"Once part of Cavendish, Baltimore is now a town unto itself, and a stone's throw from Springfield. However there is nothing here for the visitor. ... It's just a place where some nice folks live."- From a Web site on Vermont towns
For a place whose name reminds most people of somewhere else, Baltimore, Vt., hardly seems concerned with making a name for itself. The "Baltimore" sign at the Springfield end of town disappeared years ago, and the one on the Loomis' barn burned in a fire last spring. The only real sign that there's a town here at all is the white-clapboard one-room schoolhouse with black letters nailed above the porch.
Welcome to BALT M RE.
"I have to get an `O,' " says town clerk Judy Thomas. "I have the `I,' but I have to get an `O.' "
But she doesn't seem in a rush about it, and why should she be? The people of Baltimore don't need vowels to know they're home. Heck, they didn't even have names for their roads until a few years ago, when Thomas and several other townspeople christened "Harris," "Bemis," "Old Piper" and six others as a requirement for 911 service. (Most of the names are tributes to town settlers, so the fact that cemetery commissioner Marjorie Constantine ended up on "Graves Road" was, to her mind, delightful serendipity.)
Truth is, signs are for outsiders, and the tiny mountain town of Baltimore is less interested in catering to tourists, luring developers and building Web sites than taking care of its own, which at last count included 204 people, 110 dogs, a cemetery that stopped taking residents in 1910 and 7.3 miles of gravel roads. It might not sound like much, but keeping it up involves a devoted team of elected and appointed officials, ranging from Orson Kendall (road commissioner and a member of the zoning board of adjustment) to Harrison Kendall (member of the planning commission, justice of the peace, weigher of coal and Orson's brother) to Addison Kendall (fence viewer - to settle boundary disputes - former fire warden, oldest man in town and Orson and Harrison's father).
The potential ramifications of a family squabble notwithstanding, Baltimore politics are a refreshing reminder that there are places where elected officials are nothing more than ordinary people helping their neighbors; where government is about keeping the roads clear and cleaning the headstones in the cemetery and installing a dry hydrant in the farm pond across from the schoolhouse. Where the last big public event - the town-wide yard sale - was less about showing off the town than trying to get rid of Wayne Thomas' camouflage jacket, the Metcalfs' collection of kitten calendars and the flowered loveseat that Debbie Griswold's son accidentally shot with a hunting rifle.
Where a man named Frank Kendall (Orson's cousin) was moved, many years ago, to write a poem describing the charms of his hometown. It is called, simply, "Baltimore," and the complete text can be found at town hall, inside a scrapbook of Baltimore memorabilia. An excerpt:
Whenever folks hear of Baltimore They think it means M-d They just do not realize There is a Baltimore V-t ...The scenery is beautiful The homes not too many And the friendship is wonderful It's your fault if you haven't any.
People here don't need signs to know where they are. If only it were as easy to know where they're headed.
The town of Baltimore is officially open for business on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, and on this particular Saturday in July it doesn't take long for the first disgruntled citizen to walk through the door. "I've come to pay my taxes," announces Agatha Sprague, a slight, elderly woman, handing the check to town clerk (and treasurer and trustee of public funds) Judy Thomas.
"You're the first," says Thomas.
"I wanted to get it over with, " says Sprague. "And I wanted to know if it's made out right."
It's the kind of personal attention folks have come to expect at Baltimore's town office, which everyone calls "the schoolhouse" even though the school closed 12 years ago, unable to meet state mandates for classroom space and programs.
The one-room school was small, but the effect of its loss wasn't. "The school was the center of life here," says Thomas, who moved to her husband's hometown 40 years ago and has been town clerk the past 10. "We used to have square-dancing and Christmas parties and potluck suppers, and now people don't hardly know their neighbors. But I guess that's progress."
And progress isn't cheap. The town of Baltimore pays tuition to send its children to public school in neighboring Springfield. Thanks to a 1997 law that changed the way schools in Vermont are funded, Baltimore's education costs have nearly tripled in the last two years. And that means taxes in Baltimore have skyrocketed.
This morning, for example, Agatha Sprague is parting with $1,600 - about $600 more than last year.
"I'm very concerned," she says. "I'm a retired senior citizen and a widow, and it hurts very much."