December 7, 2023 in Vermont

From Mill Town to Ski Town: The Fascinating Evolution of Stowe, Vermont

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Early History

The area now known as Stowe, Vermont was originally inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Abenaki and Mohawk people. These tribes lived off the land as hunter-gatherers, fishing the rivers and hunting deer, moose and other wildlife.

Archeological evidence shows Native American presence in the Stowe area dating back over 9,000 years. Artifacts including arrowheads, pottery shards, and stone tools have been found along the banks of the Little River. These tribes likely had seasonal camps near the river valleys.

The Abenaki tribe considers the Stowe area part of their traditional homeland. This region provided ample resources for the Abenaki people and their way of life. Members of the Stowe tribe would travel to the area in the warmer months to fish, hunt and gather plants.

Eventually Europeans began colonizing New England and came into conflict over lands that had long been inhabited by Native American tribes. The Abenaki in particular fought to defend their territory during events like the French and Indian War. However, over time most Abenaki were forced to leave their ancestral lands in the Stowe region.


Stowe was first settled in 1794 by two brothers, Amos and Thomas Stowe from Connecticut. The town had originally been granted in 1763 to Samuel Mansfield and his associates but had not yet been settled or chartered. The Stowe brothers arrived over the mountain on horseback and made camp near the river. They were impressed by the natural beauty of the area, with Mount Mansfield looming over the valley.

A few other pioneering families soon followed and began clearing land, building cabins and planting crops in the fertile valley. The town was officially chartered and organized in 1797, incorporating both the village settlement and surrounding lands. Amos Stowe became the first town clerk and his brother Thomas the first justice of the peace.

The early economy was based on subsistence agriculture with some trade in potash, lumber and dairy products. Roads were gradually improved to connect the remote settlement to other towns. Mills were constructed along the river to saw timber, grind grain and card wool. The first church was established in 1803 and the first school soon after.

Despite the challenges of those early years, Stowe grew steadily throughout the early 19th century into a modest farming community nestled amid the peaks of the Green Mountains. The scenic natural beauty and resources of the area would later attract tourists and kickstart Stowe’s rise as a world-famous resort town. But it all began with the intrepid pioneer spirit of those first settlers.

19th Century Growth

In the early 1800s, Stowe’s economy shifted from subsistence farming to more commercial agriculture and logging. The fertile soil and temperate climate made Stowe an ideal location for dairy farms, sheep herding, and maple sugaring operations. Local farmers began producing potatoes, hops, and wheat to sell to larger markets throughout New England.

The logging industry also accelerated in Stowe during the 19th century due to the demand for timber from rapidly growing cities along the east coast. Lumber companies set up sawmills along the Little River and employed hundreds of loggers to harvest the plentiful forests of spruce and hemlock. For several decades, logging was one of the primary employers in Stowe.

As word spread of Stowe’s picturesque mountains and valleys, tourism began to emerge as a third major industry. Wealthy urbanites, especially from Boston and New York, started visiting Stowe in the summer months to enjoy the fresh air and beautiful scenery. Inns, restaurants, shops and other businesses catering to tourists began operating in the village. By the late 1800s, Stowe had established itself as a popular summer resort destination in Vermont.

The growth of agriculture, logging and tourism transformed Stowe from a small frontier settlement into a thriving town with a diversifying economy by the end of the 19th century. This set the stage for even greater expansion in the coming decades.

Creation of Stowe Mountain Resort

Stowe is best known as the birthplace of skiing in Vermont. The creation of Stowe Mountain Resort in the 1930s and 1940s put the small town on the map as a premier ski destination in New England.

The mountain’s ski history began in the early 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cut the first ski trails on Mount Mansfield. However, the true pioneer of skiing in Stowe was Sepp Ruschp. Ruschp was an Austrian ski instructor who moved to Vermont in the late 1930s and saw the area’s potential for downhill skiing.

In 1940, Ruschp cut the first trail on Mt. Mansfield and installed the first rope tow using the engine from a Ford Model A. This tow was 900 feet long and located near the modern-day gondola. Ruschp’s rope tow operation was called the Mt. Mansfield Ski School and he charged skiers 75 cents a day to use it.

The first lifts on the mountain were constructed in 1946 when the Single Chair lift was installed. This was the longest single chairlift in the world at the time, taking riders 3.5 miles to the top of Mt. Mansfield. The Single Chair helped draw skiers from across New England and cement Stowe’s status as a premier ski destination.

More trails and lifts were steadily added in the 1950s and 60s as Stowe Mountain Resort continued to grow. Today, the resort spans across Mt. Mansfield and Spruce Peak with over 100 trails served by 16 lifts. The early pioneers of skiing in Stowe laid the groundwork for what is now one of the top ski resorts in the Northeast.

Modern Tourism Industry

Stowe, Vermont has become renowned as a world-class ski resort town and a top New England vacation destination. This transformation into a tourism hub began in the 1940s and 1950s with the rise of alpine skiing in popularity and accessibility.

The opening of the Stowe Mountain Resort in 1940 marked the beginning of the town’s emergence as a ski tourist mecca. Over the next few decades, new ski trails were cut, lifts were installed, and lodging options expanded around the mountain to accommodate the growing numbers of skiers frequenting Stowe each winter.

By the 1970s, Stowe had cemented its status as a premier ski destination in the Northeast. With the opening of the scenic Toll Road in 1972 providing vehicle access up Mt. Mansfield, Stowe Resort saw a boom in skier visits and profits. This sparked further development and expansion of the mountain facilities.

Beyond just skiing, Stowe also grew into a popular summertime retreat and a four-season vacation spot starting in the later decades of the 1900s. New hiking trails, mountain biking paths, golf courses, spas, shops, theaters and restaurants all arose to entertain and indulge visitors. Tourism became the dominant industry in Stowe by the 1980s.

Today, over four million people visit Stowe annually to ski its 108 trails across Mt. Mansfield and Spruce Peak, hike its green mountains, or simply relax at one of its many cozy inns, lodges or bed & breakfasts. The transformation of this once quiet Vermont village into a top global resort destination has been nothing short of remarkable over the past 70 years.

Historic Sites

Stowe is home to several historic sites that provide a window into the region’s past. Some of the most notable historic attractions include:

The Stowe Historical Society Museum – This museum houses exhibits on the town’s history from its early frontier days up through its rise as a world-renowned ski destination. Artifacts, photographs, and multimedia displays provide an immersive overview of Stowe’s local heritage and culture over the centuries.

The Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum – Located right near the Stowe Mountain Resort, this museum documents the history and evolution of winter sports in Vermont. Historic ski gear, vintage photographs, films, and memorabilia trace the development of skiing and snowboarding in the region from the 19th century to today.

The 1818 House – Built in 1818, this historic home allows visitors to step back in time to the early 19th century period when Stowe was still a small village. The house is impressively preserved with period furnishings, decor, and exhibits that provide insight into what life was like during Stowe’s younger frontier days.

The Green Mountain Inn – Opened in 1833, this iconic inn is one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the country. The classic mountain lodge architecture and interior design transports guests back to an earlier era of rustic Vermont innkeeping and hospitality. The lobby displays historic photos and memorabilia from the inn’s nearly 200 year history.

The Gold Brook Covered Bridge – Originally built in 1844, this picturesque covered bridge spanning Gold Brook is one of the most photographed landmarks in Stowe. The 121-foot bridge exemplifies the traditional covered bridge architecture that was once common across Vermont but is now rare.

Stowe’s historic sites offer many opportunities to explore the rich heritage and culture of this quintessential Vermont town. From early frontier settlement days to the rise of winter tourism, these attractions provide unique glimpses into the past and Stowe’s enduring charm through the centuries.

Notable Residents

Stowe, Vermont has been home to many famous figures over the years. Some of the most notable residents include:

  • Robert Frost – The famous American poet Robert Frost lived in Stowe for over 25 years. His house in Stowe is now a museum that showcases Frost’s life and literary works. Frost wrote many of his most famous poems while living in Stowe.
  • Von Trapp Family – The Von Trapp family, made famous by the movie The Sound of Music, moved to Stowe after fleeing Austria in the late 1930s. They purchased a farm in Stowe which they turned into the Trapp Family Lodge, still in operation today. Several descendants of the Von Trapps still live in the Stowe area.
  • Billy Kidd – Billy Kidd is a famous alpine ski racer who grew up skiing on Mt. Mansfield in Stowe. He won a silver medal in slalom at the 1964 Olympics and went on to become the Director of Skiing at Stowe Mountain Resort. He still calls Stowe home today.
  • Alex Debogorski – “Ice Road Truckers” star Alex Debogorski lived in Stowe for several years and based his winter trucking operations out of Stowe. Debogorski hauled freight across frozen lakes in northern Canada.
  • John Perry Barlow – John Perry Barlow was a poet, essayist and cyberlibertarian political activist who had long ties to Stowe. He was born in nearby Sublette County, Wyoming but spent parts of his childhood in Stowe where his mother’s family owned a lodge.
  • Phish – Several members of the famous jam band Phish call Stowe home and they have performed in Stowe on multiple occasions. Page McConnell owns a house in Stowe and Trey Anastasio was married in Stowe in the early 2000s.

Traditions & Events

Stowe hosts several beloved annual events that both locals and tourists look forward to every year.

The Stowe Winter Carnival takes place each February and includes fun winter activities like ice carving, a snow golf tournament, snow volleyball, a Mardi Gras parade, and fireworks. Locals dress up in costumes and compete in wacky competitions during the carnival.

In July, Stowe celebrates Independence Day with their annual July 4th celebration. The festivities kick off with a pancake breakfast in the town recreation field followed by a lively parade along Main Street. Later in the evening, locals and visitors alike gather for a free concert under the stars and an impressive fireworks show.

Each August, the Stowe Wine and Harvest Festival celebrates Vermont’s wine and harvest season. Attendees can sample wines from across the state, enjoy food from local restaurants, listen to live music, and browse arts and crafts. The festival has been held annually for over 20 years.

At the end of September, Stowe hosts an annual British Invasion Car Show where British cars from all eras are on display. Enthusiasts show off their cars while spectators stroll through and admire the vehicles. Awards are given out for best in show.

The Stowe Holiday Weekend in early December ushers in the holiday season with Christmas tree lightings, craft fairs, concerts, food, Santa visits, and fireworks. Locals and tourists bundle up to enjoy the festive atmosphere.

Recent Developments

Stowe has continued to evolve in the 21st century, with several changes and new developments shaping the town. Some key recent events and trends include:

  • Ongoing investment in Stowe Mountain Resort, including new lifts, terrain expansions, and updated facilities. The resort was acquired by Vail Resorts in 2017, bringing in outside investment.
  • More upscale hotels, shops, restaurants, and amenities catering to tourists and second-home owners. This includes boutique inns, high-end dining, and luxury retail stores.
  • Continued growth in tourism and the role of Stowe as a destination resort town. Visitation has increased, especially during peak ski seasons.
  • Upgrades to town infrastructure like roads, sidewalks, parks, and utilities to accommodate growth. The town center has taken on a more modern, polished look.
  • Construction of new housing developments, both single family homes and condominiums. This provides more lodging options but also increases concerns over affordable housing for residents.
  • Ongoing preservation efforts for Stowe’s historic buildings, sites, and character. Balancing development and preservation remains a priority.
  • Community events and activities continuing traditions like the Stowe Winter Carnival, Stowe Derby, and celebrations of the town’s heritage.
  • Environmental conservation initiatives to protect Stowe’s natural assets like the Green Mountains, recreation trails, and water resources.

So in summary, Stowe continues to evolve as a destination resort town in the 21st century through strategic development and preservation efforts. The town strives to maintain its unique heritage and character while also supporting continued growth.

The Future

The future looks bright for Stowe, Vermont. This quaint New England town has solidified itself as a top tourist destination in Vermont while retaining its small town charm.

As tourism continues to be the driving force of Stowe’s economy, town leaders and business owners will focus on sustainable growth and development. There are plans underway for new eco-friendly hotels and restaurants to meet tourist demand while preserving Stowe’s natural environment. The town may also attract more technology companies and remote workers drawn to the high quality of life, outdoor recreation, and natural beauty.

Stowe is likely to remain a hub for skiing and winter sports. Upgrades and possible expansions are planned for Stowe Mountain Resort to improve the facilities, trails, and skier experience. More investments will also go into the thriving summer tourism industry, improving bike paths, hiking trails, water sports, and warm weather attractions.

While staying true to its roots, Stowe will find new ways to showcase its history and culture. There are plans for a museum highlighting Stowe’s past and a cultural center to host exhibits and community events. Annual festivals and celebrations of Stowe’s heritage will continue to grow and attract visitors.

Stowe will focus on controlled, intentional growth, seeking opportunities to become an even more vibrant and sustainable community. Town leaders aim to maintain Stowe’s unique character and identity even as it evolves. The future is bright, but Stowe is committed to moving forward slowly and thoughtfully.

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