Selling Vermont Transcript

Jan 17, 2018

It’s 1940. You’re standing at the base of Mount Mansfield, the tallest peak in Vermont, at what’s now the Stowe Mountain Resort. It’s winter. You’ve got two wooden skis strapped to your feet. How do you get to the top?

Amanda Gustin: What we’re looking at here: it’s a single chair and it’s not even a very big chair. The lift itself is metal, it’s just the one bar, we’ve actually got it attached to the ceiling here in the exhibit. The actual seat of this chairlift is just wood.

There is a bar that comes across your lap but it’s just a bar. It would have swung out along with the foot bar. The foot bar is covered in, maybe looks like a vinyl.

Mary Rogstad: Yeah. Something painted green, like a vinyl fabric.

If you ride up this same mountain today, you’ll probably take a quad – a sturdy chairlift that holds four people. Or maybe you’ll pack eight of your companions into a fully enclosed gondola. These single chair ski lifts held parties of one.

Amanda: You just don’t see single chairs anymore, for a lot of reasons. One, I think they’re terrifying. It just looks kind of flimsy to be sitting in that, that high up for that long time. But more practically speaking, skiing is about volume, right?

Mary: That’s not a very efficient way to transport people.

Amanda: One at a time just takes forever. We have a note here that says when this lift was put in, it took 15 minutes to get to the top of the mountain. Fifteen solid minutes to get to the top of the mountain. So it wasn’t moving terribly quickly.

Ryan: Seems very cold.

It was. But for many out-of-staters, cold, snowy mountains are the first thing people think of when they think of Vermont. According to state tourism data, ski ticket revenues most years are between $150 and 200 million. It’s a vital industry.

But the sport we know today was really just the last piece of a bigger puzzle. Decades before the advent of skiing, Vermont was a destination for outdoor recreation during warmer months.

Film narrator: Swimming? Well, that easily tells its own story. Countless lakes from Pownal to Canaan. St. Albans to Brattleboro. They provide infinite variety for watersports. Does walking or hiking appeal to you? Vermont’s Long Trail is cut right through the backbone of the Green Mountains.

Skiing filled the gap. It made Vermont a four-season state for travelers. Today, we’ll hear about how it defined a certain era of our history, around the mid-20th century, when Vermont transformed the way it sold itself to outsiders. And how that shift in identity changed the state’s landscape, too.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. 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.

So – back to the lift chair.

Mary: It’s from the first chairlift from Mount Mansfield. Number 54. It was an object that in 1986, they were evidently dismantling. They were putting a new chairlift in.

That’s Mary Rogstad, the registrar at the Historical Society. They acquired the chair when it was taken down in the ’80s. They also kept this document that dates it back to 1940. Here’s Amanda Gustin:

Amanda: This is from the Mount Mainsfield Messenger, which is a newsletter from Stowe. This edition came out in 1986. It says that the chairlift built in 1940, the Mount Mansfield single chairlift was originally the longest, highest chairlift in the East, according to former 1940’s mountain manager, Charles Lord. They were originally 45 cents, the lift tickets to get up to the top. In celebration of the 45th anniversary of it, this newsletter is telling people that, “these days gone by and the sport of skiing will be reflected in the spring lift ticket pricing at Stowe. Single rides will be $4.50 per ride, March 30 – 31st through April 6th, and 45 cents per ride April 7th until the close of the mountain.”

Even in 1986, it’s not cheap to ski.

Before there were chairlifts at all, there were rope tows: long ropes on pulley systems that would drag skiers up the slopes while they stood upright on their skis. And before that, skiers got up the mountain with their legs.

Brian Lindner: Alpine skiing, the way you think of it today, really wasn’t very popular in the 1930s in Vermont. I mean, it was a lot of effort to hike up and ski down.

Brian Lindner is the unofficial historian of Stowe Mountain Resort, and a ski patroller on its slopes.

Lindner: But there were certain guys and women that really started it, and they would hike up Mount Mansfield, have a picnic up there and ski down. It’s a pretty hearty group.

That group of early ski enthusiasts included a young man from Barton named Ev Griffin.

Lindner: As a young boy, and as a high school student, he just lived for skiing every chance he could get, he was hiking up the local hillsides, or hiking up Mount Mansfield. There were almost no trails, and he’s skiing down. There were a lot of kids in Vermont doing that back in the 1930s.

And Ev Griffin is a great example, a very sad example, of how he just insisted when the war came around, he was going to get into the Tenth Mountain Division.

The Tenth Mountain Division was an Army unit made up of skiers and outdoorsmen. Before they helped shape the ski industry in Vermont, they saw heavy combat in World War II.

The troop started out as just one person’s idea. Minnie Dole was an insurance executive from New York. Back in 1938, Dole established the National Ski Patrol system, inspired by the Ski Patrol at Mount Mansfield, one of the first in the country.

In late 1939, a group of elite ski troops in Finland held off an invading Russian army. Minnie Dole heard about the standoff, and it gave him an idea. The U.S. hadn’t entered the war in Europe yet. But if they did, he thought, America could deploy its own ski troops to neutralize Germany’s mountain soldiers, known as the “Jaegers.”

It took Dole a while to convince the Army brass that this was a good idea. But once he got the go-ahead, he began filling his ski division.

Lindner: You had to have your act together to get into the 10th Mountain. When they started recruiting they’re going to colleges for collegiate racers. They’re going to professional ski patrollers. They’re going to professional instructors. And it’s always been said that the Tenth Mountain Division had the highest educational level of any division in World War II, and that’s probably true.

Thelma Osgood: He decided because he wanted to go skiing. He thought he could ski.

Thelma Osgood lives in Shelburne. Her late husband, Bill, grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire and used to ski on Cannon Mountain. When wartime came, Bill set out to join the 10th.

Osgood: They said they could take a skier or a rock climber, and make them into a soldier. But they couldn’t take a soldier and make him into a skier.

Although many of the recruits were already accomplished outdoorsmen, they underwent intensive training in Colorado, including six weeks of outdoor exercises in the depths of winter.

Osgood: It was so bad. They would send these guys out to survive in the sub-zero weather, I mean sub-zero. It was so bad that the joke was, “if this gets any worse, it’s going to be as bad as the training session.” That was what they thought about the war.

Brian Lindner’s father and two uncles served in the 10th Mountain Division.

Lindner: It is very ironic because the division spent way longer in training than any other division, because they were so specialized. And when it actually came down to combat I think they only did one or two patrols on skis. They were fighting in the mountains of Italy, but they never really used all of the ski training that they’d worked so hard at before they went overseas.

The division was sent to Italy in 1945, and saw heavy combat in the Apennine Mountains. They made their reputation with a daring attack on Riva Ridge.

Lindner: It’s one of the most remarkable attacks, truly, in military history. The Tenth Mountain Division went up these sheer cliffs in silence at night and surprised the Germans at sunrise when they all popped over the ridge line. And they defeated the Germans on the ridge line and that opened up the entire boot of Italy and the Allies then started moving up the boot. They had been completely stalled until that assault.

The division’s success came at a cost. Bill Osgood’s combat partner was one of the ski soldiers killed in the assault.

Thelma Osgood: He was killed standing right next to Bill. Now that I know, why I don’t know, but I know that. And, you know, that’s hard.

Ev Griffin, the boy from Barton who had insisted on getting into the Tenth, was also killed in action on Riva Ridge.

In less than a year during World War II, 14,300 men saw combat in the 10th Mountain Division. 992 were killed, and more than 4,000 were wounded.

Thelma: I think it was so horrific that he just didn’t want to talk about it. He just had had enough of it.

Back at home, veterans of the 10th Mountain Division tended to keep busy. David Brower, the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, was a member. So was Senator Bob Dole.

Tenth veteran Bill Bowerman co-founded a shoe company you may have heard of. He named it after Nike, the goddess of victory.

But perhaps their biggest impact was on the American ski industry. The Skiing Heritage Journal has estimated that 62 American ski areas were either founded, managed, or had their ski schools managed by 10th Mountain veterans.

Lindner: We had Fritz Cramer who was our first paid patrolman at Stowe in 1940. He then went into the Tenth Mountain Division, before combat. We had 15 other men at Stowe who served in the Tenth Mountain Division who then worked at Stowe after the war, including our ski school director, our ski patrol director, and our mountain manager. And I think most ski areas would be somewhat similar to that.

Some of the equipment developed for the war effort also helped make the modern ski industry possible.

Lindner: The big thing they invented was what was known as the M29 Studebaker Weasel. Which we think of snowcats today or grooming machines, the weasel was truly the machine that began that whole process, and that was the Tenth Mountain Division.

After the war, the changes to the ski industry came fast.

Lindner: Until you get to the 1940’s everybody was having to hike up the mountain and ski down. So on your best day you’d get two runs in, maybe three. Starting in the 1940s, particularly with the single chair lift at Stowe in 1940, now you’re getting carried to the top of the mountain and you can get in many more runs everyday.

It means way more people can participate and way more people that are of average physical condition. They can work in the office all day but on the weekend come to the ski area and be carried to the top of the mountain and then ski down. So it broadens the spectrum tremendously.

Ski lifts made the sport much more accessible to the average person. And in turn, the sport changed Vermont.

Lindner: My dad and my uncles were all farmers. They grew up on farms. I think when they came home from the war they anticipated being farmers. Things changed after the war where tourism and skiing really starts to boom in Vermont, and all these guys start to truly move off the farm and have professions in the tourist industry or whatever else is being created in Vermont. But I think World War II is where you really start to see that switch. And it’s just amplified as the interstate system comes through Vermont.

Ev Griffin skied on Mount Mansfield well before there were any chairlifts. He never got to see those changes happen.

About two years before he died, Griffin wrote a poem called “Skier’s Paradise” for his English class at Barton High School. His poem ends like this:

The sun is slowly sinking far beyond the stately evergreens and a calm, peaceful stillness invades this snowland of dreams. Gazing into the beautiful glow of the sunset skies, I really wonder why man must fight. What a peaceful world this would be if only everyone lived in ‘my skier’s paradise.’

Vermont as a paradise was a powerful image. State authorities knew that, too. So after the war, they launched an aggressive new promotional tool, a glossy magazine that would draw people to Vermont from across the country. They called it Vermont Life.

Launched in 1946 by the Vermont Development Commission, a precursor to today’s Tourism & Marketing, Vermont Life took advantage of a few important post-war advancements: color photography, the rise of car culture, and the increase in “free time” now enjoyed by the middle-class.

What it was selling was “Vermont as a Way of Life.” Here’s how the editors put it in 1959:

The aims of Vermont Life are simple: to so interest people with Vermont’s charms that they may wish to visit and see more—perhaps eventually to live here. It is not a magazine of controversy nor yet of rosy superlatives. It is intended to reflect the frank yet friendly character of Vermont and Vermonters themselves.

Tom Slayton: I always felt the best promotion Vermont could do was to present Vermont as it actually was, because Vermont is a beautiful and attractive place.

Tom Slayton edited the magazine for 21 years, starting in 1985. Tom told us that even in the ’80s, a certain segment of Vermont Life readers preferred to see an image of the state that wasn’t set in the 20th century. Covers emphasized the rural landscape, recreation, and nostalgia for a simple life.

Slayton: I basically felt that I could get away with almost anything editorially as long as I put in lots of pretty pictures of Vermont, because that’s what our readers really wanted to see, was beautiful Vermont. And that’s what sold Vermont best too.

Even though cars were bringing people to Vermont, a motorized vehicle didn’t appear on the cover until 1981. Instead, readers got pictures of horse drawn carriages and glorious foliage. Maple syrup was gathered in buckets by hand, not with tubing or pumps. Farmers used horses for plowing and haying, not tractors.

But there was one area in the magazine focused on the future rather than the past: Vermont’s rising ski industry.

Film narrator: And now the snows of the New England winter come to Vermont. Along roads kept free of snow by trained highway crews come thousands of skiers from far and near. On countless Vermont hillsides are the polished tracks of gliding skis, and the white plumes of flying powder mark the path of the nation’s favorite winter recreation.

In its very first article on skiing, the magazine called it “white gold” and encouraged people to “stake out their own claims” to this majestic resource.  Winter was no longer to be dreaded, but celebrated.

Skiing was here to stay, and with it an increasing gap between the romantic, pastoral vision of Vermont the magazine was trying to sell, and the ski resort industry taking over Vermont’s mountains.  

Slayton: Vermont embodies something sort of intangible that people want. And that is a sense of integrity, a kind of a quiet past, but they don’t want to be without contemporary conveniences and pleasures.

There was one other advantage to covering the ski industry in the magazine:

Slayton: Outdoor sports give you a great excuse to put in pictures of big snowy mountains or beautiful lakes with a kayak or canoe on them. It fit right into my need to have pictures of beautiful Vermont.

Tom said Vermont Life aimed to show more than just landscapes, though.

Slayton: We were a promotional magazine, so we didn’t do 3-part series on poverty in Vermont, but we tried not to gild the lily. We tried to present Vermont as it really was.

We had a writing contest, the Ralph Nading Hill writing prize, and one of the stories was about a manure pile. We don’t try to hide the fact that farming involves dirt and manure and hard work. I felt that we tried to show the reality of Vermont’s working rural culture.

Tom said Vermont’s sense of community was ultimately its strongest selling point.

Slayton: Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, “there’s no there there.” Well, Vermont has a lot of “there.” It feels like a real place. It’s somewhat different, it’s somewhat apart, but it’s attractive to people.

Vermont does not have the highest mountains in New England, or anywhere. It doesn’t have the biggest cities. It doesn’t have a lot of superlatives, but what it does have is a fabric. That fabric is made up of many, many important elements: landscape, untrammeled mountains, the largest valley in New England—Champlain Valley, beautiful place—and Lake Champlain. It has functioning historic villages and cities. It has intangibles.

And I think as long as we can maintain that fabric, that’s the important part.

More than just tourists, Vermont Life hoped that sense of community would attract new residents. At the time the magazine was founded, Vermont needed people. From 1900 to 1950, we had the slowest population growth of any state in the country.

Even more so than the travelers who come to the taste the splendor of our green clad landscape, we want to interest substantial—no, we don’t necessarily mean wealthy—substantial people to whom Vermont looks like a good permanent place to live and make a living.

That may sound like a familiar sentiment. Population growth and economic growth are constant conversations in Vermont. Our state still has the second smallest population, and the second oldest population, in the United States. Vermont Life was—and still is—just one of many ways the state tried to reach outsiders.

Film narrator: And when you think of the place where dreams have come true for countless folks like you and me you’ll remember sunset on the lake and the clean smell of the woods. You’ll remember the wild ducks flying south and making patterns in the sky. And Vermont will mean to you as it has to me a place to visit, a place to work, and a place to live. It will mean the church on the common or perhaps on the hill. And above all it will mean a community which is home.

The middle of the century was an ideal time to make Vermont a destination. World War II was ending. People were migrating more. Baby boomers were coming of age and looking for new opportunities farther from their hometowns.

In order for people to get to Vermont, we needed one more thing: highways. But when the interstate system was planned during the 1950s, it didn’t make it to Vermont without a fight.

Amanda Gustin has more.

Amanda: Vermont had already rejected a large scale public works project that was designed to bring more people to the state: the Green Mountain Parkway, which was proposed and then defeated in the 1930s, would have run along the spine of the Green Mountains in the same way the Blue Ridge Parkway lines the mountains of Virginia. Echoes of that bitter fight played out 20 years later in the debates about the interstate: it would bring in too many outsiders, it would spoil Vermont’s natural beauty, and it would permanently change Vermont’s way of life.

Nevertheless, the interstate was coming.

Construction began in Vermont in 1958, and continued until 1982. Work started and stopped again, completed according to a larger plan. In all, there were 39 distinct sections that were built piecemeal.

Each section had its challenges. One 23 mile stretch of highway near St. Albans required 17,000 cubic yards of concrete, 3 million pounds of reinforced steel, 8 million pounds of structural steel, 38,000 linear feet of steel piping and 11,000 linear feet of timber pilings. Some stretches required blasting to go through the mountains. Others lined the bottom of river valleys and needed to be built up to resist flooding. Vermont’s ever-varied landscape made the project incredibly logistically complicated.

The first section to be completed connected Massachusetts up into Vermont and then to Brattleboro. Two years later, when a short section of I-89 connecting Montpelier to Middlesex was finished and opened, 300 people lined up in their cars just so they could be the first to drive it. Every time a section opened, there were parties, with bands and toasts and speeches and decorations. Teenagers snuck onto the nearly-finished sections at night to race their cars. It was a place of speed, a place of excitement. It was the road to the future.

The interstate permanently changed the Vermont landscape. It was expensive and noisy, and all-consuming for those who worked on it and for those who watched it built. It split farms in half, leaving prime acreage on the wrong side of four lanes of highway. In Windham County alone, 340 pieces of property totaling 2,000 acres were seized by eminent domain.

In the spring of 1964, construction crews working on I-91 reached Ascutney, and the 90 acre farm of a man named Romaine Tenney. Tenney was sixty-four years old that year, and had been born in the large beautiful house where he still lived. He had no electricity, and milked his dairy herd of 25 cows by hand. He brought in his hay with horses, and he didn’t keep Daylight Savings Time. He didn’t see the point—cows didn’t care.

When surveyors looked down the hill and set the path for I-91, they sighted directly through Tenney’s dairy barn. He was given until April 1st of that year to accept a payout from the state of $13,600, the assessed value of his land, but he refused to leave. Blasting and construction began all around the house. Rocks from one explosion went through a wall. All that summer his friends and family and neighbors offered him a place to stay, land to work on, homes for his animals. Still, he stayed.

On Friday, September 11, the sheriff arrived with a court order. He and h is men emptied Tenney’s barns and sheds of all of their equipment, piling everything up underneath an elm tree on a hillside. Tenney watched them from the porch for a few minutes, and then he went inside.

At 2:50 am on the morning of Saturday, September 12, the fire department got a call: the Tenney farm was on fire. The flames were so hot and so high you could see them for miles. Everything was burning: the horse barn and the cow barn, the equipment sheds, the piles that the sheriff’s men had made – and the house itself.

Volunteer firemen arrived, thirty in all, but there was nothing they could do. They found Tenney’s horses and cows roaming free, and his dogs. When the fire burned out, they looked for him, and they found his body in the bedroom, alongside a gun that had been fired.

He’d said to a neighbor that summer “I was born here, and I will die here.” Before they found his body, neighbors thought he just was in the woods somewhere. That he’d escaped somehow. But he couldn’t bear to leave the place he loved, to see the house torn down and the earth churned up.

Amid all of that grief and loss, people asked the obvious questions: did the interstate have to go right through his barn? Couldn’t it have turned, just a little bit? But it didn’t.

Some years ago, the Landscape Change Project at the University of Vermont got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to scan old negatives of the construction of the interstate. They scanned tens of thousands of them – photos of earth-movers and construction crews, planning meetings and opening parties. Taken together, they’re an extraordinary chronicle of a really important moment in Vermont’s history. But there’s one photograph in particular that stands out.

Picture this: a Vermont dirt road, in late fall, in that time of year that many people call stick season. Bare trees line both sides, their leaves blanketing the shoulder of the road. Light glistens on puddles, and the road is soft enough that you can see the tracks of recent cars. On the side of the road there’s a huge sign. It’s hung on wooden posts that have been pounded into the ground, and it reads: “Your Highway Taxes At Work. Vermont Interstate 89.” The new Vermont was on its way.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. Our show was produced by Mike Dougherty, Eileen Corcoran, Amanda Gustin, and Ryan Newswanger, with help from Mary Rogstad. I’m Lovejoy.

Thanks to our guests Brian Lindner, Thelma Osgood, and Tom Slayton. Those film clips were from a tourism film called “Background for Living.”