Quantcast

Finding the 1930s | Classic New England Adventure

3.40 avg. rating (70% score) - 5 votes
A classic Vermont town, Stowe sits by the Little River, just east of Mount Mansfield State Forest. Home to both a lively arts scene and year-round outdoor adventure, it has hosted travelers since the mid-19th century.

A classic Vermont town, Stowe sits by the Little River, just east of Mount Mansfield State Forest. Home to both a lively arts scene and year-round outdoor adventure, it has hosted travelers since the mid-19th century.

Mark Fleming

I’ve spent the past couple of days skiing at Stowe, riding the rope tow and hitting the handful of trails cut over the past few years by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I’ve been spending nights in the village, at the Green Mountain Inn, where I bumped into Lowell Thomas. The renowned globe­trotter and radio pioneer was broadcasting his show from the inn, talking up the skiing on Mount Mansfield and signing off with his signature “So long, for now.” So long, Mr. Thomas. I’m going to hop into the Packard and head east on the next leg of my journey.

Welcoming visitors since 1833, Stowe’s Green Mountain Inn hosted many of Lowell Thomas’s radio broadcasts in the 1930s.

Welcoming visitors since 1833, Stowe’s Green Mountain Inn hosted many of Lowell Thomas’s radio broadcasts in the 1930s.

courtesy of Green Mountain Inn

The rope tow? A scant few trails? Lowell Thomas? A Packard?

In Stowe, Vermont, skiers of the 1930s take to Mount Mansfield’s slopes on the Nosedive Trail, newly cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps and soon to become a world-class racing trail. Mansfield’s ski patrol, founded in 1934, was the first such group in the U.S.

In Stowe, Vermont, skiers of the 1930s take to Mount Mansfield’s slopes on the Nosedive Trail, newly cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps and soon to become a world-class racing trail. Mansfield’s ski patrol, founded in 1934, was the first such group in the U.S.

Mark Fleming

Only in my imagination. I’m in Stowe, Vermont, all right, and I have been skiing at Stowe Mountain Resort, which today sprawls across Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak. I’ve done those early trails—Nosedive, Chin Clip, Lord, and a few others—that still thread Mansfield, although I rode chairlifts and the gondola instead of that infernal rope tow. And I’m checking out of the Green Mountain Inn, still Main Street’s only place to stay. But Lowell Thomas said his last “So long” more than 30 years ago, and I’m traveling by Subaru instead of Packard.

Skiers at today’s Stowe Mountain Resort on the Sunrise Trail. Mount Mansfield and neighboring Spruce Peak together are now crossed by 116 trails.

Skiers at today’s Stowe Mountain Resort on the Sunrise Trail. Mount Mansfield and neighboring Spruce Peak together are now crossed by 116 trails.

Mark Fleming

Still, my reverie this week isn’t going to wander far from reality. I want to re-create the sort of trip a winter traveler might have taken in the late 1930s, skiing in the North Country and then meandering down the coast to Boston. I’ll drive no Interstates, stay in no motels, and mostly eat in places where FDR’s voice once came across the radio behind the counter … a counter where a thumbed-through copy of that new magazine, Yankee, might lie next to the cash register.

At Stowe Mountain Resort, modern amenities keep visitors returning to this vener­able New England ski area. Here, a gondola rides high over the slopes

At Stowe Mountain Resort, modern amenities keep visitors returning to this vener­able New England ski area. Here, a gondola rides high over the slopes

Mark Fleming

“New England is a finished place,” wrote historian Bernard DeVoto in 1932, three years before Yankee made its first appearance. Well, we now know that our region was still a few shopping malls shy of completion in DeVoto’s day. But the remarkable thing is that so much of what was “finished” in the ’30s is still with us today.

I drove south from Stowe on Route 100, the road that 1930s skiers would have traveled by bus on their way north from the train depot at Waterbury, Vermont. From Waterbury, I took old two-lane U.S. Route 2 to Montpelier.

Montpelier, Vermont’s capital, today has as many fast-food outlets as it had in the late ’30s—that is, none. Much of downtown looks as it did when George Aiken, who throughout his later Senate career preferred to be called “Governor,” presided in the State House. I dropped in to look around the place, which any citizen can enter with no more fuss than in Aiken’s day, then had lunch just east of town at the Wayside Restaurant. It’s been around since 1918, and it’s easy to imagine Vermont lawmakers tucked into Wayside booths, wrangling over the New Deal proposal for a ridgeline Green Mountain Parkway. Voters shot the idea down in 1936, leaving the spine of the Green Mountains looking mostly the same 80 years later.

U.S. Route 302 took me from Mont­pelier to Barre, then as now a granite-quarrying town and a center of Vermont’s Italian American population. In the ’30s, the Italians I would have seen on Main Street/302 would all have been of normal size; it wasn’t until 1985 that a 23-foot granite statue of a mustachioed, leather-aproned Italian stonecutter rose above Dente Park.

I motored on past that working-class hero, continuing through a downtown that looked just as busy as it must have when men with those big black mustaches were a common sight along the sidewalks. They might have gawked at a Packard with a wooden ski rack on the roof, wondering what sorts of idlers were turning up in their workaday Vermont, but today the Subaru draws nary a look.

Route 302 passes through a thinly settled corner of Vermont that likely looked much the same then, although there were no doubt more dairy farms. I crossed from Wells River—still a ringer for Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls, right down to its own small savings bank—into Woodsville, New Hampshire, on a bridge that’s been carrying traffic over the Connecticut River since 1923.

I was on my way to North Conway. But it was getting late in the afternoon, and snow was threatening, so I put off crossing the White Mountains till the next day. I was hoping to spend the night in Littleton at Thayers Inn. By the late ’30s, Thayers had been standing behind its grand white columns for nearly a century. I should have made a reservation—Thayers was booked solid for a wedding party. I felt funny asking the manager if he could send me anywhere else that was around before World War II, but he had just the place: The Beal House Inn, a few blocks west on Main Street.

Scenic mountain vistas along Pinkham Notch Road (Route 16).

Scenic mountain vistas along Pinkham Notch Road (Route 16).

Mark Fleming

As local lore has it, when Marjorie Beal ran the place from 1933 to 1980, she had a sideline in antiques. Everything in the house was for sale, and there are stories of skiers who returned from a day on the slopes to find their mattresses neatly made up on the floor, because the beds in their rooms had been sold.

 In New Hampshire’s western White Mountains, the historic Littleton Diner features a classic interior and traditional comfort foods.

In New Hampshire’s western White Mountains, the historic Littleton Diner features a classic interior and traditional comfort foods.

Mark Fleming

Morning broke clear and snowless. At the Littleton Diner, I enjoyed a breakfast that conformed to the dietary guidelines of 80 years ago. There’s been a diner here since 1930; the present incarnation has been on the site since 1940. Driving southeast, I passed the site of the Crawford House, gone these 40 years, but was happy to see another legendary institution, the Omni Mount Washington Resort, spiffy as ever, open in the winter as it never was in the ’30s as the Mount Washington Hotel.

Nestled amid the magnificent White Mountains, New Hamp­shire’s iconic Omni Mount Wash­ing­ton Resort first opened its doors in 1902 (as the Mount Washington Hotel). Built by Italian artisans, it was owned by turn-of-the-century coal magnate Joseph Stickney.

Nestled amid the magnificent White Mountains, New Hamp­shire’s iconic Omni Mount Wash­ing­ton Resort first opened its doors in 1902 (as the Mount Washington Hotel). Built by Italian artisans, it was owned by turn-of-the-century coal magnate Joseph Stickney.

Mark Fleming

A vintage postcard highlights one of the hotel’s many sitting areas, this one next to a ballroom and fronted by expan­sive windows.

A vintage postcard highlights one of the hotel’s many sitting areas, this one next to a ballroom and fronted by expan­sive windows.

courtesy of Omni Mount Washington Resort

My destination was a smaller hostelry in North Conway, the Eastern Slope Inn, which opened under that name in 1937. That same year, the inn’s owner, Harvey Gibson, launched a ski area he called Cranmore on the mountain overlooking the town. Gibson brought the great Austrian instructor Hannes Schneider to the U.S., creating the template for all the American ski schools to follow. In 1938, he took one of the first steps out of the rope-tow era by installing the Cranmore Ski­mobile, a fleet of conveyances resembling go-karts on rails. The system survived until 1988, and a few of those little vehicles remain today as storefront fixtures downtown.

The grand lobby of North Conway’s Eastern Slope Inn, in Mount Washington Valley ski country, built in 1926 (as the Randall House hotel) in the elegant Colonial Revival style.

The grand lobby of North Conway’s Eastern Slope Inn, in Mount Washington Valley ski country, built in 1926 (as the Randall House hotel) in the elegant Colonial Revival style.

Mark Fleming

Like a ’30s skier just off a Boston & Maine “Snow Train,” I stayed at the sprucely restored Eastern Slope Inn and skied Cranmore, enjoying the fact that I could be relaxing in my room, looking up at the trails I’d just navigated, not 20 minutes after clicking out of my bindings.

Legendary Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider (right), originator of the Arlberg technique, with son Herbert in front of the base lodge at their new home mountain in New Hampshire, Cranmore, c. 1940.  Herbert  served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and succeeded his father as director of Cranmore’s ski school in 1955; later, he was the resort’s owner and manager.

Legendary Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider (right), originator of the Arlberg technique, with son Herbert in front of the base lodge at their new home mountain in New Hampshire, Cranmore, c. 1940. Herbert served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and succeeded his father as director of Cranmore’s ski school in 1955; later, he was the resort’s owner and manager.

courtesy of New England Ski Museum (Schneiders)

I’d decided to take the coast route down to Boston in the morning, all the while checking to see how much of New Deal New England remained unchanged. That meant taking 302 to Portland, Maine, by way of Bridgton and the southern tip of Long Lake at Naples. When I was a squirt, and the ’30s were only as far back in the rear-view mirror as the ’90s are now, I took my first seaplane ride here. I didn’t see any seaplanes on the winter water, but the dock looked pretty much the same.

The distinctive U.S. Custom House near the Portland, Maine, waterfront, built in 1867–1872 of granite, with marble and walnut interior.

The distinctive U.S. Custom House near the Portland, Maine, waterfront, built in 1867–1872 of granite, with marble and walnut interior.

Mark Fleming

Portland has changed immensely over the past 80 years, its working harbor now hemmed round by one of the most smartly gentrified downtowns in New England. It’s become a renowned restaurant town, and a traveler in the ’30s would have been surprised to find a little bistro (Duckfat) famed for cooking French fries in duck fat. But I found something he’d have no trouble recognizing: The Porthole restaurant, a fixture on Custom House Wharf since 1929. Fishing boats were docked right nearby, and the chowder—unlike so many modern attempts—was loaded with clams.

Old meets new at the Westin Portland Harborview.

Old meets new at the Westin Portland Harborview.

Mark Fleming

I was also pleased to find the East­land Hotel, an old favorite of mine—I’d probably slept there as a child dreaming of the day’s seaplane ride—now freshly reborn as the Westin Port­land Harborview. The new proprietors have transformed the old Moorish lobby along sleek, minimalist lines but have left enough of the 1927 building’s original details to remind travelers that this is indeed a historic property. For years it’s been the place to stay in Portland, with 16th-floor views of Casco Bay that are as spectacular today as they were 87 years ago.

The hotel’s new Top of the East Lounge.

The hotel’s new Top of the East Lounge.

Mark Fleming

I left Portland to do what just about no one does anymore, since I-95 is right at hand: I kept to old U.S. Route 1 all the way to Boston. Saco, Biddeford, Kennebunk, York, and Kittery—right through downtown every one, the way highways used to go—past the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and across the Piscataqua River into New Hampshire. I must have added two hours to my trip, but then again I was subtracting 80 years.

South of Newburyport, Massa­chusetts, I drove straight past the ’30s and into a luminist’s scene of the century before. Here were the great marshes Martin Johnson Heade had painted, and a hand-lettered roadside sign that read “Salt Hay for Sale.” You don’t see those domed brown hayricks along I-95.

And so into Boston. Once, the traveler would have crossed into the Hub by way of Cambridge and the Boston University Bridge; now the 1950 Tobin Bridge makes the leap across the Mystic—the river that, as old Boston wags have it, here meets the Charles to form the Atlantic Ocean.

Opened in 1900, Boston’s Beaux Arts–style Lenox Hotel, in the Back Bay, has been a magnet for celebrities and newsmakers for more than a century.

Opened in 1900, Boston’s Beaux Arts–style Lenox Hotel, in the Back Bay, has been a magnet for celebrities and newsmakers for more than a century.

Mark Fleming

I put up at The Lenox Hotel, on Boylston Street in the Back Bay. The Lenox was the tallest building in Boston when it was constructed in 1900, but by now it’s been sufficiently eclipsed by far-larger hostelries to call itself the city’s “original boutique hotel.” To me, the term conjures up mingy little modernist joints with uncomfortable dove-gray furnishings, but that doesn’t describe the Lenox. Now that the old Ritz isn’t the Ritz anymore—it’s the Taj—the Lenox epitomizes traditional Back Bay luxe.

Where to turn to celebrate the end of a long winter drive, while staying true to the world of eight decades ago? Locke-Ober is no more, and I didn’t feel like wurst at Jacob Wirth’s. So I walked across the Public Garden and the Common, past Government Center, and into that old neighborhood that the 1937 WPA Massachusetts guidebook called “noisy, garrulous, good-natured, and vital”—the Italian North End.

Old World ambience at the Caffè Vittoria, established in 1929 in Boston’s North End.

Old World ambience at the Caffè Vittoria, established in 1929 in Boston’s North End.

Mark Fleming

I dined at Mother Anna’s, here on Hanover Street since 1932. Like the other older North End eateries, this is a place that leaves northern Italian food to the northern Italians, and serves up the southern classics. And for dessert—and a shot of grappa—I strolled up Hanover to the Caffè Vittoria, a 1929 temple of espresso, cannolis, and ricotta pie.

Snowball fight in Boston’s Public Garden, January 1932. The bronze statue of George Washington was designed by Charlestown sculptor Thomas Ball and cast in Chicopee, Mass.; the granite base was erected by Boston masons. Even the horse who modeled for Ball, Black Prince, was a local resident.

Snowball fight in Boston’s Public Garden, January 1932. The bronze statue of George Washington was designed by Charlestown sculptor Thomas Ball and cast in Chicopee, Mass.; the granite base was erected by Boston masons. Even the horse who modeled for Ball, Black Prince, was a local resident.

Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones collection (Boston Public Garden)

Walking back across The Public Garden to The Lenox, I found it easy to keep those eight decades stripped away, as long as I kept my eyes on the little stone footbridge and the ducks paddling the half-frozen lagoon. When I lifted my gaze toward downtown, I saw what seemed a curtain of lights dropped from above, but which I knew were the after-hours office windows of what Archibald MacLeish called “these fantasies of glass that crowd our sky.” Well, they didn’t crowd it in the ’30s, and they needn’t crowd it for me this night. I turned toward the stately, human-scaled streets of the Back Bay, glad to have turned back the decades, from the ski slopes to the city.

View more photos from Finding the 1930s.

Comments
  • Thanks for the memories of a wonderful era.. I have been to all the places, skied many hunted & fished along the way..now live in Florida and reminise daily.. The snow train from Boston was $5.00 including skiing.. always a great time on the way to Cranmore..selecting a queen of the train etc. having a joyous time.. Mostly sleeping on the way back.. Hanns use to put on a show sometimes.. skiing backwards and many tricky turns etc. Two weeks of paper route money to go. Many many more stories of all these places that would take all day to tell.. Just loved the article and also Yankee Mag.

    Reply
  • I loved this article. I’m a New Englander born and raised in the thirties.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Enter Your Log In Credentials