On a hilly dairy farm just north of Woodstock, on a January day in 1934, Clinton Gilbert started up his Model T Ford truck and the first rope tow in the United States began pulling skiers uphill.
It was not an easy or graceful ride. The swiftly moving rope regularly pulled novice skiers off their feet and twisted off gloves, hats, and in one instance, unraveled a sweater. But skiers persisted, and came from around New England to brave the hill, a natural bowl-shaped eminence that rises steeply behind the farm fields.
Such was the humble beginning of the modern era in skiing.
Today, a green historic marker on Barnard Road marks the spot: Gilbert’s Hill. On the hill itself, you can see posts that supported the rope tow. In the foreground is a handsome brick farmhouse and several farm buildings.
It’s a place where Vermont’s history and pastoral beauty combine. And now, thanks to a striking convergence of community enthusiasm and good luck, the farm and its historic structures have been permanently conserved.
“The whole setting is important,” said Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. “The collection of buildings is gorgeous, and the hillside is an important part of the history of skiing.”
The farm and its hill are treasured by the community. The previous owners, Alfred and Lucile Appel, had for many years kept the land open and allowed public access. Their son John wanted to sell the land, but he also wanted to see it protected. John, who had worked for the National Park Service, contacted the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park and told them of his plans, and they in turn got in touch with VLT.
The property’s appraised value—which became the sale price—was $715,000, and that presented a major challenge. Soon, a fundraising campaign was underway, led by VLT, the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and a vigorous local committee.
“It became apparent the land was going to come up for sale,” said committee member Bill McCollom of Barnard. “And who knows, it could have been developed.”
That would have been a major loss, because of the farm’s historic significance and location. The property is close to the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, the Appalachian Trail, and the Suicide Six ski area. That raises the possibility of a trail across Gilbert’s Hill connecting the Appalachian Trail with the national park.
The affection local residents have for the property shows. Each year the sixth-grade class of Prosper Valley School hikes across the land to celebrate their graduation from elementary school. Skiers continue to climb the hill and ski down it.
In May 2015, when VLT held the first meeting to see if people wanted to conserve the property, there was a strong response. State Senator Alison Clarkson helped get things rolling and the Save Gilbert’s Hill Committee formed and began seeking donations.
Eventually, with the contributions of more than 200 people, $825,000 was raised—enough to buy the land and start restoring the buildings. VLT purchased the property in 2016, and began looking for an owner who shared the vision of preserving the hill and maintaining public access to it.
In a stroke of good luck, a couple with strong conservation roots fell in love with the place. It was March, 2016 when Howard Krum and Mary Margaret Sloan first came to look at the farm and its famous hill.
“Within five minutes, we knew we were going to buy it,” Mary Margaret recalled.
The restoration of the farm buildings was already underway this past summer. The hill itself will be cleared and a working rope tow will be put in place in a couple of years, Howard said.
A four-car parking lot with a kiosk will be installed just off Barnard Road, and the former warming hut will be turned into a museum detailing the history of the farm.
VLT’s Bob Linck said Gilbert’s Hill brought together several organizations and much of the Woodstock-area community. He was especially pleased about Mary Margaret and Howard. They are strong supporters of the conservation easements on the property and the plans for public access and trails.
“It seems like it was a dream that couldn’t have come true, but did,” Linck said.
“We could not have done it without the Vermont Land Trust,” added Mary Margaret. “We wake up every day and say, ‘We’re so lucky.’”
This article originally appeared in the Vermont Land Trust’s 2016-17 Annual Report. Story written by Tom Slayton. Photos by A. Blake Gardner.