Vanishing Vermonters: A loss of a rural culture

COLBYVILLE — Peter Miller has traveled the world for periodicals ranging from Smithsonian to Sports Illustrated, but most Vermonters know him for his iconic image of the late Tunbridge farmer turned "Man with a Plan" film star Fred Tuttle holding a picture of his father holding a picture of his father.

"I set up my tripod and 120 years of Tuttles in the same photograph," Miller says.

Celebrated for his camera work, the 83-year-old resident of this Waterbury hamlet began his career six decades ago not as a shutterbug but instead as a scribe. So life recently came full circle when he published two VTDigger commentaries about the changing face of the state.

"A lot of people are unhappy about what's happening in Vermont — we can't afford to live here," he sums up his message. "Then one afternoon it hit me: This is a book. I've got to do a book."

Mirroring the "Man with a Plan" plot of an old-timer learning new tricks, Miller logged onto the internet, launched a fundraising campaign and reaped enough money to release the new title "Vanishing Vermonters: Loss of a Rural Culture."

"I had not planned to do more books," he writes in the foreword of the 168-page volume. "I thought the well was drying up."

But, talking with more than two dozen portrait subjects, he realized their stories needed to be told.

"My people, I call them, seem to have been priced out of our state," he writes, "as taxes and the cost of energy escalated and real estate prices soared."

`Forget about the camera'

Miller remembers a more affordable era. Born Jan. 6, 1934, in New York City, he moved at age 13 to Vermont ("which at the time was inexpensive") before purchasing his first camera at age 16.

"I have no idea why," he says today. "I knew nothing about it."

Miller nonetheless focused his lens on retired Weston farmers Will and Rowena Austin, not realizing the result would become the cover of his 1990 book "Vermont People" as well as the central image on the sign advertising his current Route 100 home and gallery.

Moving on to the University of Toronto, Miller met Armenian Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh.

"He's the one who did the Winston Churchill picture with the cigar out of his mouth."

Assisting Karsh on shoots with the likes of Albert Camus and Pablo Picasso ("arrogant and wanted to control the sitting," Miller says of the latter artist), the Vermonter discovered the master's secret.

"Forget about the camera," he learned. "Talk to the people."

Miller did that as a U.S. Army Signal Corps photographer in Paris, then a Life magazine reporter in New York from 1959 until returning to the Green Mountains five years later to freelance for a variety of national publications.

As the state prepared to celebrate its bicentennial in 1991, Miller approached more than a dozen publishers in hopes of releasing his first book. All dismissed his proposed collection of black-and-white "Vermont People" photos as a Works Progress Administration project a half-century too late.

"They said there wasn't any color," he recalls, "and it was too regional."

Printing the book himself, Miller sold out his first 3,000 copies in six weeks and another 12,000 since, spurring seven follow-up titles including "Vermont Farm Women" and "A Lifetime of Vermont People."

But by Miller's 80th birthday in 2014, purchasing coffee-table books had given way to plugging into cellphones.

`Don't they know?'

"It is tough all over for creative people," Miller wrote in a commentary titled "Cold weather, hard state." "The copyright is under attack. New business models created by CEOs with the expectations that every intellectual property is as free as the internet has crippled the photography, illustration, writing and music creators. The effect reverberates. With the money crunch, buying artwork is not an option for average Vermonters."

In response, Miller turned his house into an Airbnb and tapped his local food shelf.

"I was thinking of leaving Vermont to live in a less-expensive state," he wrote in a second commentary titled "I am Vermont broke," "but many emailed me and said I couldn't because I am a Vermont treasure. I thought about that and in a way it is true. My calling is to document the culture of Vermont during my lifetime."

Dreaming up his "Vanishing Vermonters" project, Miller began seeking out examples. Take Clem Despault, the fellow octogenarian and used car salesmen, salvage yard operator and stock-car racer just down the road.

"Them Motor Vehicle people got this new car-inspection system," Despault is quoted. "We got to buy this computer and hook it up to your car and to the state and company that makes it in California so they can get their money real quick. The cost of this new inspection is $85 to $100 depending upon the station. Last year it was $40 to $50. It checks every sensor point in your car that needs inspection and if your car fails, it's got to be fixed and the inspection has to be done again, with the added cost of the garage work and a new fee of $85. You know, to replace a gas and brake line is gonna cost you $1,500 to $2,000 and then you got rocker panels, even those pesky tire sensors that never work. I got people who can't afford to hardly live and they need a car just to drive a couple of miles to work or to buy food. This is a rural state, we're poor and everyone's got to drive, don't they know that for God's sake?"

`I have to stand up'

The book's "they" isn't one political party or demographic group. Miller, for example, lauds both former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean and former Reagan administration policy adviser John McClaughry for their work to balance government budgets.

The photographer also spotlights nearly two dozen other Vermonters ranging from Kim Crady-Smith, owner of Lyndonville's Green Mountain Books and Prints ("she started talking about loss of culture," Miller says, "and I started thinking this may be more serious than losing your money) to Waterbury performer and film producer turned farmer George Woodard ("the reason George is in this book is because he succeeds despite the prognosis from the state that small hillside farms weren't worth fooling with").

"I tried to mix up the stories," the author says, "between people who are really upset and people who've had to reinvent themselves."

Miller personifies both. Last December, he was hospitalized with pneumonia. A month later, he flew to a friend's house in Florida to produce the book on a Mac laptop.

"When I started, I had $500 to my name — I was broke," he says. "When I finished, I had $1,000, but I owed my property taxes — I was worse than broke."

That's why Miller, aided by a website,, and independent bookstores, is selling his paperback for $24.95 and hardcover for $44.95.

"I did the cheaper one because Vermonters don't have any money."

That said, the more expensive version is a faster seller. And so, hunkered in a 160-year-old farmhouse in the shadow of Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory and a new Marriott hotel, Miller forges on.

"They keep saying they're going to raise taxes again because we need a doggie park, we need a hockey rink, we need, we need " he laments. "It seemed I had a responsibility to do this book. I have to stand up for my people — me included."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and correspondent who can be contacted at


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