The Mountain Times

°F Sat, April 19, 2014

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Once upon a time in history: Early entrepreneurs

With the start of the Killington Ski Area, budding entrepreneurs sensed a ground-floor business opportunity that complemented a desire to live in the mountains.

"It proved to be a time that brought to Killington and Vermont not only those who wanted to share the mountain experience for their recreation, but many families who also wanted to find a livelihood in the mountains," Killington co-founder Sue Smith said of the early years.

As a result, many young families left the security of jobs and the respectability of urban life to start over. Like Killington's founders, they were young and the dream was one of opportunity and reward for hard work.

Even those who came to ski and "drop out" of the "rat race" often found themselves running successful business ventures.

One "drop-out" recalled (in 1988), "I have always compared the people who came to Killington in the sixties and early seventies to the people who came to North America 250 years ago.  It took a special kind of person to start over. We were people who were affected by the sixties and wanted more control of our lives. For a lot of my generation that place was Vermont. Those of us involved in the growth of Killington were in the right place at the right time."

One of the first residents to welcome both the ski area and "transplants" was Oren Bates. Having come from several generations of Killington farmers, he had witnessed the demise of this livelihood. So not only did he generate support for the ski area in the legislature, he also sold much of his land to the first homeowners and area businesses.

Pete Sarty was the first to move to town and build a business on the Killington Road, having purchased land from Bates in March 1958. The small Basin Ski Shop with an attached apartment for Sarty, opened in December 1958. Sarty had used a $3,000 loan to get started, and his partner Steve Chontos had supplied an equal amount in merchandise. The building was expanded with a lodge in 1959, another wing in 1960, and new adjacent ski shop in 1965.

Looking back in 1987, Sarty observed that operating a seasonal ski business was "not an easy way to make a living, but most people were just starting out so we weren't alone in the struggle to get established." The sense of "being in this together" supported many an entrepreneur's efforts to build a business. (Sarty sold the Basin in 1988 to serve  as a representative to the legislature.)

Bob Van Beever, ski school director, built the "A-frame" Skol Shed, Killington's first restaurant and cocktail lounge and the only establishment in the basin with a liquor license in 1959-60.  There was nightly dancing to records and a German accordionist. A small place, it was often packed in the days before restaurants and lodges with lounges began to proliferate on the Killington Road.
Winslow B. Ayer went into partnership with Van Beever and financed the first modern motel, Skol Haus, which was built next to the Skol Shed in 1960. Eventually the old nightspot was converted to an office, but the Skol Haus continues as the Happy Bear Motel (new owners).

George Stevenson purchased the CCC Hut, which had served as Killington's first base lodge, and moved it to the Killington Road where he added on to it to create the Ski Bunk Lodge in 1959.  In 1960 he advertised "lowest rates despite the fact that the TV has been repaired;" and in 1961, "same low dormitory rates despite the fact that the outside has just been painted."


Gene Stiles bought the two-dorm ski lodge (1962), doubled its size, added a lounge, and converted it to the Troll Inn with private rooms in 1966. Stiles also built the Sugar Shack in 1964 and operated it as a gift shop and an under twenty-one night club before converting it to a restaurant and lounge in 1969.  Later, he converted the lodge to business rentals before selling the complex to Jay Shapiro (1980). 

He sold the Sugar Shack (renamed Showcase East) to local entrepreneur Jack Giguere after Giguere drove his car into it one night. Giguere turned it into the Pickle Barrel, illustrating that "many people were in the right spot at the right time."

One of the more astute and financially successful businessmen in town, Giguere also built the Wobbly Barn and Charity's, owning three of the most acclaimed après-ski restaurants and nightspots in Vermont! He also bought the Fireside Lodge and Alpine Inn (restaurant).

When asked how he came to Killington, Stiles quipped, "I'd been coming up to ski - how else? Regrets? Yes, financial. Rewards? Healthier climate than New Jersey." Not liking the vagaries of a seasonal mountain business, though, Stiles relocated to U.S. Route 4 in Rutland Town where he operated Leisure Lines for many years.

Jim Bigelow was another early mountain supporter and businessman. He built Bigelow's Lodge, which opened December 31, 1959, offering dormitory-styled accommodations for 55 skiers. With his wife Priscilla, he operated the lodge until 1969, then leased it to Romaine and Charlotte Willis before selling to Giguere, under whose auspices the lodge operated as the Fireside Lodge (now defunct).

Like so many others, Merle Schoenfeld had been interested in skiing and had searched the state looking for the right place to operate a lodge. He recalled being "turned down by every bank in Rutland until the last one because in those days they didn't believe in skiing." He converted an old farmhouse to Mountain Meadows Lodge and with renovations to the house and barn accommodated 90 guests. (He also started the Mountain Meadows Ski Touring Center in 1970 "with a few fellows who came down from Stowe and cut trails and operated the center under a lease arrangement.") 

Among others who had opened lodges by December 1960 were: Mike Cohen, Trailside Lodge; Bud and Marie Hubbard, Alpenhof; Red Glaze, Red Rob Inn; Bob and Jack Donnelly, Skrid Finnen (Killington Village Inn); Tom Zabski, Summit Lodge; and Perley and Ruth Ann Pike, Fondue House (renamed Pike's Lodge).

They were joined by many more business people, who, sensing a "last frontier" opportunity, built more lodges, restaurants, stores, ski and gift shops and developed services such as real estate firms. As they did so, the town's permanent population grew. It was 266 residents in 1968; 558 in 1978; 891 by 1988; and 1,019 in 2008.

As more people moved into what one native Vermonter described as "a practically dead town," Killington came alive with families working to create a better, more vital community for themselves and their children.
In coming weeks, some of those "transplants" will share memories and stories.

Tagged: History of Killington, Picke Barrel