- Molly Walsh
The only public playground in Guildhall is gone now. So are the baseball field, the school and most of the children.
The town of 255 people in the Northeast Kingdom is feeling the impacts of Vermont's low birth rate. Many of the local institutions and traditions that once served families and children have withered, and it's rare to see a parent pushing a baby stroller at the green in the center of town.
Without really trying, Guildhall has turned into a "retirement-type community," said George Blakeslee, town clerk and treasurer. And that changes things.
"People here are older and have lower energy levels," he explained. "There used to be a hunters' supper; there used to be a Mother's Day breakfast, fundraisers for the library. None of that's happening anymore."
Last Thursday, the village green was quiet. Heavy, wet snow covered the ground, and a wisp of woodsmoke floated from the chimney of a white clapboard house with green shutters. A lumber truck rumbled past and crossed the Connecticut River, which hugs the town. Few people were going in or out of the handsome historic buildings alongside the green. The walkway to the ornate, butter-colored library was snow-covered; the building closes for the winter. The general store shut down in 2007, and old refrigeration units sat on its sagging porch. The Essex County Courthouse, one of the town's most vital institutions, is still open full time. So is the sheriff's office. But together, they employ just a handful of people.
Vermont's birth rate is at its lowest point since reliable record keeping began in 1880, according to the state Department of Health's records. The rate, which peaked at 24 per 1,000 residents in 1955, had sunk to 9.2 by 2016. The baby bust is even more pronounced in Essex County, a heavily wooded, sparsely populated landscape below the Canadian border and alongside New Hampshire. While a few areas of Vermont, such as Chittenden County, are experiencing modest population growth, it's declining in much of the state.
Births and Deaths in Vermont Towns
Birth and death rates are averaged over a five-year period, from 2012 to 2016.
Source: Vermont Department of Health | Map: Andrea Suozzo
Deaths are outpacing births in Essex County, where 6,176 people lived in 2016, according to the health department's vital statistics. Seventy-six residents took their last breath and 53 took their first that year, the most recent data show. That same year, the two most popular baby names in the state were Owen and Charlotte. But in at least half a dozen Essex County towns, residents didn't pick any names because no children were born. Ferdinand, Granby, Norton and Victory had zero births. Brighton and Lunenburg tied for the most births in Essex County: 12 each.
Guildhall had two. Times have changed in town, according to Patricia Rogers, who grew up on a local farm in the 1950s and authored History of Guildhall, Vermont in 1975. During her youth, children gathered for Sunday school and sang in the choir at the Guildhall Community Church, which no longer serves as a house of worship and is owned by the Essex County court system. Schoolchildren crowded the town hall stage each December to put on a holiday show. But that's just a memory now.
- Molly Walsh
- The Guild Hall
Guildhall has always been a small town. Since it was chartered in 1761, the population has never topped 1,000. About 20 children live there today, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. But back in the day there were more. In 1879, 130 schoolchildren attended a half-dozen one-room schoolhouses, according to town records. Additional students attended high schools, or "academies," as they were often called, out of town.
The small schoolhouses gradually consolidated into two buildings, and then one in 1957, for grades K through 8. High school students were tuitioned out, and most attended schools in New Hampshire. Rogers remembers the 1957 school as a small but bustling place. But by 2016, the numbers had dwindled to just 20 students, and Guildhall Elementary School closed. The building is now a private residence. The playground equipment on the former school grounds has been taken down, and the baseball field is closed to the public.
Families now have the option to tuition their children in all 12 grades to schools of their choice.
Rogers, who still lives on her family's farm, said she received a good education in the small-school environment of her youth. But these days, families seem to want a bigger school with more offerings, she suggested. Rogers believes that was a major factor in the shrinking and then the closure of the local school, as well as the broader trend of fewer local children.
Once a town is school-free, of course, it's not as appealing to young families, said David Snedeker, executive director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association in St. Johnsbury, which works to stimulate the economy.
Others say the primary reason young adults are scarce in Guildhall is a shortage of good local jobs. "And the ones that are here, they don't pay enough to support a family," said Maureen Blanchard. For three decades, she has operated Maureen's Family Home Child Care in Canaan, north of Guildhall.
Most of the dairy farms in the area have gone out of business, and this year, longtime local grower Peaslee's Vermont Potatoes auctioned off its equipment, too. A "For Sale" sign marks the property in the flat river valley fields just south of the village. The paper mill across the Connecticut River in Groveton, N.H., shut down 10 years ago.
- Molly Walsh
- Guildhall town clerk and treasurer George Blakeslee
Major employers include the Ethan Allen furniture company, which has a workforce of about 465 people — mostly in Orleans, with some based in Beecher Falls. But the company has cut many jobs. When Blanchard's husband got laid off, he was able to switch careers and become a licensed practical nurse. But not everyone manages to find new work, she said.
And while newer businesses do crop up, such as the Sweet Tree Holdings maple syrup company in Island Pond, which employs about 75 people, there are few options compared to more urbanized areas. Many people commute to jobs in New Hampshire, where there are schools, a hospital, stores and other businesses.
Sometimes, a worker from out of state will accept a job, but his or her spouse won't be able to find one, so they will decide to move elsewhere, said Snedeker.
It would help if the cellphone service weren't so spotty and the internet so slow, Blakeslee suggested.
The former education professor, who moved to town from suburban Boston after he retired, said his adult children who live in big cities would consider settling in Guildhall if the town grew a high-tech economy.
Instead, the state seems to continuously create commissions of people who ask Guildhall if it needs better internet and then don't make it happen, Blakeslee said in frustration: "It's one of the things: If you build it, they'll come."
- Andrea Suozzo/Diane Sullivan
- Source: Vermont Department of Health/U.S. Census Bureau
But will they reproduce? A packed, full-size school bus from the Canaan Schools used to deliver children to Blanchard's facility. These days, the kids arrive in a half-size yellow bus that has just a few children on board, she said.
At the North Country Moose Festival in late August, children used to line up for the bouncy castle. Not anymore, she said. There just aren't as many youngsters around.
"It makes me sad, personally," Blanchard said. "I love children. I had four of my own."
Few parents these days have that many, she observed: "When somebody says they are having a third child, I almost fall flat on my back."
Families are more likely to fracture these days, which also has an impact, Blanchard said.
"It seems like relationships in general don't last very long, so there's that instability at home,'' Blanchard said. She's cared for children of parents who say they'd like to have another child. "But they weren't in a stable relationship when they had the first one, and they are not in a stable relationship now, so they aren't having that second child."
In Guildhall, most of the people who move to town arrive with graying hair, not toddlers. It's difficult to fill slots on the selectboard and the cemetery commission, and a few volunteers wear many hats.
That concerns Blakeslee.
"I do worry about what's going to happen," he said. "I'm 70, and most of them are older than me."
Perhaps the younger generation just doesn't see a way to support children in Guildhall, Blakeslee added: "All the young people, what ones we have, as soon as they get out of high school, they are gone."