Woodstock’s Role As A Winter Destination Started Long Before First Ski Tow
Winter plays an important role in the economy of the region. The natural beauty of the setting coupled with the charm and stateliness of the historic village provides Woodstock with an unsurpassed attraction for those experiencing winter.
Tourism has become the dominant driver of the region’s economy. Through a combination of research and personal recollections of longtime residents, The Vermont Standard will explore the evolution of winter tourism. Part 1 of a four part series will explore winter tourism prior to 1930.
By PAUL BOUSQUET
Special To The Standard
In today’s world, winter is enjoyed in comparative comfort with a host of amenities and surrounded by the technological advantages of the 21st century. The elements of topography, disposable income, leisure time, transportation, accommodations, communications, and resorts have coalesced to provide outstanding recreational opportunities for millions of winter sports enthusiasts in the region. Improvements in both clothing and equipment have allowed for a broad cross-section of society to enjoy winter, most especially skiing. This appeal created an economy unknown to the region until well into the 20th century.
Accounts of the 1800s pictured life as austere. While the century has been characterized as Woodstock’s “Golden Age” with many of the churches, grand homes, and much of the commercial district we see today being built during this period, winter activity and travel was restricted by roads that were often impassable. Most residents of the area confined themselves to their homes and farms, keeping warm around fireplaces and woodstoves, venturing outside to do only chores absolutely necessary. Horse-drawn rollers packed the snow on some of the town highways, enabling easier sleigh travel. One can only imagine how difficult it was in winter trying to slog from outlying farms to town for supplies.
Early settlers had cleared the heavily forested mountainsides and valleys to make room for homesteads, farms, and pastures. Sheep farming became the dominant endeavor not only in the region, but in the entire state of Vermont where it is said 1.7 million sheep were being raised. Spurred by tariffs on imported wool products in the early 19th Century, 75 percent of the land was cleared of forests to accommodate the nearly 16,000 sheep in Woodstock alone. Not even forests on the summits of Mount Tom and Mount Peg were spared.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution coupled with the pioneer push westward in the United States eventually brought an end to the thriving sheep industry in the region.
It was the vision of Frederick Billings, a native Vermonter, who after returning in the late 1860’s having made his fortune in the California Gold Rush era, set about establishing a scientific approach to farming. Guided by the precepts of another great visionary, George Perkins Marsh, Billings began reforesting Mt. Tom and the barren land that had suffered from the effects of erosion. Thanks to the pioneer effort of Billings, the forest on Mt. Tom is the oldest managed forest in the United States.
With the benefit of his experience as a major stockholder and former president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the imaginative Billings spearheaded construction of the 14-mile rail line linking Woodstock with White River Junction in 1875. Trains powered by steam revolutionized travel and life throughout the world. While horse-drawn travel remained the dominant transportation in and around the region, travelers and products moved more cheaply and easily in less time over longer distances by rail. What was characterized as a somewhat insular society had now been opened to welcome visitors “from away.”
Not long after it was first settled in the 1700s (settlers perhaps having been driven out of Massachusetts by oppressive taxes imposed by the British), Woodstock became the Shire City for Windsor County. To accommodate business travelers, Woodstock’s first hotel was built back in 1792, later known as the Eagle Hotel. In 1892, it was replaced on the same site by the original Woodstock Inn to better serve the more discerning guest. Its Victorian architecture and amenities ranked with the best of New England inns. It had 100 guest rooms within its four stories, each floor having separate toilets and bathrooms for men and for women (privies began to be replaced with flush toilets in the 1880s). While the building was heated by a steam boiler, the hotel was only open for summer seasonal guests. It was closed in winter. Not until radiators were installed in the individual rooms in the early 20th Century was the opportunity presented to accommodate winter tourism.
W. Storrs Lee in his book, The Green Mountains of Vermont stated that the Inn became “Vermont’s first winter sports center for tourists, and for two decades its riotous winter parties were the talk of Boston and Montreal sportsmen.” Lee recounts in glowing words how visitors arrived by train in Woodstock to be met by colorful, horse-drawn sleighs. He described how the primary winter sports were snowshoeing, skating, sleighing, and tobogganing.
Early winter enthusiasts did not need entertainment; they made their own. For example, a group of 50 members of the snowshoe division of the Boston Appalachian Club made an annual pilgrimage to the Woodstock Inn. They would snowshoe on trails throughout the day then, with flares, would snowshoe by night to the top of Mount Tom to surround a waiting bonfire, eat a cold supper and sing songs.
Arthur Wilder, the genial host and longtime manager (1897 – 1935) of the Woodstock Inn is credited with being the father of the recreational industry in Vermont. His promotional skills combined with his expertise as an innkeeper energized and attracted thousands of guests both summer and winter. Especially noted was his enthusiasm and interest toward winter sports. While records indicate that the inn was seldom full except for the holidays, Wilder made it a point that everyone, young and old, had an enjoyable experience. Sleigh rides, ice skating on the Pogue on Mount Tom, and tobogganing and sledding on Mount Peg were highlights. The Inn teamed with the Country Club in 1910 to operate a winter sports center. Imagine a two-track, 1,000′ long toboggan chute lighted by electric lights (the Woodstock Power Company began distributing electricity from its generator plant at the dam in Taftsville in 1894). These straight chutes were hand-dug out of the snow, then watered to provide an ice surface on which toboggan and sled riders could rocket down the chutes for the ride of their lives. Teams of horses were on hand to pull the toboggans back to the top of Mt. Peg. In addition to over 20 toboggans, nearly three dozen pairs of skis, 100 pairs of snowshoes and double runner sleds were made available by the Inn.
At about this time two enterprising brothers, Allen and Leo Bourdon took space in the old mill where the Rec Center now stands and began a business under the name of the Woodstock Manufacturing Co. They produced skis and sleds in large quantities. In 1913, they patented their coaster idea, calling it the ski-bob, using two-eight foot runners under a sled-like frame using two handrails for control. So popular were these ski-bobs, they were widely distributed through upscale sporting goods dealers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Spaulding, and Wright & Ditson. One of these is on display at the Woodstock Historical Society.
The Bourdon brothers, gathering ideas from the jump built at Dartmouth, joined with Wilder to build an impressive 40-meter ski jump at the Woodstock Country Club. A wooden trestle was built with a landing and outrun that crossed onto the sixth hole fairway heading toward the first hole. Apparently, if all else failed in trying to turn the long three-grooved heavy jumping skis to stop, the Kedron Brook would be the ultimate destination. The chilling thought of ending in the brook was usually enough incentive to somehow stop before reaching it.
In today’s world, we view exploits of extreme skiing and snowboarding adventures in the high backcountry. Those are no more harrowing than what was taking place in the backyards of Woodstock in the early 1900’s.
Harry Ambrose, in his book “From the Horses Mouth,” paints an exciting picture of winter fun. The Bourdon brothers set the pace with derring-do riding their ski-bobs off the Country Club jump, often flying as far as the ski jumpers (100 feet). Dartmouth jumpers such as Fred Harris (founder of the Dartmouth Outing Club), John Carlton, Charlie Proctor, and Dick Bowler, not wanting to be outdone, would demonstrate their prowess by plunging off the jump three skiers side-by-side. Carlton would “wow” the crowd with his spectacular somersaults off the jump.
Growing up, Ambrose and his “River Street Gang” reveled in winter on sleds and skis. He and his pals made their own fun. When not trying to ski down the back yards onto the Ottauquechee River without falling, kids formed a chute further and further up the steep bank behind the elementary school to slide down on the seat of their pants, a piece of cardboard or, better yet, a metal pie plate.
Ambrose’s neighbors, Jack and Dean Moore, were the proud owners of a “traverse,” a long sled made up of two short sleds, one behind the other, connected by a long plank on which four or five kids could sit upright. According to Ambrose’s account, the local kids would drag their “traverses” (Mountain Avenue residents Vaughn and Charlie McDonald also had one) up the carriage road which in winter was packed down from logging operations all the way up to Pogue Pond then race side-by-side careening down the entire length of the carriage road to the Billings mansion. Imagine the rollicking time the young kids of Woodstock had in the late 1920’s – early 30’s.
While the children enjoyed those winters, the early â€˜30’s was the time of Prohibition as well as the Great Depression. The Woodstock railroad that at one time ran three times a day shut down operations in 1932, and the Inn closed its doors in winter during the â€˜30’s. There was a pause in the life of Woodstock. But soon a dramatic event would take place that would alter winter life forever.
We’ll explore the historic events of the 1930’s that took place in Woodstock in Part II.