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.
"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."