Dorothy Thompson's Vermont Journal: Thompson's Land Corps
07/11/07 12:00AM By Cyndy Bittinger
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(HOST) Journalist Dorothy Thompson was often ahead of her time. Her efforts in the early 1940's to promote country life and protect the family farm foreshadowed the Back-To-The-Land movement by a good twenty years.
(BITTINGER) "Dorothy Thompson lived in Barnard five months of the year. Three summer cottages were built for her friends and she invested in local farming property. Yet she worried about Vermont and the hardship of farming with a limited labor supply during World War II. She wrote, "The houses will fall in and the villages which live from the farms will disappear, and all the comeliness that it is will be gone, and the future of other such communities seems to me a very high price to pay for a war of freedom; a grotesque price and a price that doesn't have to be paid if people would think and plan in another direction. I see the Land Corps as a specific help for that kind of farm and that America, and that is why I am so passionately interested in it."
"So she began her own experiment to save the farms. She knew that the Secretary of Agriculture had predicted a war food shortage and that plans for food rationing were being drawn up. Her pilot program in 1942, brought high school aged youth from the cities to spend the summer in Vermont. Thompson's goals were to help provide food for the nation, preserve the family farm, stop the movement toward factory-style farms where less labor was needed, and show the city folk where milk came from."
"Six-hundred youth came to Vermont that summer. Twin Farms, Thompson's house, was the base for the operation. She gathered the participants for an inspirational talk at the end of the summer, saying, I hope (this experience) has made you think what it costs that men should eat their food - not what it costs in money, but what it costs in disappointments, and heartbreaks, and toil, and intelligent organization... I hope that in these hills and villages you have seen new beauties and new opportunities.'"
"Her friends Robert Frost and Dorothy Canfield Fisher promoted the program. Frost was to advocate for the so-called "farming army" to be paid the same wages as military recruits. Thompson enlisted Governor William Wills and Lt. Governor Mortimer Proctor who praised these "rays of sunshine" over the state's radio stations."
"The students were to go back home and form Land Corps Clubs to encourage hiking, square dancing, classes in shopwork, sports and other activities which would help condition the new recruits in skills and agility for farm life. In actuality, the main criticism from Vermont farmers who were part of the program was that the city youth needed two weeks to toughen up before they could be of much help on the farm!"
"Thompson also assessed the program and urged the creation of a new women's land army and future government backing for the project. In each state, voluntary groups of local citizens would be needed to match the selected farmers with the willing students."
"But sadly, the Volunteer Land Corps did not survive. It would take a back to the land movement and an influx of hippies in the 1960s to rejuvenate the abandoned farms in Vermont."
(Host) Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Tomorrow we'll hear how Dorothy Thompson is remembered in central Vermont.