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Greens and commons

09/25/03 12:00AM By C.B. Johnson
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(Host) Commentator C.B. Johnson reflects on the history of one of the most distinctive features of the Vermont village center.


(Johnson) As thousands of photos are snapped by leaf peepers in the coming weeks, a fair number of them will be of brilliant maples and white steeples around that special green space found at the center of many Vermont villages. Called the village common or green and usually surrounded by public buildings and stately old homes, it is the hallmark landscape for which New England is known world-wide.

Originally a common was communal land shared by all land-owners in a town, and in early New England it was a key element in Puritan town planning. The common was to be used for grazing livestock and for a meetinghouse, a burial ground, and the Town pound.

A green differs from a common in that it is simply any public or private open grassland shared and used by many people. Its antecedents are found in the institutional and private neighborhood parks of 18th-century England.

In Vermont many greens are called commons and some commons are called greens, depending on the town and its history. The Green Mountains do form something of a linguistic divide, with commons more common on the east side, which reflects greater early settlement there by emigrants from eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Shoreham Green is one of the best extant commons in the state, laid out in the center of a village in the geographic center of the six-square-mile township. If you stop into the town office on the green there, you can see the original town and village plans on display. Geography and the diffuse, non-communal nature of pioneer settlement make a common like Shoreham's a rarity.

What is now Killington was laid-out with its center on Pico Mountain. In Ryegate residents acknowledged the lack of interest in making the common a village center by auctioning it off in 1787; today the double bend in the road just south of Ryegate Corners vaguely traces what was its northeast corner.

Unlike commons, most Vermont greens are the product of a mix of civic pride, real estate development and nostalgia for the greens and commons in older parts of New England. Having secured the county seat in 1784, Rutland gained its green in 1790 with funds donated by long-time judge Samuel Williams. In 1798 Gamaliel Painter in Middlebury donated land next to his home as the site for a new county courthouse and promptly began selling off lots around what has become the Middlebury green. In Brandon, Congregationalists and Baptists could not agree on building one Town meetinghouse, so each built a church with its own green at opposite ends of the village. And in the 20th century, Dorothy Thompson in the 1930s created the present Barnard village green and built two homes for friends fronting it; a portion of the original town common lies caddy-corner from it on the south side of VT Route 14.

So which is it called in your town, a green or a common, and is it really a common or a green? Hopefully it's not like one very southwestern Vermont Town center where almost half of the green is paved and it's called "Municipal parking."

This is C.B. Johnson on the Vermont vernacular.

C.B. Johnson is a photographer and cultural resource consultant living in Calais.
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