When Gregory Sharrow tells how he got to his job at the Vermont Folklife Center, he starts by pointing to a big-finned, aquamarine 1957 Cadillac back in his hometown of Angola, Ind.
"In my childhood, Sunday drives were a form of family recreation, and inevitably as we would drive around, specific locations would elicit particular stories. Like three miles east of Angola was Ellis, where my mother's uncle had a general store and my mother's grandmother had driven when she got her first automobile. She was this intrepid woman who drove to California in 1918 before there were highways. But when she got to Ellis she couldn't remember how to shut the thing down, so she drove into the wall of the store."
Sharrow, for his part, doesn't speed through anything, especially his life story. He reaches his destination by meandering the back roads.
"So, anyway, a fundamental experience for me was this deep sense of connection to a place through stories about my great-grandparents, my great-aunts and uncles, all the cousins, about specific things that happened at particular locations or simply were part of the fabric of life, like eating snapping turtles."
Sharrow grew up to be a folklorist. With a notebook, tape recorder and video camera, he chronicles the stories of Abenaki people, artists, farmers, fishermen, schoolchildren, soldiers and every European, Asian and African ethnic group that has settled in the state.
"My focus is on the stories we tell ourselves and others about our experiences. It's through storytelling that we achieve a sense of identity about who we are."
Looking for a real Vermonter? Sharrow will point the way — via the scenic route.
Study a map of Indiana and you'll see where clans of restless Vermonters headed west in the 1830s to settle such Midwestern towns as Bristol, Goshen and Middlebury and the nearby Ohio communities of Burlington, Montpelier and Swanton. But such history didn't lure Sharrow to the Green Mountains.
"The expectation of a boy growing up in rural Indiana is that they'll play basketball," the 55-year-old says.
Sharrow, however, was neither tall nor athletically talented.
"Here I am in a place where I feel utterly rooted and intimately connected, and yet I didn't belong. My great ambition was to get out of there."
His exodus began with a summer job at a local school that employed Chinese students as library aides ("It's a long story," he says). That led him east to Oberlin College, which led him to study the Chinese language, which led him to travel to Asia, which led him to seek out Buddhist culture.
Sharrow was on his way to Vermont's Karme Choling meditation center in Barnet when he stopped to visit college classmate Jim Sardonis (now a well-known sculptor) just outside Braintree, a small town of old-time libertarians and creative newcomers just a nudge from the state's geographic center.
Sharrow stayed the day, then the week, then the month, then the year. He worked odd jobs for a nurseryman, carpenter and an antique dealer. The latter sent him to a local estate auction one Saturday with a blank check for knickknacks. It wasn't until halfway through that Sharrow realized the house itself was up for sale.
"A lot of people I knew said, 'You should buy this.'"
Sharrow didn't have a cent of his own, but a friend bid $100 on his behalf. Speculators upped the price into the thousands. Soon a next-door neighbor silenced everyone by offering his entire $5,800 bankroll.
Sharrow bid $5,900. Using the dealer's check as a down payment, he went home with a house.
"People were cheering and yelling — it was like the hometown team won the basketball game," he recalls. "It was 1975. I was 25. At that point I was anchored."
Sharrow was also flat broke. Hungry for mortgage money, he took a day job as an aide at the area junior high school and drove nights to the University of Vermont in Burlington to earn his master's degree and become a teacher.
"Even if I just stopped for a soda on my way through some little crossroads town, I'd say, 'Hey, so tell me about this place.' I was seeking out knowledge and connections wherever I went."
His "eureka" moment came when his father sent him a clipping about a folklore program back home. This wasn't about scholars culling, drying and flattening history into textbooks. This was about real people telling real stories about how they lived, how they worked and how they fit in or fought with the world around them.
Sharrow talked with Jane Beck, the Vermont Arts Council's newly hired state folklorist. He then won acceptance to the doctoral program in folklore and folk life at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"Emptied the house, got rid of the flock of geese …"
Two years later, he migrated back to Braintree with "a renewed sense of the rightness of being here." Still needing to write a dissertation, he thought back to childhood Sundays at his great-aunt's farm. He began studying the culture of agricultural life in Vermont.
"You can think about farming in terms of cows, tractors and milk, or you can think about it in terms of communities where everyone was involved in the same activity, where certain threads of common assumption bound neighbor to neighbor. Statements such as 'we live less on income than on lack of expense.' Farming as it was practiced here was about mutuality."
Farmers today talk of individual struggle. Sharrow, for his part, now listens as education director of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.
Sharrow seemingly is a one-man media conglomerate. He has edited a book on the diversity of the state's ethnic groups. Produced a video on Abenakis. Recorded a public radio program on prisoners of war. Created an exhibit on blacksmiths. Collected the life stories of gay and lesbian Vermonters.
"Ultimately, what I'm trying to do is create opportunities for people to speak about what they know — what they care about, what's most important to them — and how they define their experience in their own terms."
In his work, Sharrow keeps silent and lets others do the talking. But interview him at his current home, an 1830s former factory building in Pittsford, and you'll find he's anything but introverted.
It starts with the bazaar of Oriental rugs on the floor and the light show of lamps and lanterns on the ceiling. In between sits a flea market of furniture, one cockatiel, two leopard lizards, three cats, four turtles and 13 aquariums filled with the kind of big, ugly fish most weekend sportsmen hang dead on the wall.
By the time your eyes hit the Japanese prayer gong, he's reading your mind.
"What does the presence of an object represent in the collage of a household?" he inquires before you can.
Ask a simpler question — try "where'd your family get that aquamarine Cadillac?" — and he'll answer with the oral equivalent of origami: seemingly unconnected twists and turns that ultimately fold into a revelation.
It seems Sharrow's great-grandfather was a turn-of-the-century Indiana schemer who embezzled money from a bank, abandoned his wife and five children and fled to Toledo, Ohio, where, once found, he became a lawyer so he could defend himself. Anyway, his son was vice president of an asbestos shingle company before he died of exposure to his product, leaving his estate to his siblings, one of whom was Sharrow's grandmother.
"My grandmother had this pot of money she sat on like a hen."
Except for the day she gave his family a golden egg. Make that an aquamarine one.
Sharrow may seek out individual memories, but he's ultimately searching for collective meaning.
"One interview is one experience with one person. Two interviews have some common threads. After 15, 20, 25, 30, 50 interviews, you begin to see large areas of common experience."
He has interviewed hundreds of Vermonters in the past three decades. So what common threads has he collected?
Uncharacteristically, he pauses.
"Although it's possible to generalize, there's also a great hazard," he says finally. "Certainly you can say that there are common strands of experience, but on the other hand, it would be impossible to say what a typical Vermonter is."
To demonstrate, he asks if a typical Vermonter is a descendent of the English farmers who first seeded Braintree? The Italian stonecutters who built the Socialist Labor Party Hall in Barre? The Swedish woodworkers who manufactured organs in Brattleboro? The French-Canadian loggers who founded Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Rutland?
"There has been continuous in-migration from Canada and various parts of Europe. Who's characteristic of this place? And when did this issue of 'insider' and 'outsider' begin?"
And what about, since he's asking, Vermonters who headed west or south?
"Were they a bunch of shiftless bums who couldn't establish themselves or were these enterprising, forward-looking people who realized there were greater opportunities elsewhere?"
Time to listen
So, who, ultimately, is a "real Vermonter"?
"I think the more interesting question is why do people ask that?" Sharrow says. "It's an utterly irrelevant question in the corner of Indiana where I grew up, where my family, at eight generations, is as established as any family can be, where's there's no litmus test of 'When did you get here?' or 'Where did you come from?' This issue of who's a 'real Vermonter' — I can hypothesize like crazy, but it's all unsupported opinion."
Even if he cooked up an answer, Sharrow says, the state is too busy basting in its own mythology. He points to recent news reports about a federal jury calling for the death penalty in Vermont's first capital punishment trial in nearly a half-century.
"They were saying it was a real Vermont end to this because the victim's family embraced the defense lawyer. There's this mythology about what constitutes the character of this place. It's about neighbors helping neighbors. It's about the value of things being small. It's about a dedication to equality — how many times to do you hear people talk about how the Vermont Constitution was the first to outlaw slavery? All these things feed this mythological creature."
In reality, however, Vermonters continue to disagree over issues ranging from the death penalty to the state's first-in-the-nation civil unions for same-sex couples.
"The general tone in the world is disputation rather than collegiality. But if we're talking about Christian belief, a fundamental tenet is the golden rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' That ultimately is a call for empathic understanding. It's a matter of setting aside your prejudices and stereotypes in order to enter into someone else's experience and begin to understand how they're constructing their point of view."
And so Sharrow is working with the next generation of Vermonters on school projects, as well as with the state's newest immigrants from Bosnia, Congo, Laos and Somalia. He wants to promote better understanding so people can better meet their individual and collective needs.
"My concern is, in this extremely contentious era that we live in, are we going to rise to the challenges or are we going to unravel? I feel this is not a time to do work for fun. It's a time where work has to count. It has to have meaning."
And so the folklorist stops talking. He says it's time to listen.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at email@example.com.
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