Kaid Benfield Archive


Starksboro builds community and its future upon residents' stories

Kaid Benfield

Posted December 26, 2008 at 11:20PM

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This is a great story for the holidays. 

Starksboro, Vermont is a very rural town of about 2000 whose history dates to the late 1700s.  It's between Burlington and Rutland, and the closest big city is Montreal, hours to the north and a world away.  By the admission of its own loyal residents, it is not the classic Vermont village of postcards with a pristine village green lined with quaint shops; it's a bit spread out and, as it grows, vulnerable to low-density sprawl.  Yet the nearby countryside is gorgeous and relatively unspoiled.

  Starksboro (from Google Earth)  Starksboro street (by: Jared & Corin, creative commons license)

It's changing already.  From the Orton Family Foundation, which is helping the community think about its future:

"Norma Wedge remembers sitting in her rocking chair in the middle of the road-a road that now carries a steady stream of commuters. Greg Orvis thinks of his ancestors-the people who cleared and farmed the same land he still tends today. Linda Barnard worries that if the schoolhouse dies, so will the soul of the community. These are just a few of the stories of Starksboro, Vermont, gathered by Middlebury College students in a course entitled 'Portrait of a Vermont Town', and given back to the community at a celebration on December 4th.

"The students, led by Professor John Elder, turned three months of community interviews and exploration with Starksboro locals into a collection of digital stories reflecting the town's unique character and its hopes for the future. The project's innovative approach to civic participation garnered much attention, including a recent article in The New York Times. Sponsored by the Orton Family Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust in partnership with the Town of Starksboro, the event concludes the first phase of the Art & Soul Civic Engagement initiative.

"'This rural community faces many challenges in its effort to keep its agricultural and forestry heritage, and its local economy, intact,' said Elise Annes of the Vermont Land Trust. The initiative aims to use storytelling and the arts to identify common values-like agriculture and forestry-which, in turn, will help guide community land use and protect Starksboro's heart and soul . . ."

cut carbon by 80%, say the town's sugarmakers (by: Step It Up 2007, creative commons license)What a great thing: start building the plan by building the community.  Kudos to Orton, The Land Trust, the town, and Middlebury for helping that effort along.  Residents Sarah Adams and Catherine Williams talked to Kathryn Flagg of The Addison County Independent:

"'We are so lucky to have had (the students) do this," said Adams. She's lived in Starksboro since 1968, and is a member of the town's historical society - but she laughed that the Middlebury College students had put them to shame.

"'I was just bowled over by the depth with which they were looking at our little town,' Williams agreed. 'What I really hope that this project does, is I hope that it breaks some of that isolation, that feeling that we don't know our neighbors.'

"If attendance on Thursday night was any indication, that's already happening. One hundred sixty-five residents RSVPed for the dinner - and one member of the Starksboro Art and Soul planning committee estimated that between 170 and 200 people packed into the cafeteria for the evening's event."

draft plan: village in red, hamlet in fuschia, farms in light green, forests in dark green (by: starksboro.org)The New York Times has also picked up the story.  Reporter Abby Goodnough writes:

"Along with the Orton Family Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust - two nonprofit groups that are giving Starksboro up to $25,000 to engage residents in conversations about the town's future - Middlebury is hoping the collaboration could be a model for planning in rural towns around the country.

"'We're trying to make a process where more people who don't go to meetings and aren't speaking up and are not activists have a chance to express what is important to them,' said John Barstow, spokesman for the Orton foundation. 'We think that in small towns, there's a chance to come close to pulling it off' . . .

"'This is not a no-growth effort,' said Professor Elder, who specializes in nature writing and environmental studies. 'It's that the growth is there. How to embrace it? How to integrate it? How to know when to say no?'

Starksboro's Lewis Creek Farm (by: starksboro.org)Later in the Times story, Goodnough continues:

"Perhaps the most prized part of Starksboro is its farms, several of which sit near the center of town and still produce milk and vegetables. The Middlebury students, particularly interested in a family of dairy farmers and another that has scaled back to subsistence farming, have gathered their thoughts on the history and future of agriculture here.

"'I don't think people envision Starksboro as everybody having their five acres of paradise with a perfectly manicured lawn,' said Susan Jefferies, a member of the town's Selectboard. 'They envision Starksboro as having cows and chickens and wide-open space that is actively farmed.'"

Click on the image below for a page with a slideshow of the storytelling:

click here for a slideshow from the Orton Family Foundation