Unfolding the Map
Sometimes it's very nice to stop in a quaint, picturesque, historic town and just hang around. As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) gets the feel of Vermont in Woodstock, I'll look at historic towns and how sometimes they are what they seem, and other times they are not. To locate Woodstock (sorry folks, not the Woodstock of concert fame), find your way to the map.
"It looked like the set for an Andy Hardy movie - things quaint in the manner of Norman Rockwell...Maybe the town wasn't the prettiest village in America, but if the townspeople wanted to make the claim, I wouldn't have disputed them. It was Woodstock, Vermont.
"....the village lived by the tourist - the well heeled tourist. But few places in the country fused tourism and town life so well. In Woodstock, they were parts of the whole.
"If the village had a fault, it lay in both a hubris about its picturesqueness and in its visitors with new money and new facades...."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 7
I grew up in the shadow of a town like Woodstock. I saw "shadow" because really, Mendocino, California wasn't a big place. A few hundred people in a picturesque, New England village by the ocean. Mendocino looked so much like a New England town that it was used as such for the Murder, She Wrote mystery series that had a long run on television.
But I didn't grow up there. I grew up in Fort Bragg, it's more down to earth, blue collar, lumber town sister about seven miles north of Mendocino. Where Mendocino was cute, Fort Bragg was gritty. Where Mendocino was picturesque, Fort Bragg was utilitarian. Where Mendocino had a great coastal access, Fort Bragg was blocked from the coast by a large lumber mill. Where Mendocino was filled with "hippies," really counter-cultural artists, writers and musicians, Fort Bragg was filled with loggers, millworkers, fishermen, and other salt-of-the-earth types.
I wouldn't say there was a lot of animosity between the two towns, though one thing was clear. The well-heeled tourists went to Mendocino and only really used Fort Bragg if they couldn't find lodging. After all, while I was growing up the options to stay in Mendocino were limited. Things were more expensive in Mendocino also - restaurants and lodging all cost more. Now it's a little different. Fort Bragg, since the closing of the lumber mill, has marketed itself to tourists, with much success. Festivals, art, restaurants and other attractions, such as the Skunk Train, have managed to draw a lot of tourists to my home town. Yet if I compare the two, Mendocino is still, by far, perceived as the more arty, counter-cultural, foodie, and picturesque of the two. And, it prides itself on that.
I find it interesting that all the states that I have lived in or visited have some such type of town. It is usually a town or village that has tried to keep a flavor of its historical and cultural past, or one epoch of its historical and cultural past, even if that flavor has been sanitized somewhat. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where you can see a colonial town with reenactments. Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Fredericksburg, Texas. Virginia City, Nevada. Sometimes a state doesn't have to work too hard to maintain that cultural heritage. In Shipshewana, Indiana cars mingle with Amish buggies on the main street, and men with straw hats and long beard and women with gingham dresses and bonnets knock shoulders with tourists in shorts and t-shirts.
What I really find fascinating is that with all our technology, and all our modern progress, we still feel that it's important to have these historic, picturesque, quaint, throwbacks to an earlier time. A time when there were few telephones if any at all, and televisions, computers and the Internet were not even a remote conception. What is it in our psyche that preserving these time capsules, state by state, is so important? Where I live, in Albuquerque, nobody would ever think of razing Old Town for new business today, even as most of the action takes place in the newer downtown or in the even newer Nob Hill district.
Even more interesting is that some places are so adamant in preserving some ideal sense of past that they actually cover up the real past, intentionally or not, to create that idealized vision. Or sometimes, the actual past has been covered up already, and has to be resurrected.
For example, underneath many of the brown adobe-like walls of Santa Fe, for instance, are original brick and mortar buildings that were converted after a law passed in the 1950s mandating that all new and rebuilt buildings take on the pueblo adobe style. While there has been important historic preservation of the actual adobe buildings that remain, many others that look adobe, especially the two-story downtown buildings, are not. A building style, adobe, that was once considered backward and inferior to the false-front saloon style buildings of the old west, is now celebrated again and even mandated by Santa Fe law. In this case, buildings that were historic in their own right were changed to reflect an even earlier history.
We saw this in California also, where in San Diego preservation of its Old Town has been very important for the city. Yet in many ways historical preservation covers up much that was neglected. My wife visited the Old Town State Historical Park museum, and most of the pottery was collected from New Mexico pueblos and is not indigenous, even though it might be similar to pottery once made in the San Diego area. San Diego is also one of the earliest homes to a phenomena I have touched upon in other posts. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote a wildly successful novel in the late 1800s about the Santa Diego area called Ramona. It was a romantic view of the indigenous Native Americans of the area through the eyes of a half Scots-American, half Indian woman. The novel was so popular it turned San Diego into a tourist destination, especially for its depictions of the Spanish missions and the "nobility" of the Natives. To appeal to tourists, entrepreneurs marketed area attractions for their supposed connections to Ramona, including Estudillo House in Old Town San Diego which began to call itself "Ramona's Marriage Place."
This romanticized past, taking hold of the public imagination in a time when the Native American population of Southern California had been reduced by disease and the oppressive governments of Spain, Mexico and the United States, put San Diego on the map and sparked a rejuvenation of interest in saving what little remained of that earlier time. Because there was so little, San Diego had to recreate that past, but since the past was romanticized, it never quite existed in that way to begin with.
By far, for me, the most successful and authentic representations of the past and of cultures have been in cultures that preserve themselves. For example, some New Mexico pueblos have done very meticulously preserved their heritage because these places are where Native Americans still work and live using techniques that date a thousand years. In Zuni Pueblo, Native women still cook bread in horno ovens. In Sky City at Acoma Pueblo, the historic adobe town on the top of a small, 300 foot high mesa, about 30 families still maintain homes, sell art and pottery, and try to continue the lifestyle of their ancestors.
Other places around the United States have similar experiences - the Amish communities for example. Sure, such places appeal to tourists with their arts and culture, and have been come destinations. But these villages and cultures also strive to maintain an authenticity because the culture of those people, Native and Amish, depends on the survival of their communities. That's the difference between the "cute" American towns that echo the past, and the places where cultures live in both the past and present. If Mendocino, Williamsburg, Cedarburg, Virginia City or even Woodstock, Vermont disappear, American culture will survive. If Acoma Pueblo, or Zuni Pueblo, or even Shipshewana, Indiana disappear, it will be a huge blow to these unique cultures that live in and around modern American culture, but also live apart from it as well.
There's been a number of songs about Mendocino, the village I mentioned above near where I grew up. Here's a song, Talk to Me of Mendocino, performed by songwriting legends Kate and Anna McGarrigle with Scottish chanteuse Karen Matheson.
If you want to know more about Woodstock
Next up: Mount Tom, Vermont