Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys whipped up a pretty big row back in the 1770s winning independence for Vermont but, in the years since, some of the natives have begun to wonder if it was quite worth the trouble. That Currier & Ives reproduction of the old-timey, happy agrarian life looks nice on the family-room wall, perhaps, but it does not reflect the rural realities of Vermont in 1963. Agriculture is on the steady decline in Vermont, and the eye of the contemporary lithographer might be struck today by the ramshackle homes, the poverty and the deprivation that characterize some of the state's backwoods villages. One quarter of Vermont's households, for example, have incomes of less than $2,500 a year—a statistical condition of poverty that is unmatched in any of the other New England states and one that affects 41% of the families in a particularly depressed county such as Grand Isle along the northern portion of Lake Champlain. Altogether four northern counties in the state have been declared depressed areas by the Federal Government. And 40 towns in Vermont exist on such a meager economy that their state income taxes did not equal the salaries of their state representatives in 1961. Of course, the worst time for these rural villages is during the severe Vermont winters: in many small towns employment is in direct proportion to the dropping temperature, and statewide unemployment just about triples during the cold months.
Yet, paradoxically, for those towns lying deepest in the snow belt of the state's north-to-south mountain chain, a new prosperity is being felt with all the power of a young avalanche. The economic force thus asserting itself is skiing. In increasing numbers the Vermont farmer, once the very spine of the state's working class, is not a farmer at all anymore. If he is lucky enough to live anywhere near the Green Mountains, he has gone into the real-estate business, and the yield of his land is no longer reckoned in tons of hay and pounds of butterfat. Instead he calculates its value as the potential site of a ski lodge or a restaurant or a gas station to serve the skier. And if he cannot realize $8,000 on an acre he bought for $10 a few years ago, he has not caught the spirit of the times. In the towns the people who used to supply the farmer with whiffletrees for his plow and gingham for his wife are smiling, too. Trading with that new, Tyrolean-style hotel in the old alfalfa field down the road brightens up the winter far more than the general store's potbellied stove ever did.
It is true, of course, that cows still outnumber people in Vermont, but it is also true that the number of farms has been cut in half in the last two decades, and farming, as a source of individual income, is fading away. Skiing is going in just the other direction, and at an even faster pace. In 1946, for example, Vermont estimated that its citizens took in $55 million from all tourists, summer and winter. But at that time the amount left behind by skiers was so negligible the economists did not even bother to guess at it. By 1955 they were counting it up with greedy joy. In that year the state made $12.7 million from skiers alone, or about four times the money made on Vermont's renowned maple sugar industry. Vermont government public-relations men were so buoyed up by this happy intelligence that printers were ordered to redo all the state's promotional literature. Overnight "Unspoiled Vermont" was altered to read "Enjoy VERMONT...the FOUR Season Recreation State."
Skiing has continued to grow. Last year it produced $35 million in Vermont income. Today general tourism, with an annual total of $135 million, now leads farm income in the state by almost $10 million. The estimate for this winter, up some more, is two million skier-days. While in Vermont, the skiers—85% of whom come from out of state—are expected to spend $20 a day on everything from lift tickets to lodging to "Sloan's" Liniment. The total outlay—$40 million—will be twice as much as four years ago. Figuring an average annual snowfall of 120 inches, this means that snow will have yielded Vermont a tidy $333,333 an inch come spring. Furthermore, the $40 million may be only an indication of the sums that will be spent in the years ahead by skiing entrepreneurs buying land and putting up new lifts, lodges and equipment shops.
November 18, 1963
"It might not sound like much elsewhere," says one Brattleboro banker, "but right now my bank alone has $7 million lent out for ski-related construction and business in southern Vermont. That's a fair piece of business around here, and at 6% that's just fine." Says Vermont's skiing governor, Phil Hoff: "You can't imagine what some of these ski areas have done for the little towns near them. Sick or dying economies have been completely revitalized. There is winter employment and there is a new supply of tax money going into town and state treasuries. Skiing is probably the most important thing that has happened in this state in years."
This bullish state of affairs has not necessarily turned the head of every true Vermonter; in the past if the native has not derived direct benefit from skiers he has tended to deny them praise. Schoolchildren have sometimes written "Skiers, Go Home" on the sidewalks, and a Wilmington lawyer tells this story: "I heard a couple of frostbitten sugar farmers talking last winter," he says, "and they were damning Mt. Snow up the road. They were bragging that they belonged to a sugar pool that made $14,000 not long ago, so who needs the skiers? Well, I'd hate for them to find out that Mt. Snow probably banks $14,000 every Saturday and Sunday in the winter. And I don't worry about the others who say skiing has done nothing for them. I help them with their income-tax returns, and I know better. My goodness, you should see how some of the bone doctors are making out."
The wheel of a jacked-up Model T Ford powered the first ski tow in Vermont (and in the U.S., for that matter), in Woodstock in 1934. And though the lift paid back its inventors after two weekends, none in the handful of skiers who saw its clanking birth could possibly guess that within 29 years it would spawn the state's present total of 40 major resorts. For certain, no one could have predicted a flock of offspring that would include the likes of the chrome-plated, finny phenomenon called Mt. Snow in the southern part of the state.
By volume of skiers the largest ski area in the world, Mt. Snow is an extension of the whizbang personality of its developer, Connecticut's Walter Schoenknecht (SI, March 20, 1961), who opened his supermarket ski area in 1954. With such come-ons as plenty of lifts, a skating rink, heated outdoor swimming pool, indoor "Japanese health pools," etc., Mt. Snow's effect on the nearby towns of West Dover and Wilmington and relatively distant Bennington has been epochal.
"You get the idea," says Bennington Restaurateur Jimmy Playotes, "when I tell you we used to close up after Columbus Day. Now we take a deep breath on Columbus Day and get ready for the rush." The rush comes mostly from New York City and the Middle Atlantic states, the home grounds of 75% of Vermont-bound skiers. Like a decorated spider web, huge, bustling Mt. Snow lurks just a scant 30 miles up the road from Bennington, and there are few eastern skiers who have not sampled its attractions at least once.
Wee Moran, a grizzled, garrulous French Canadian, remembers Wilmington, the turnoff town for Mt. Snow, before the advent of Schoenknecht. "I was in the garage business doing poorly," he says, "and, for the most part, all of us here in town sat around idly contemplating life and its tribulations. We might have watched TV or gone someplace in the car, only we didn't have that kind of money. It was sort of like the Sahara—but without camels. Then Mt. Snow. I went into the ski-shop business. Bought this place for $6,500. Last year I grossed $40,000 on everything from Austrian skis to Callard & Bowser's Celebrated Butter-Scotch, and my profit was $11,000. If I wanted to sell out tomorrow, which I don't imagine I do, I could get $25,000. If I wanted to drive a hard bargain, I have no doubt that I could get more."
Across the street and down a way is Wilmington's state-owned liquor store, a fast-growing, post-Mt. Show innovation. Last year's sales were $30,000 greater than the previous year's, says the manager, and at least 65% of the business was with out-of-state skiers. It is not that skiers come to Vermont to drink inordinate amounts of whisky, but they do know a bargain when they see one. Vermont liquor prices are almost one dollar less per fifth than those in New York and Massachusetts, and there is a brisk by-the-case business despite laws in some nearby states forbidding excessive importation. In serving its thrifty visitors, the state also serves itself: for each fifth of liquor sold, $1.02 in taxes goes into the state till.
Just a few steps from the liquor store is Ralph Howe Jr.'s drugstore, a hand-me-down from his grandfather, who opened for business in 1887. Howe is a terse, thin-lipped man and not one for leaping to conclusions. But he is tentatively persuaded that Mt. Snow has probably helped his business—some. "Anyway, we've expanded twice in the last nine years," he says, "and I guess everybody in town has felt the effect, one way or another, to some degree. It used to be you were doing well if you could get your winter fuel bill paid for during the summer. I don't think that's a big worry anymore."
Five miles from Wilmington up Highway 100 is West Dover, where, they say, not one new house had been built prior to Mt. Snow since 1885. Several hundred homes and lodges, motels and restaurants have sprung up lately, and just keeping the real-estate record books up to date has become a full-time job for the town clerk. "Now, you take us," says W. Irving Dunn, proprietor of Dunn's General Store in West Dover. "We opened in 1955 in a shoe box, and we've had to knock down a wall and build on three times in three years. But just try to find somebody to help out clerking. Used to be hardly anyone had a job in winter; now everybody is calling himself a carpenter and driving nails every which way. Shorthanded as we are, we try to take care of our customers as best we can."
The building boom and the winter labor shortage probably will prevail in West Dover and environs for some time to come. "We have an $85 million, 20-year development plan, you know," says Walt Schoenknecht, "and when we get that done we'll begin to tear down and start over."
Schoenknecht's latest major improvement is a $1 million hotel which, he says, has put at least $700,000 into Vermont hands, and his winter staff now draws a $26,000 payroll every week. "But there's a hitch," says the man who is seldom bothered by hitches for long. "Land around here—it used to go for $5, $10 an acre, maybe—is getting so darned expensive—up to, gee, maybe $10,000—that not too many can afford to build a lodge. What we've got to do is put reins on the real-estate business. We need more beds."
Mt. Snow's sphere of influence extends far beyond its own neighborhood. Farther north in the state, they say it attracts and interests New York City's unchic snow bunnies, thank heavens. Down south they say its overflow feeds the lift lines of smaller competitors. Everywhere they admit Mt. Snow's advertising budget—$71,000 and six times what the state spends promoting skiing—has helped enormously to sell the sport for the benefit of all. Arnold White, who with his father Harold operates Hogback Mountain some 10 miles southeast of Mt. Snow, says, "Naturally we were worried when they first opened Snow. We're a pretty small operation, and we didn't know how bad we might be hurt by a colossus. Well, we weren't hurt, we were helped. We've been discovered by a lot of people, you know? Dad and I wish they'd build two more Mt. Snows just like the first."
Though not patterned along the same gaudy lines as Mt. Snow, a complex of three other major areas is situated less than 20 miles north of Mt. Snow—Stratton Mountain, Magic Mountain and Big Bromley.
Around Stratton Mountain, the most southerly of the group, prosperity is, again, a thing called share-the-wealth. Stratton has been largely developed with Vermont money in the last four years (Mt. Snow, Bromley and several of their far-northern neighbors like Mad River and Stowe were started with out-of-state capital) and is in a curious geographical position. It lies mainly within the township of Stratton, Vt. but is accessible by paved road only through the town of Bondville. Consequently, Stratton (pop. 25) gets more than $10,000 from the ski area annually in taxes, while Bondville (pop. 255) gets all the food, motel and service station business. "I must say," says Mrs. Ina Coleman, Bondville's town clerk, "I fought against them putting the resort up there as hard as anyone here, but when I saw we weren't getting anywhere I said, 'Oh heck, if we can't beat 'em, let's join 'em.' And you know, that's turned out to be the best idea. Sure, we used to be pretty quiet around here—retiring people, mostly—but that's not true these days. Mr. Coleman—that's my husband—bought a jeep with a snowplow on the front end, and he ought to have it paid for this winter, clearing driveways and what all. You can sure say it's working out real good."
It is working out real good in nearby South Londonderry, too, a town of 250, which caters both to Stratton and to Magic Mountain skiers. The Peabody House has recently opened its doors again after being vacant for 30 years, and it is already booked through the Twelve Days of Christmas. "The new owners paid $5,000 for the place and put $110,000 into renovations," confides Hugh Doane, who runs a hardware store. "I sold them all the hardware they needed, so I've got few complaints about skiers. Of course, they have messed up the traffic some in South 'Derry. We had our first jam here last winter, and there was a mighty bad parking situation for a while." With true Yankee ingenuity, South Londonderry's town fathers solved the parking problem with dispatch. They put up no-parking signs.
Abraham Lincoln used to summer near Big Bromley when Vermont was strictly a three-season state. Nowadays the Big Bromley ski area is a pulsing wintertime resort whose last maintenance man made more money than Vermont's $13,750 governor. ("Doesn't surprise me a bit," says Phil Hoff.)
"Before we got here people in this area were on relief in many cases," says Sally Pabst, who runs Big Bromley with her husband Fred. "There was summer work, of course, but when the snow began to fall the line began to form back at the welfare office.
"Still, not everybody wants to admit that tourism is the only worthwhile business left in the area. Selling eggs and milk certainly isn't profitable anymore, but some of the oldtimers resent the change and resent, I guess, their dependence on foreigners. They're the ones who say the things at home that make the kids say, 'Skiers, go home.' That's nonsense. If the skiers did go home and didn't come back, this town would dry up like a raisin. They don't like to think about that."
One who does think about that is Mrs. Margaret Knothe, the owner of Colburn House, an inn in neighboring Manchester. "Before there was any skiing around here," says Mrs. Knothe, "the men left town in the winter looking for work. There was a saying that one wooden nickel was passed around among the merchants."
The same line of how-it-was, how-it-is talk can be heard farther north around Warren, a town central to the Sugar-bush, Mad River and new Glen Ellen ski areas. Warren was once a prosperous town of lumber mills. Today it is reduced industrially to one bobbin factory with 24 employees. The fact that Warren is not a depressed area is due entirely to the ski business, a circumstance Warren once recognized by illustrating the cover of its annual town report with a photograph of the Sugarbush gondola lift. The area employs 100 Warren citizens, and in the opinion of Damon Gadd, Sugarbush president, Warren will be a completely healthy resort town in a couple of years. Elwin Kingsbury, an ex-farmer who runs the Shell station in Warren, is already on his way to new financial well-being. "I used to have 60 head of milch cows," he says, "but I've cut down to 40 since opening the station last December. And do you know, I'm making twice as much return on the money invested than I ever did on the dairy? I say, 'Hello, skiers, welcome.' And if you meet anybody looking for some land around these parts, be sure and tell them mine's for sale."
Probably somebody will snap up that land before too very long; it is hard by the access road to Sugarbush. Says Emma Ford, a talkative Warren real estate agent, "They started carrying humans up Sugarbush in those gondola cars on the 26th day of December of 19 and 58—I say humans because they used bags of feed for a spell testing everything—and since that time folks have spent almost $6 million—I said million—buying land and building houses and motels and restaurants and you-just-name-it. And they tell me over in Fayston up by Mad River the town debt has been going down faster than one of those ski-jump things because of all the new taxes and the like. [Fayston's debt has plummeted from $26,302 in 1957 to $1,969 in 1963, and the picture on its annual report is the brand-new grammar school.] Of course there's no denying this skiing causes us some extra expenses, too. For instance, we paid out 525,000 to blacktop the road up to Sugarbush. But don't you see, it was like building a rainbow? The pot of gold they talk about is sitting up there shining on the other end."
Vermont's biggest pot of gold is the Mt. Mansfield-Spruce Peak ski area near the town of Stowe—and commonly called by that name. The General Motors of eastern skiing, Stowe sprouted out of the ruins of a lush summer-tourist business that withered during the Depression. It was, in fact, CCC camp work crews who helped clear timber and build the first ski trails down the flanks of Mt. Mansfield, while town bankers snorted and dismissed the sport as more faddish than the New Deal.
Today the ski fad in the Stowe area is a $12 million enterprise, employing 1,000 people, and that makes skiing the biggest single business within a 36-mile radius of Stowe—an area, incidentally, that takes in the state capital, Montpelier. The income of the Mt. Mansfield Co. exceeds all other ski areas in the state (it outstrips Mt. Snow by more than $1 million) and, with the exception of a lumber mill and a woodenware factory, skiing is about all there is in the town of 1,750. "I used to work up at Stowe in the Green Mountain Inn when I was a lot younger," says Manchester's Mrs. Knothe, "and one day my parents came to visit. When they saw how woebegone Stowe was—falling-down buildings and peeling paint—they told me I had to come back home. Now you look at Stowe and hardly believe your eyes. It must be one of the prettiest little towns in New England."
Sepp Ruschp, president of the Mt. Mansfield Co., conducts business in a deep-carpeted, paneled office that befits his station, and he thinks skiing can have the same good effect all over the state. "Maybe Bondville and Warren aren't much to speak of today, but they're just getting started as resort towns. Both of them may someday be rivaling Stowe. Naturally," Ruschp adds, "we have Mt. Mansfield, which God made...."
As noted earlier, not all Vermonters are eager to see such towns as Bondville and Warren become resorts—for all their potential profit. Some of them complain, for example, that the mountainsides have been scarred by trails and lifts. Some dislike the crowding of village streets and, as one banker groused, "It's getting so you have to make reservations when you want to go out to dinner on Saturday night, if you can imagine." (On the other hand, Brattleboro cleaned up last New Year's, towing skiers' disabled cars at $20 each during a bitter cold snap.) "You might compare a lot of us to the natives on Cape Cod, only with the seasons reversed," says a Wilmington merchant. "We're mighty glad to see the skiers get out of here in the spring, but we wait all summer and fall for them to come back."
Perhaps it is all a matter of becoming accustomed to change in a state never noted for its radical ways. But in the statehouse the philosophy of change is taking hold. Says Phil Hoff, the first Democratic governor in Vermont in 109 years: "Not long ago we put a new coat of gold leaf on the dome of the capitol, and while the workmen were up there I had a funny idea. Maybe someday somebody will put another statue up there along with Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, because she's getting out of date. Perhaps they'll put up the figure of a man on skis. And whom do you think it will look like? I bet a cross between Sepp Ruschp and Walt Schoenknecht."