Hard Times

Infirmary set up in Burlington’s First Congregational Church chapel during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Courtesy of the First Congregational Church, Burlington.Vermont had never been a rich state. In bad times its rural people survived by raising their own food and doing without any luxuries. In cities the new immigrants managed by taking care of their own through a system of clubs, mutual aid societies, and labor unions. Locally-controlled poor farms took care of the worst cases, even into the mid-twentieth century. But a series of local and national events in the 1910s and 1920s taxed Vermont’s fragile network of private and public institutions that provided a safety net for those in need.

The nationwide Influenza Epidemic of 1918 struck Vermont in August of that year. Almost 36,000 Vermonters, or over ten percent of the state’s population, caught the Spanish Flu. Before it was over more than 2,000 Vermonters would die. In 1919 a survey found 440 orphaned children, which led to the founding of the Vermont Children’s Aid Society. The state legislature changed public health laws, eliminated town medical officers, and created ten sanitary districts.

The great Flood of 1927 devastated the state and caused an estimated $21 million in damage. Vermont’s roads, bridges, and railways were hard hit and local communities could not afford to rebuild. The state legislature passed an $8.5 million bond issue and secured over $2.5 million from the federal government.

The Great Depression that began in late 1929 struck hardest in Vermont cities. Unemployment led to shrinking tax lists and greater costs for the relief of the poor. In 1932 Barre City could not meet its payroll and called on the state to seek federal aid for the city and other Vermont towns in need. Though Franklin Roosevelt would never win elections in Republican Vermont, several of his New Deal programs were welcomed during these hard times.

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