On election night, when the returns come in, folks around the country generally look upon the results from New England with a mixture of horror and puzzlement. Even though I have lived in New England most of my life I admit to looking at them in the same way.
My feelings have something to do with the dissonance I sense between the politics that win in New England and the people I know here. When you live here you know that in many ways real New Englanders, the old Yankee stock, are living under a foreign regime made up mostly of taste-makers from Manhattan, Boston, and elite university campuses. Regular folk are pretty conservative.
Furthermore, if your conservatism consists of more than Fox News talking points; if it actually has something to do with folkways and traditional craftsmanship, well, believe it or not, New England may be the best place to live in America. We actually have things worth conserving here.
There are a number of things about the region I love—the ocean is always a short jaunt away—same with the mountains. There is high culture: museums, theater, the symphony. Then there are the simple things: maple syrup, cranberries, and fall foliage. But my list this year has little to do with those things. The gifts I am suggesting reflect the lesser-known, socially conservative heart of the region. I suspect some of them may surprise you.
Finally, I am limiting myself to four of the six states. Why? I want to save a little for next year. So here we go!
Connecticut: the land of guns and tobacco
The Connecticut River valley is the industrial heart of New England. It is also the home of gun makers: Colt, Ruger, and Mossberg and Sons—and dozens of others. We also build fighter aircraft and nuclear submarines—but those are hard to get under a tree.
The Mossberg 500 is a good gun to begin with if you have never owned a gun. Made about 30 miles from my home—the Mossberg 500 can be used for home defense, hunting, and sport—e.g. shooting clays.
The finest cigar wrapping tobacco in the world is grown in the Connecticut River Valley. I regularly drive past tobacco fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Some of the men in my church had summer jobs as kids working those fields. How about a box hand rolled from Connecticut Valley Tobacconist? Check out the video!
Vermont—the Shire of New England (more so than that other shire, New Hampshire)
Vermont is my favorite state. If you are a Wal-Mart conservative, you would hate it. (Wal-Mart and other big-box stores are largely illegal up there.) But if you are a family farm conservative, or a high quality craftsmanship conservative—it is paradise. Like Texas it was briefly an independent republic; and like Texas it has an active secessionist movement.
Vermont also has one of the highest levels of gun ownership in America. Some people estimate that 75% of households there, own guns. It also has the lowest rate of gun crime in the country. Yes, it is true that a lot of hippies moved to Vermont—but if you like ice cream, even those people appear to have actually done something useful. The reasons the hippies went there are the same reasons the Von Trapps (of Sound of Music fame) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn moved there: The place is beautiful and people there pretty much live and let live. Whether or not the socialism the hippies imported will ruin the place is a matter of debate.
The Cabot Creamery cooperative may sound crunchy—but it is actually the only way family dairy farms in northern Vermont could survive in the age of agribusiness. Cabot began with 100 Vermont family farms. Today it includes over 1000 from Upstate New York to Maine. Cabot is known for its cheddar.
How do people survive in Vermont without Wal-Mart? Well, pretty much the way everyone else did before Wal-Mart. You are more likely to find real walk-able Main Streets with real businesses in Vermont than in other places. There are also real general stores. Some general stores do rely on tourism (a big industry in Vermont). But the stores justify themselves for another reason: They often feature high quality Vermont goods. Here is the granddaddy of Vermont general stores—the family owned, The Vermont Country Store.
New England was once the center of textile manufacture in the United States. Old mills up and down the Connecticut River Valley are either empty now or are being used for other things. One exception from Vermont is Darn Tough—makers of the finest socks in the world. (I am not exaggerating—they come with a lifetime guarantee. Yes, socks with a guarantee.) Yes, I wear them—I do not wear any other brand.
Sam Gamgee would love it in Vermont. It has been called, The Napa Valley of beer. There are more craft-brewers per capita in Vermont than any other state. Some excellent labels are Fiddlehead, Long Trail, and Otter Creek. But the Holy Grail of beer is Heady Topper—the number one rated beer on the planet according to Rate Beer. It is brewed by a small mom and pop brewer known as The Alchemist. People stand in line for this beer. If you can lay your hands on some—send me a few.
Rhodes Island—Millionaires, Fishermen, and Anthony Esolen
Now to my second favorite New England state—the Ocean State: Rhode Island. It is a bay actually—named for the island in the middle of it. It you want to see how the other half lived in the Gilded Age just visit the mansions in Newport (all museums now and open to tourists), or if you like yachting, also visit Newport (home of the America’s Cup), or if you like tennis, visit, yep—Newport, home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum. You probably get the sense that Newport is pretty upper crust—and it was. But they let regular folks in these days.
People actually had to make a living there and they still do. The place, as you can imagine, has always depended on the sea for that. But there were plenty of things people did to support maritime pursuits. My friend Keith Wahl and his wife Jen have a company that markets things made exclusively in Rhode Island. The Wahls are the real deal too—she is a descendant of three Mayflower families (yes, we still keep track of that here—it is a real source of pride for folks who can claim it), and Keith is an old salt—he began working in commercial fishing at 13 and has his captain’s license. Keith, by the way, is a reader of The Imaginative Conservative—so he is on the team. Here is their website.
Here are a couple of tasty items they feature—
Coffee milk is the official drink of Rhode Island (who knew?), so forget that Starbucks left coast stuff and get some coffee syrup.
Fishermen need to eat. Kenyon’s is an old mill that still stone grinds its flour and has been in continuous operation since 1696. (Yes, that date is correct.) Besides Johnny Cake mix, you can get clamcake mix and really imagine you are on the water in Rhode Island.
A book: The Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
Dr. Anthony Esolen, as many readers here know, is the translator of Dante and a prolific author. He is so prolific my friend and editor Jim Kushiner of Touchstone Magazine, calls him, “The Esolen” because, as he told me, there must be several of him to crank out the volume of high quality prose he produces. “The Esolen” teaches English at Providence College in Rhode Island. Yes, there are still top shelf intellectuals here who have retained their sanity—Hadley Arkes, Peter Kreeft, and Thomas Howard are some others.
Massachusetts—more textiles, Norman Rockwell, and the other Calvin
Of the New England states, I know Massachusetts best. I went to college in Boston, lived in Cambridge for a decade (smack-dab between Harvard and MIT), and then went on to live on Cape Cod for nearly another decade. Still, for a couple of the suggestions here I needed to turn to my old friend, and fellow imaginative conservative, David Trumbull.
I met David in Cambridge when he was the Chairman of the Republican City Committee (a thankless job, corralling Bill Weld Brahmins, over-groomed Log Cabin homosexuals, and a few social conservatives like me in a hopeless quest to get someone elected). David was the fellow who introduced me to the writings of Russell Kirk. (He also introduced me to the celebrity public intellectual and liberal theologian, Harvey Cox—which in turn led to my acceptance into Harvard Divinity School—another story for another time perhaps.) Anyway, David was the Vice President of International Trade for the National Textile Association for a time. David is always nattily dressed, bow-tied, in a fedora. I trust him.
Here are David’s textile suggestions:
Yes, we still make clothes in America. They are top shelf too. (The shirt I am wearing in my photo below his from these folks.) Check out this video for an introduction to the people who will make your shirt to order. (You will enjoy the Fall River accent.)
William Gray is a line of shirts made by The New England Shirt Company.
A real U.S. Navy Peacoat from Sterlingwear Apparel
I wore a peacoat for years when I lived in Cambridge. There is a reason sailors like them. Sterlingwear is family owned makes outerwear for the U. S. armed services. These are made in New England.
So onto two more forgotten conservative treasures from Massachusetts—
A print from the Norman Rockwell Museum
Out in the Berkshires, not far from the Pittsfield Shaker village and Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, is the home of The Norman Rockwell Museum. Yep, Rockwell was from Massachusetts. In fact, this famous Christmas painting is of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Everyone likes Rockwell—pseudo-sophisticates pretending that they do not.
A book of Calvin Coolidge’s sayings
“Silent Cal,” like Rockwell, had one foot in Vermont and the other in Massachusetts—but like Rockwell, he leaned toward the Commonwealth. He was the 48th Governor of Massachusetts and the 30th President of the United States. When Ronald Reagan moved into the Whitehouse, Jefferson’s portrait was replaced with Coolridge’s. That is a pretty strong endorsement.
I could have given you many more reasons to believe we have not all gone crazy up here. But when you think of it, pray for the rest of us.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.