Vermont's First Ski Trails
In the 1930s, hardly anyone was downhill skiing in the United States. There were no chair lifts. Vermont's first rope tow wasn't installed until 1934, on a hill behind a farm in Woodstock.
The few hardy souls who did ski Vermont's mountains had to hike all the way to the top, carrying their skis. A day's skiing was one run, maybe two.
But Vermont's state forester, Perry Merrill, saw potential in the state's mountains. He'd spent time in Sweden, where he'd seen people skiing. He pushed for the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps to clear ski trails in Vermont.
In 1934, CCC boys (as they called themselves) cut a series of ski trails on Mount Mansfield, near the village of Stowe. In 1937, the mountain's first tow rope went in.
In 1940, CCC workers built a lodge at the base of the mountain.
One of the CCC boys who worked on the lodge, Lanyard Benoit, is in his 80s now. He still lives nearby.
"I go by there once in awhile," Benoit says. "I don't go skiing. I walk around in there. And I look at the things we built."
Over the years, the lodge has been remodeled and added onto, but the main log structure is still there, with its big brick fireplace.
During the winter, skiers and snowboarders crowd into the lodge, clumping around in heavy boots or snacking and chatting under a big-screen TV. Logs blaze in the fireplace. A plaque stuck to the fireplace bricks says the CCC built the building.
Local history buffs are proud of the lodge. "I've been told it's the oldest continually-operating downhill ski lodge in the country," says Ed O'Leary, director of operations for Vermont's Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation. "It's never been closed."
But after nearly 70 years, it may finally be obsolete.
Across the road, on the next rise, is a huge, swanky new development, what its developers call a "planned-for-pleasure neighborhood." It has a lodge, condominiums, restaurants, shops, a spa, and a golf course. A gondola sweeps skiers up the mountain.
The development towers over the old CCC-built lodge, making it seem small and old and worn out.
If the resort owners decide to replace the old lodge, it won't be torn down. It's protected as a historic building. Ed O'Leary would like to see it restored to its original state and made into a museum.
"One of the things that really impressed me with the CCC is the craftsmanship," he says. "I mean, my god, this is a cabin in the mountains, and the detail … But part of it was they were training these fellows so when the Depression was over they would be able to go out and get employment in the construction trade."
That's what Lanyard Benoit did. He used the carpentry skills he learned in the CCC to get work once the program was over, and to work on his own house. He still lives in an old school building he remodeled decades ago, just a few miles from Mount Mansfield.
Over the years, Benoit has seen dramatic changes in the area. He grew up on a farm, but he says most of the farm families he knew are gone. The people who bought their property tend to be vacationers, here for summer, or leaf peeping, or skiing.
"It's overgrown with out-of-staters," he says.
The out-of-staters who buy land and put up posh vacation homes, or who just buzz up to ski for a day or a weekend, are a major force in Vermont's economy. Ed Stahl, executive director of the local area association, says 875,000 visitors come to the area annually. They spend money on hotels and bed and breakfasts and food and shopping. Stahl says about a third of the revenue generated by visitors comes from skiers.
"If the CCC hadn't built those trails and you took skiing away from this area, it would be a shadow of what it is today," he says.