Green Up Day Transcript

May 29, 2020

Back to the Green Up Day episode.

It’s the first Saturday in May – where are you?

[background audio of Kentucky Derby]

Not if you’re from Vermont.

Melinda Vieux: “Hartland, it is a lovely time for residents across the generations to meet, mix and mingle.” In Middlebury, “Green Up Day is a FABULOUS Vermont tradition. Brings neighbors organizations, college students, businesses together in a positive way. Reinforces a sense of community, pride in our community and makes a huge difference in the appearance of our roadsides. There is no other state that has a Green Up Day like Vermont’s.”

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Let’s start, as always, in the collections area of the Vermont Historical Society.

Amanda Gustin: My name is Amanda Gustin, and I’m the public program manager at the Vermont Historical Society. I’m sitting in the eerily collections area of the Vermont History Center, doing things a little differently this month, thanks to the global pandemic. Usually, a few of us are here to talk about our object together, but today you just have me. So on the table in front of me, I’m looking at a hard hat. It’s white plastic, it’s pretty much the standard hard hat that you might see on a construction site. There’s no internal harness. It’s just the plastic exterior. It has markings all over it. All over the top are names that are written in black. They’re signed. They’re signatures actually. And there are a bunch of different sort of styles of ink, different kinds of pens and markers. Some of them didn’t take all that well. They weren’t really using the right kind of pen, I guess. So they are a little faded or beaded up or smudged.

Amanda: On the brim of the hat, there’s a green label. It’s one of those older type of labels, where the label maker sort of pushed up through thick plastic. And it says, “Governor Deane C. Davis. And on the front part, like above the brim, there’s sort of a ghost circle. You can see a circle or something used to be. And the collections record says that at one point, there was a Green Up Day sticker there. I’m here talking about this object today because this hard hat was worn by Governor Deane Davis at the very first Green Up Day in April, 1970. I really like this particular object. I’ve liked it for a long time now for a bunch of different reasons.

Amanda: I think the idea of signing a hard hat is kind of evocative of the idea that this was an outside activity, it’s centered around physical exertion, and that people like the governor might be going to any number of different places to collect litter. I also just love the idea that Green Up Day itself, right, this was the first one in April, 1970, that this idea of getting out there and cleaning up the environment got approval and support at the highest possible level in the state. It came out of the governor’s office, and the governor used it as sort of a moment of pride that he saved this hard hat that all these people involved in this first effort had signed.

Amanda: I think that says a lot about Vermont and a lot about the things that people valued in 1970, and that they continue to value now. We think of Vermont as a green state, not just the Green Mountain state, but this idea of environmentalism and saving and preserving the environment has been important in Vermont’s story for, well, for a lot of Vermont story, but it gained a lot of steam in the second half of the 20th century. And I think Green Up Day is a really important part of that story. And so this helmet, which shows that the governor was a key part of creating Green Up Day is a great object to talk about that with.

In 1969, Burlington Free Press reporter Robert Babcock approached then-Governor of Vermont Deane Davis with an idea: cleaning up Vermont’s roadsides.

Parker Riehle: It was the young reporter from Burlington Free Press, Bob Babcock, who on the way to Montpellier noticed all the trash on the roadside from the melting snow in the spring and had the brainstorm of a statewide cleanup effort and he brought this idea to Governor Davis, which was 1969. Governor Davis’ first year.

At that moment in history, Vermont was leading the way on a number of environmental initiatives. In 1968, the state banned billboards and restricted other roadside signs. The legislature was already debating and would soon pass Act 250, one of the first comprehensive land use and development laws in the country. And in 1972, we passed the first in the nation bottle redemption bill.

Melinda: People were ripe and ready for something like Green Up Day to happen because they wanted to do something. They could see that there were things that were out of wack and they were ready to just come out and do something. So along came these things and including Green Up Day, which it was a prime time for Green Up Day to come on the horizon.

Parker: And the governor loved it and he loved the idea so much he said, “That’s a fantastic idea. We want a year to plan this. Ted.” He points to my dad. “Ted, and you’re going to be chairing this task force along with Bob Babcock to organize the first Greenup Day for 1970.”

The voices you’re hearing are from two people who know Green Up Day very well: longtime former director Melinda Vieux and Parker Riehle, the son of Ted Riehle.

Parker: My dad had a long history with environmental efforts in Vermont. He had, in 1968 as a legislator from South Burlington, spearheaded the passage of the billboard bill, which banned all the billboards in Vermont. So that’s always been a really cool environmental legacy that I’ve grown up with, with my dad’s history in Vermont. And then Governor Davis appointed him to the new newly formed position in the governor’s office, actually on the Cabinet as Secretary of the Agency of Planning and Community Development.

On April 18, 1970, Vermont held its first Green Up Day.

It was a big deal – they even closed the interstate highways from 9am to noon so people could walk along and pick up litter.

Parker: And so for the first Greenup Day, that of course famously shut down the interstate system so that volunteers could safely be on the roadside to clean up all the trash on the interstates. The urban legend was that they, of course, they must have a secured Congressional approval to do that, because you do need a Congressional approval to shut down the interstate system. Well, it turns out they never did get that approval. They went ahead and did it.

Parker: I’ve always suspected, I never asked Dad, but he was a pilot also. He flew a Cessna 185, and of course the interstate system was designed to land airplanes in case of warfare under the Eisenhower administration. And I always secretly wondered if he was suggesting shut down the interstate so that he could land his plane on the interstate, because that’s exactly what he did. They had the ribbon cutting on the stretch of interstate right near where the whale’s tails are now. That’s what mom recalls. That’s where they did the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Parker: So the Governor arrives in his helicopter. I think it was probably a state helicopter. And dad and mom fly in with the Cessna and land right there on the interstate. They do the song and dance and the pomp and circumstance, cut the ribbon and off they go in the air again to check on progress throughout the state. He’d be buzzing over them shouting words of encouragement to the folks down below, and the looks and the expressions that my mom and dad saw on the people down there were just, of course, priceless.

There’s a great picture of Governor Davis with a group of kids standing right in the middle of an empty highway, bags of trash in hand.

Melinda Vieux has talked to a number of people over the years who participate in that first event, and they have different memories of how much they enjoyed it. She reads here two different accounts from two Vermonters who joined in as children.

Melinda: “It was mandatory volunteerism. My dad said, ‘You’re going out there.'” So okay, everybody out there that thinks magically there’s tens of thousands of people went out. Well, they had a little help getting out there.”

Melinda Vieux: “One of my most vivid memories is participating in the very first Green Up Day in 1970. I remember being very excited to be joining several others from the Salisbury community to Green Up the area. I’ll never forget finding a $1 bill on the side of the road. I thought I was the richest kid on the planet.”

George Aiken, one of Vermont’s Senators, was so impressed with Green Up Day that he read a letter about its second year into the Congressional Record in 1971

Senator Aiken: Mr. President. Several times recently I have advised the Senate of things going on in Vermont which have lent and can lend encouragement and inspiration to other states. I now have to report another event, which could have far reaching results. Last Saturday, May 1, a successful demonstration occurred in my state. This demonstration called Green Up Day was put on largely by our young people and extended into every community throughout the length and breadth of Vermont.

Senator Aiken: Young people rose early last Saturday morning, I understand it was 75,000 of them, and began scattering over all the highways of the state, interstate, federal and local roads. By 9:30 AM every mile of the interstate highway has been closed to the traveling public with state police guarding the access roads. The interstate highways remained closed until 12:30 PM when they were again opened to the public. During this time what did the young people of Vermont do? They collected virtually every glass bottle, every metal can, every scrap of paper which had been cast onto the roadsides by careless and unthinking people.

Senator Aiken: The result was that by Saturday evening Vermont was undoubtedly the cleanest state in the nation.

Green Up Day continued within the governor’s office for ten years, until 1979 when a group of private citizens came together to form the nonprofit organization Vermont Green Up, Inc., which continues to plan Green Up Day today.

Melinda: The state decided to give it away and so interested citizens came together and formed a nonprofit organization so they incorporated as Vermont Green Up Inc. and then the Day was continued to be, of course, called Green Up Day. So in my first year I decided to ask, I’m going to say, half a dozen professional marketing people to have lunch with me at The Lobster Pot in Montpelier. Some people will remember that.

Melinda: It was a great lunch and the main thing that I came away with was they said that ideally the name of the organization should be an action statement. So I went away and I tell you it didn’t take me very long just to switch the words. So instead of Vermont Green Up Inc. it became Green Up Vermont. Act.

One year later, 1980, was the first year of an iconic part of the Green Up Day tradition: the annual poster contest. Each year, Vermont students from across the state create art that shows the spirit of the event. The winning artist gets to see their work on nearly every bulletin board at every country store in Vermont.

After a tough run in the early 1990s, Green Up Day became more financially solvent and hired Executive Director, Melinda Vieux.

Melinda: The first Green Up Day that I helped organize was in 1996 and there may have been 7000 people taking part, give or take and as you know that fast forward, now we’ve tripled that to a good 21,000 and there are more than that. That’s only the ones that we can count.

They added in sponsorships from companies across the state – many of whom still support the program today – and in 2014 Green Up Day became one of four organizations on the Vermont State Income Tax Return. They’re listed at the very end, when you can decide to donate some of your tax return.

This year, Green Up Day is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Parker Riehle, who has been involved with Green Up Day since he was three years old, sums it up best.

Parker: We have such a green brand as it is, and again, with no billboards and the statewide cleanup effort that really doesn’t exist in any other state as this concerted effort, but it’s just a really neat, neat part of our fabric and of our really ever way of life.

Parker: And I really see, I think the role of Green Up Vermont has always been, of course, such an important leader in making sure this survives and goes on. And every generation, year after year, is not only just aware of it, but enthusiastically wants to participate in this effort. And the numbers show, obviously, ongoing success. And I think a lot of us on the board, I’ve always felt that the drum beat can and should be, and I think we’ve been doing a good job of making it more than just a one day event. We’re not trying to make it more than a one day event organizationally, but that ethic. The year round environmental ethic state of mind is what we’ve really engendered in Vermonters throughout the years, because of this iconic, really, institution, but it’s really not a tradition. And multi generational and local participation, but all across the state. And so it’s just a really cool thing to be involved with.

Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Amanda Gustin and Ryan Newswanger.

Thanks to our guests Melinda Vieux and Parker Riehle. Thanks also to Kate Alberghini, Executive Director of Green Up Day, for her help on this episode.