University of Vermont


Community Preservation Research Projects

Preserving Traditional Livelihoods: Two Case Studies

by George W. Born

Every year, the first-year graduate students in historic preservation at UVM take a field trip to study preservation issues outside of Vermont. In the past, each class has traveled as a group to one destination, led by a faculty member. This was always a worthwhile and exciting opportunity , that was often the highlight of the year and the source of many stories. When it was announced last year, however, that it would also be possible to formulate our own itineraries, I became especially excited and began pondering possible themes and issues that I wanted to explore.

Although my coursework hitherto gave me a good dose of architectural history, conservation, and the economics of real estate development, there were a couple of other matters which I wanted to investigate. Farmland conservation and maritime preservation are also interests of mine, and I decided to go to places where these causes seemed to be especially recognized: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. The continuing presence of Amish farmers and skipjack sailors embody to me an especially resonant kind of preservation. Going beyond legislative or band-aid approaches, these traditional folk participate in and live out a philosophy that many admire from afar, but few care to emulate in practice. As the environmental movement has "deep" ecology, so we have these "preservationists." I would call advocacy of this cause "way of life preservation."

For the first part of my trip, I visited Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I talked with representatives of the Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, Preservation Pennsylvania, the Lancaster Farmland Trust, the Lancaster County Planning Commission, and the Agricultural Preserve Board of Lancaster County. I came away with a powerful sense of what sound comprehensive planning, agricultural zoning, and conservation easements can do, and I was especially impressed at how well these different groups work together. I also have to give credit to a strong local culture, which has committed itself to making sure that agriculture is a permanent part of Lancaster CountyŐs future.

For the second half of my trip, I continued on to Chesapeake Bay, meeting with people from Preservation Maryland and the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore. In addition, on the Eastern Shore I visited Tilghman Island, home of the largest remaining group of working skipjacks, and St. Michaels, site of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. While my visit to Lancaster had boosted my sense of hope and possibility about Way of Life Preservation, here the prognosis was grim: In spite of protection by the Maryland state legislature, designation of the skipjack fleet to the National Register of Historic Places, and a strong initiative by the National Trust for Historic Preservation ("Save Our Skipjacks"), the working fleet of oystermen under sail is still in jeopardy. Why is this so? The chief reason seems to be the advent of two diseases which have been afflicting the oysters in the Bay, making it impossible for them to thrive.

A comparison of these two regions illustrates several important points that are crucial to understanding why traditional livelihoods may or may not be viable. In Lancaster County, the land is individually held and, for the most part, well taken care of. Two centuries of stewardship by agricultural peoples has actually boosted the landŐs fertility beyond what it would be naturally. In fact, the County boasts the most fertile farmland in the East. This is not to say that Lancaster County is an environmental panacea: Run-off of fertilizers from fields is a major problem. (Ironically, this water-borne pollution flows down the Susquehanna River into Chesapeake Bay.) From the farmers' point of view, however, the intrinsic structure of the system is sound.

The watermen of the tidewater are not so lucky. The Bay is communally held, and with no one personally responsible for its health, it tends to be not as well taken care of as it could be. Industrial and municipal pollution from Baltimore, Washington, and Norfolk conspire with non-point agricultural run-off from upstream to create a body of water in which even healthy organisms must be strong to survive.

So for those who are interested in preserving traditional ways of life on the land and on the water, the lesson is quite clear. Cultural patterns that depend on resource-based economies must also have a sound ecological footing. Even those who advocate a more mainstream preservation cause could do worse than see the connections between the environmental movement and our own. For the existence of these two streams of thought demonstrates the broad crisis in stewardship by which both cultural and natural resources are threatened. Those of us who have a commitment to one can join forces with the others to more effectively implement the changes that we both seek.

There are some hopeful footnotes. Although oyster fishing under sail in the Chesapeake seems to be dying, advocates for the skipjacks are searching for new uses for the traditional watercraft, one of which seems to be working: The Living Classrooms Foundation uses its skipjack, the Sigsbee to take young people out on the Bay to teach them about marine biology and environmental stewardship. Another hopeful sign is that advocates for the BayŐs ecosystem have begun to meet with farmers in Pennsylvania, to work on ways to reduce the amount of agricultural run-off coming from these upstream regions. I returned to Vermont with an enlarged sense of perspective on several issues that form an important part of my identity as a preservationist. In addition to my professional training in graduate school, I received the benefit of some other perspectives. I now have some tools and strategies to deal with another set of problems that I am likely to encounter. Through a combined vision of environmental and cultural stewardship, I hope I can successfully advocate to preserve traditional, resource-based ways of life on the land and on the water.
UVM Historic Preservation Program
Revised 10/22/95 by Thos. Visser