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