that’s a good thing.”
As I’ve written, my meetings in Cambridge, VT were arranged around learning about the relationship between the town and the ski resort. After leaving Smugg’s, I drove five minutes down the road to the station for the Cambridge Rescue Squad, a volunteer group that supports the town, including the ski resort. I met with Tracy Myers, the squad’s assistant chief. Like Mike at Smugg’s, Tracy struck me as a person who had really found her passion in life, though their two roles are so different.
Tracy told me that there are four permanent staff members on the squad and the rest are volunteers, of which “a good handful live in town,” but the remainder live in surrounding towns. I had thought it was astounding that the small town could staff a volunteer rescue squad. It turns out that people from other towns will travel to be part of it! The volunteers work 12-hour shifts, from 6:00 to 6:00, whether starting in the a.m. or the p.m., and they commit to 24 hours per month. Tracy and the squad’s chief work three 12-hour shifts per week.
The rescue squad isn’t Tracy’s only connection to public safety. She’s also the “second constable” for the Town of Cambridge and for nearby Johnson. Her work in those positions is basically animal control. She also volunteers for a rescue squad in another town. She said that at times she has had six different jobs, something of a Vermont way of life. Her entry into the field was working security in a Connecticut casino.
Not surprisingly, Tracy said the work depends on the season. In the winter, they deal with trauma experienced by skiers, and in the summer it’s people up on the hiking trails. Then there are the more mundane cases, such as cardiac events and calls from the assisted living facility in town. Depending on the nature of the injury or concern, the squad generally takes the patient to Copley Hospital in Morrisville, which has a strong orthopedics department, or the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, which is best for cardiac events, children, traumatic brain injuries, or major multiple trauma injuries. Tracy said their distance from the hospitals (25-35 minutes from Copley, 45 minutes from Burlington — “quicker with sirens”) is one of their main challenges.
The squad just marked its 30-year anniversary. It was started by citizens to support the nearest rescue squad, and a few volunteers go back to the early days. Within three years the squad had its first ambulance and started transporting patients. They now run two ambulances and cover all of the town of Cambridge and Smuggler’s Notch, answering about 450 calls each year. The ambulances carry narcan, but Tracy said that the opioid epidemic isn’t much of a concern in Cambridge at this time.
(I should note here that the Cambridge Fire Department is also a volunteer force, with the town providing financial support for both units. Security support comes from the Vermont state police.)
Some special challenges the squad faces include language barriers with the tourists. “There’s a variety of people coming up here to ski.” Tracy described long drives with a lot of shared “thumbs up” signs to reassure patients. The squad has installed white boards in the ambulances for working with deaf people.
The squad stays close to the community. They put together a barbecue, host schoolkids who want to see the ambulances, and provide observation opportunities for high school students training for careers in nursing. “We try to do a little extra for the community. We feel mutual appreciation and respect.”
There’s a lot more I could say about what I learned about the operation of a volunteer rescue squad, but most of all I was drawn in by Tracy’s description of a very difficult job. She said it was especially challenging in a small town, where it’s “hard to go on a call to a house,” of a friend. Staff “have to be compassionate yet distant at the same time. It’s a hard balance. Some people can’t handle the bad calls.” They have a crisis management team to call on if needed, but she said it’s important for volunteers to have good support at home. “The person I’m going home to needs to understand” if it has been a day with a bad call.
As part of the hiring process for her job, Tracy was asked for a statement of what she would do for the community. The cadet program she proposed now has four cadets who go on calls and come to trainings. “There’s nothing for kids to do in these smaller towns. The cadet program is something to do. They can hang around with good people. It keeps them out of trouble.”
Tracy told me about a 22-year-old who had died despite the squad’s best efforts. Her young son visited the rescue squad with flowers and a check for funds he had raised and that he wanted to donate. “This town’s pretty good with little things like that.” Over all, Tracy’s perspective on a volunteer rescue squad in a small town is that one supports the other. “They do for us, and we do for them.”
How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge is generally a pretty peaceful little town. Everybody knows everybody and there aren’t a lot of problems here. It’s a nice little town.
First, a correction. I checked in with Mike Chait at Smuggler’s Notch and learned that the actual annual visitor count for the ski resort is 450,000. I’ve made the correction in the post.
Second, I thought that folks who aren’t familiar with the northeastern states might like to see how the four Cambridges connect. On this map, A is Cambridge, MA; B is Cambridge, VT; C is Cambridge, NY; and D is Cambridge, Maine.
Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine are the only three of the six New England states with a Cambridge, so I can check that group off my list. And New York gives us the full set of northeastern Cambridges. Maine is the farthest north of the four, but Vermont is closer to Canada. And you can see how close both New York and Vermont are to the border between the two states.
The primary economic engine for the Town of Cambridge is the Smuggler’s Notch Ski Resort, to which people often refer in both speech and writing as “Smugg’s.” In the snow-free months, it’s possible to drive from the town and resort of Stowe to Smugg’s and Cambridge, but in the winter, the two ski resorts are separated by an impassable mountain road (the Notch that I drove through on my way in and out), and they’ve developed into very different places. Smuggler’s Notch aims to be the perfect place to spend time — regardless of season — as a family, and everything that an individual or a family could need is included in the resort.
Before my trip, I connected with Mike Chait, the Smugg’s public relations director. My focus was on the relationship between the resort and the town. How do a large resort and a small town interact? Mike estimated that the resort employs about 1000 people in the winter and about 700-800 in the summer, and that about 20% of the staff comes into town for a season. Smugg’s also employs local kids and students from nearby universities. And he estimated that the year-round visitor total is up around 450,000.
Mike is originally from the Chicago area and he was introduced to the passion that gave his life direction — snowboarding — as a teen. He first came to Smugg’s as a hiking guide and then part-time ski instructor and he worked his way up to ski-school director and, for the past four years, the communications team. He is a man who has truly found his place and his people. I can’t include the details on all the facets of the resort that he described but, from the on-site day care, to the playgrounds, to the mountain bike training area, to the 9- and 18-hole disc golf courses, he made it all sound pretty great!
As for the relationship between the resort and the town, he said that Jeffersonville (the village within the Town of Cambridge that is closest to the resort) especially depends on it. The off-season weeks of spring and just before ski season act as a test on local businesses as to whether they’ll survive another year. But the resort depends on the town, too, both for the long-time residents who work there, as well as for housing for the staff members who are in the area for a shorter time. The resort doesn’t offer housing for most staff members, but new arrivals are pointed toward resources where they might find an apartment or a room in someone’s house. Mike noted that housing can still be a challenge.
(The one group within the staff who are offered housing is international students from the southern hemisphere, who work at the resort during their summer, which coincides with the ski season.)
The ski area has been connected to the town since its earliest history, when Cambridge residents developed trails for their own use. The resort now leases much of its site from the State of Vermont or local governments; as a result, the resort needs to be accountable regarding its impact on the environment.
The resort continues to be closely connected with the town, participating in fundraising events and hosting school groups. The resort’s owner lives locally, and the resort points visitors toward the town for picking up groceries or other essentials during their stay. The Smugg’s website highlights the company’s community giving and during my visit a team was prepping tents for a fall festival that Mike said is well attended by the local community.
I should note that my September visit fell during a quiet period at the resort: kids are back in school so there are fewer families; the leaves hadn’t quite changed color; and Smugg’s doesn’t open for skiing until November. Nonetheless, I passed folks out for a hike and a hardy couple swimming with a small child in a heated outdoor pool.
I haven’t been asking directly about politics during my visits, but I did ask Mike. I had been thinking about the staff, given the mix of folks in Cambridge for the long-term and for short stays. But he answered from the perspective of skiers. He said that skiers and other guests are diverse politically and occasionally there’s a “divisive conversation” on a ski forum or even a chair lift, but “The snow is a commonality. When they get here, everyone is the same.”
How would you describe Cambridge?
It’s a place our employees can call home, a close-knit community. We care about each other. People know each other and it’s hard to keep secrets around here.
It’s not always easy to live around here in the winter but people help each other out. Everyone gets together, no matter what drama they may have. There are a lot of motivated hard-headed individuals who get things done. This place is magic.
The route from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, VT isn’t quite as simple as it was for my NY and Maine visits when I could drive U.S. highways almost all the way, but it’s still not too complicated. Despite continuous rain in New Hampshire, the skies brightened after I crossed the border into VT. Once off Route 89, I went through Waterbury and Stowe (useful for context on the ski world). Cambridge, VT is about a half hour northeast of Burlington, and about the same distance from the border with Canada. There might be a stoplight in town, but I never saw it.
Both coming and going, I drove through Smuggler’s Notch, a mountain pass that is closed in the winter and that separates Stowe from Cambridge. I would describe the road as a series of sharp turns separated by short stretches of straightaway, until it gets serious and it’s one hairpin turn after another. I stopped a few times for the scenery on the trip home. Here’s the point that turns out to be the highest on the road.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I was trying to focus my visits on places with a clear “Cambridgeness.” Cambridge, VT is somewhat complicated in that regard. The Town of Cambridge includes two incorporated villages, Cambridge and Jeffersonville, but most of the population of the Town isn’t included in a village.
I stayed in Jeffersonville’s historic Smuggler’s Notch Inn (dating to 1790), but I made sure to visit the center of the Village of Cambridge, too. Both areas have stores that sell the essentials and several people told me that they depend only on the local shops when they can’t or don’t want to travel to supermarkets in other towns.
Vermont is, in general a super-scenic place, between the mountains and the old New England towns. Here are a few pix from the trip.
I spent last Thursday and Friday in Vermont and, while I sift through pages and pages of notes, I thought I’d share some higher-level observations that are starting to emerge from my travels.
First, people have been incredibly nice and generous with their time. I’ve chewed up hours and hours of the work day in offices and stores in all three Cambridges. No one has seemed irritated at my questions or the disruption.
Second, I never expected to have so many conversations about wastewater treatment.
Also, I never expected so many conversations about broadband, but I should have. These are rural communities.
Besides wastewater and broadband, a theme that I’ve thought about a lot is community — how do we build community, whether we live among 500 or 100,000 fellow residents?
Last, coming from the 100,000+ Cambridge, I have been surprised how very different the Cambridges in NY, ME, and VT have been. It isn’t simply that a town with four times the population has four times the stores.
I’m heading up to Vermont tomorrow, and I’m going to start my visit to Cambridge with a stop at Smuggler’s Notch Ski Resort. I’ll be asking about how a town of about 3,700 people can support a large tourist operation. The following day I’ll meet with two of the town’s leaders. In between, I’ll learn as much as I can about the town, and the village of Cambridge tucked in its borders.
Meanwhile, I want to let readers know that there’s an easy way to ensure you see new posts. From the blog site, you can enter your email address to receive posts by email. On a computer, you should see the sign-up form to the right of this post, under the heading “Follow Our Cambridge.”
On a phone, you’ll be looking for the “Follow” icon down at the very bottom of the screen.
I’ve signed up myself, and I can guarantee you won’t receive any other emails from me or from WordPress (the blog platform). Only the posts. And I’ll be honest, there won’t be more than a couple of posts in most weeks.
Now I need to finish getting ready to travel. I look forward to reporting back.