"Have you lived your whole life in Vermont? Well, not yet!"
One State's Joke Culture
Why do some states develop a joke culture while others don’t?
For that matter, some states develop much stronger state identities than others. One is or is not a native Vermonter, for example. Indeed, I probably should have written “Native Vermonter.”
I moved to Vermont in 1975. Shortly after arriving, I went to a potluck dinner at the home of the minister of the Burlington Unitarian Church, hoping to make new friends. Two dozen people came, and we went around the room introducing ourselves. Perhaps the third person to speak was also the oldest, 84 years of age, and he spoke for several minutes, but his point was not to tell of any of the interesting jobs he had held or experiences he had had. No, he went back in time to explain and lament that he was not a native Vermonter, having lived in the state for only the last 82 years. From that point on, around the room, everyone took care to note whether they were or were not native to the state.
Mississippi is like that. So is Texas.
Compare Illinois, my home state. We don’t even know how to pronounce it! Some say “Illinoisan” without pronouncing the “s”; some say “Illinoisian,” and in that camp no one knows whether to pronounce the “s” or not; and no one cares anyway. Massachusetts does not even have a name for it—“Massachusettsian”? Massachusettser”? [there is in fact a widely-shared nickname for Bay State residents, popular among residents of the northern New England states, but it is profanity-adjacent–ed.]
Vermont, you may know, is also a state that has jokes. Most states do not. Some states are known to be the butt of others’ jokes, such as the cruel and misleading anecdotes told about West Virginians by people in neighboring states. But Vermonters tell their own jokes—wry, a bit sly, sometimes showing some wisdom.
Often these jokes tie to the notion of the Vermont native and his1Usually “his,” not “hers,” I’m sorry to report. character. For example, a “flatland” tourist finds herself asking a Vermonter in at least his 80s, “Have you lived in Vermont your whole life?” Comes the laconic reply, “Not yet.”
Here are all the Vermont jokes I ever heard told within the state, starting with the worst.
Flatlander during dreary all-day drizzle: “Think this rain’ll stop?”
Vermonter: “Always has.”
Flatlander (me) during dreary all-day drizzle: “Think this rain’ll keep up?”
Lumber yard worker: “Hope so.”
Me: “You hope so?”
Lumber yard worker: “Ayup. Then it won’t come down!”
Vermonter to flatlander: “Don’t like our weather? Wait a minute.”
A flatlander wants to take a shortcut across a field, but is worried by the bull he sees grazing in the middle of it. So he asks the nearby farmer, “Say, is that bull safe?”
Vermonter: “Sure, he’s safe”.
So the flatlander jumps the fence and starts across the pasture.
Vermonter: “Can’t say the same for you, though.”
An elderly Vermont farm couple sits on their porch, watching a typical yet stupendous Vermont sunset over the low scarlet-tinged hills. Slowly pink turns to crimson turns to vermilion. It is literally breathtaking. At last, as they turn to go in, the husband says quietly, “We’ll pay for that.”
Driving through one of our many intersections with no stop signs, a flatlander and a Vermonter both reacted too slowly for the icy conditions and had a fender bender. As they were exchanging insurance information, the Vermonter suggested they retreat to the pub that happened to be at the corner, to get out of the cold. As they entered, the Vermonter called to the waitress, “A beer for my new friend here.”
“How nice,” thought the New Yorker. “This would never happen in the city.”
They called the authorities and wrote down the other’s insurance company and phone number, and then the flatlander realized that the Vermonter hadn’t bought himself anything to drink. “Let me get you a beer!” he said.
“Oh, no thank you,” replied the Vermonter. “I’ll just wait until the police have come and left.”
No one had won the Vermont Lottery for several weeks in a row, so it had grown to more than $3,000,000. Finally a winner was announced, and it turned out to be a native Vermonter, a farmer all his life, so a newspaper reporter from Burlington was sent to interview him.2Back when the Free Press had reporters. “What do you plan to do with the winnings?” she asked.
“Nothin’,” replied the farmer.
“$3,000,000?! You must have some plans!”
“Nope,” said the farmer. “Reckon we’ll just stay right here and farm, ‘til it’s gone.”
The Burlington Free Press followed the custom of interviewing couples celebrating their 50th anniversaries and then writing little human interest stories about them.3Back when the Free Press wrote stories. Then came the news that an old couple up in the Northeast Kingdom had just passed their 75th anniversary! Of course a reporter went to interview them. She knocked on the door and the husband let her in. They both sat down in the front room and the wife joined them.
“You’ve been married longer than anyone else in the state, so far as we can tell,” gushed the reporter. “Do you have any secrets to share as to what helped you stay married so long?”
“Nope,” said the wife. “We hate each other.”
The reporter blanched. “Really?”
“Ayup,” said the husband. “For years we’ve had an in-house separation. And look – here she is, in my part of the house. It’s an outrage.” He glared at her.
“You’re one to talk,” said the wife. “Last Sunday you ate in the kitchen.” And she shot him a look of sheer malevolence.
The reporter was shaken by hatred spewing from both sides. With a tremulous voice she asked, “Well, if you hate each other so much, why haven’t you divorced?
In unison, they both replied, “We’re planning to. We just wanted to wait ‘til the kids were dead.”
A young woman schoolteacher in Boston decided to make a major change in her life. Her boyfriend had just moved out, and she wanted to leave old memories behind. So she applied for a teaching job in Brattleboro, the town closest to Boston but nevertheless in Vermont, and she got hired. Moving to her new state, she decided to go for the full Vermont experience and found a cabin in the woods for rent. It was an elegant modern cabin, but still, it was rural Vermont, in a lovely wood and with a beautiful view.
The second week of school, she was driving home when suddenly a deer leaped out in front of her. Unprepared, she hit it, crumpling her fender against her wheel, and had to get roadside assistance.
She was telling the tow truck man how the deer had surprised her. He pointed out the yellow sign with the dancing deer. “That means ‘deer crossing,’” he said. “Oh,” she replied. From then on she drove more carefully.
Nevertheless, after the first PTA meeting, coming home late in the evening, another deer was in the roadway, and again she hit it. Another repair bill. Colleagues at work told her dusk was a particularly dangerous time for deer to be out.
She drove still more carefully at dusk.
As October passed, however, she failed to realize that dusk-like conditions also occur at dawn, and dawn came later every day. Setting forth early one morning, planning to have her wake-up coffee at school, she was stunned when a big buck jumped in front of her. This time her car was totaled, although she was not hurt.
That evening, irate, she wrote a letter to the Vermont Department of Transportation asking – no, demanding – that they move the sign.
It was foliage season. A wealthy Texas rancher on holiday was driving along one of our quaint two-lane highways and came upon a farmer, tinkering with his tractor by the side of the road. “I’m a farmer,” he reasoned to himself. “I’ll have a conversation with the fellow.”
So he stopped and introduced himself. “This your place here?
“How big a spread you got, then?
“Well, my land begins up there by the potato shed, takes in the woodlot, comes down along the creek there, and then back up along the road.
The rancher had never heard of anything so dinky. He just had to reply, “Y’know, back home in West Texas, I can get in my truck and drive west all day and never reach the end of my property.”
“Ayup,” said the Vermonter. “Had a truck like that.”
Down in southwestern Vermont, the New York/Vermont border isn’t Lake Champlain, but a manmade line, and indeed, there had been a dispute about the exact location of that line since the formation of Vermont back in the eighteenth century. Finally the selectmen of the Vermont town got together with their counterparts across the state line and hired a surveyor to resolve the matter. Much of the dispute was on Ebenezer Jones’s property, and after the surveyor finished, part of his land, including the farm home, proved to be in New York state.
Who would tell him? Who would tell a fifth-generation Vermonter that in fact he was not, had never been, a native Vermonter? Finally they decided to go as a group.
It was a warm August evening. The head selectman knocked. “Eb, you recollect we got this border dispute with New York?
“Ayup,” he replied. “Had surveyors on my property.”
“Yes,” said the selectman. “That’s what we want to talk to you about. It turns out that the line was bad. Actually, most of your land, including the house here, is not in Vermont at all, but in New York state.”
To their astonishment, a broad smile came across Ebeneezer’s face.
“You’re smiling!” the selectman exclaimed. “We thought you’d be downcast. You realize this means you’re not a native Vermont, don’t you? Never have been? Why are you smiling?”
“Well boys,” replied Eb, “It’s like this. You see, I’m gettin’ on in years. Passed my 82nd birthday last May. I just don’t think I can take another Vermont winter!”
“Q: Did you hear about the fire in University of Vermont’s football dorm that destroyed twenty books?
A: The real tragedy was that fifteen hadn’t been colored yet.”
Since the University of Vermont gave up football in 1974 – the only flagship state school ever to do so – it’s safe to say that this joke has never even been told about Vermont, let alone in the state. At another website, I did come upon one possible Vermont joke that was new to me:
A flatlander was visiting Vermont and stopped at a farm stand to buy some apples. As he stood in the barnyard talking with the farmer, a three-legged pig walked by. “I’ve never seen a three-legged pig,” said the tourist. “How’d he get that way?
“Last summer I was out plowing and my tractor overturned and pinned me,” the farmer replied. “That pig came running and all by himself dug the dirt out from around my head and then ran back to the farmhouse and got help. That pig saved my life!”
“But how’d he lose the leg?”
“Well,” said the farmer, “a pig that good you don’t eat all at once.”
Further research reveals versions of that joke in many other locales, however, including England, “the country,” and even Australia. In the Australian version, the pig is even more amazing: herds the farmer’s sheep, milks the cows, collects the eggs, and even does his taxes!
So I concluded it’s not a Vermont joke.
Also, I made up a Vermont joke myself: “I’ve been stealing my neighbor’s maple sap,” said Tom, surreptitiously. But my native Vermont friends assured me it was not really a Vermont joke, indeed that no Tom Swiftie or other pun could ever be a Vermont joke.
However, if you know a Vermont joke or two – real ones – please send it to me. Eventually it’ll wind up on my website.
I did substantial research – of sorts – and I’ve reached the end of this essay, but I’m no closer to understanding why some states develop state jokes while others don’t. I did enjoy collecting the jokes, though. Maybe you enjoyed them too?