(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton has been reading Craig Burt’s recently published autobiography, “We Lived in Stowe.” Here are some of his thoughts.
(Slayton) I’m climbing across the snowy flanks of Dewey Mountain on skis. I make my way higher and higher up the Burt Trail, and the wilderness around me deepens.
Most of what I see below me is forested mountainsides; off to the east, the mountains part, and flat white fields covered with snow define the valley where Stowe and Morrisville lie. Across the vast Ranch Valley to my north, a dark storm cloud is brooding over Mount Mansfield.
It feels wild and lonely — the pleasant loneliness of a forested mountainside with the crunch of skis on snow and the winter winds the only sound. Mansfield’s dark snow cloud is drifting my way, and a few light flakes begin to fall.
But there’s a human story here, as well as remote grandeur and wild mountains wrapped in snow. I’m on a trail, after all, and its name gives a clue to the long history behind it: it’s the Burt Trail, named after Stowe native Craig Burt, Sr.
Radio Announcer Lowell Thomas, who did much to popularize skiing in the 1930s and 40s, called Craig Burt “The Maharaja of Stowe.” It was a nickname that always embarassed Burt, even though he was a lumbering entrepeneur and one of the pioneers of skiing in Vermont.
In the winter of 1918, Burt and other Stowe businessmen were looking for ways to revitalize the nearly dormant winter economy of Stowe. They started a winter carnival that included ski jumping. And later, in the 1930s, Burt and his sons fixed up a primitive lumber camp tucked behind Mt. Mansfield in the Ranch Valley, and began welcoming skiers there.
For several years, Ranch Camp was the center of skiing activity in Stowe. The young and fit from all over New England would journey to the then-remote town to sleep on wool blankets beside a wood stove and spend their days climbing up the surrounding mountains in order to ski back down.
Craig Burt was one of the first to see the economic benefits skiing could bring to Vermont. He also had a native Vermonter’s appreciation for the wild beauty of the Ranch Valley area. For Burt, skiing could unite commerce and natural beauty — two realms that today are often opposed. It was an interesting combination of ideas.
The Ranch Camp era ended in the early 1940s with the establishment of lift-assisted skiing. Now most skiers choose to ride a lift up the mountain before skiing back down.
Fortunately, though, the land where Craig Burt, his sons, and hundreds of others skiied has since been preserved as the Burt State Forest and today is the home of the Mount Mansfield Touring Center. Many of the old back-country trails established in the 1930s by Craig Burt and others have been restored.
And so, as I climb higher on the Burt Trail today, I can see much the same wild beauty that Craig Burt saw skiing alone in the 20s and 30s, and I can appreciate his pioneering vision.
Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.