The History of the Craftsbury Outdoor Center

Posted December 26th, 2009

(l to r) Janet Spring, Russell Spring, daughter Abi, who worked at the Center in numerous capacities over the years, and her husband Steve Lacey, with the family dogs.
For what it is today—a world-class facility that grooms top athletes and attracts Olympians to its races—the Craftsbury Outdoor Center had humble and even uncertain financial beginnings. But the Spring family’s vision, combined with the dedication of other outdoor sports true believers, came to fruition, and Craftsbury gradually grew from a collection of rundown buildings to the home of arguably the nation’s best-known ski marathon.
In 1976, Russell Spring leased the closed and neglected Cutler Academy, a modest group of buildings set near Big Hosmer Pond in Craftsbury, a town in northeast Vermont. Spring had been involved with Windridge Tennis Camp, and he drove by Cutler Academy on his way to and from work.
“He wondered why no one was doing anything with it,” says Russ Spring, the elder’s son. “He decided to get crazy and find some partners. He arranged to lease the property for a year, and then he bought it.” With the financial help of two partners, Arnold Smith and Dean Brown, and the sweat equity of his wife, Janet, and son, Russ, Russell Spring opened a small outdoor center, offering cross-country skiing in the winter and a soccer camp in the summer. After a year of leasing the property, Spring bought it outright.
“We had a fairly substantial piece of property, with a bunch of big buildings that hadn’t been taken care of in quite a number of years,” the younger Spring says. “It took a lot of work just to get it usable.” Prior to Cutler Academy, the property was Camp Ethan Allen in the 1950s and a farm before that, on which the owners sugared. The maple trails were the foundations for the first ski trails.
“It was just my mom and me running the ski shop and doing the grooming. We bought an old snowmobile and packed the trails down and we opened a little touring center,” Russ Spring says. In the summer, Paul Reinhardt, from the University of Vermont, oversaw the soccer camp. “Really, since then, everything else just gradually developed from that base,” Russ Spring says.
The sculling camp opened in 1977, Russ recalls, after a friend of the elder Russell Spring came to visit. Jim Joy, an avid sculler, took a look at the lake. “He said we should start a sculling camp, that in the U.S., nobody’s doing it,” Russ Spring says. “Joy said, ‘You have the room, the perfect lake, and you can feed people.’”
So they borrowed some boats and hired a local carpenter to build a boat house. “And the Craftsbury sculling camp began,” Russ Spring says. “Being the only sculling camp in the U.S. at that time, we experienced a pretty rapid success curve.”
Along the way, Craftsbury began a running camp, walking tours, biking tours, and in the early 1980s, an Elderhostel program, now known as Exploritas, a program that is very successful and accounts for much of the outdoor center’s midweek stays. Elderhostel participants have rooms, meals, outdoor recreation opportunities, and an education component, such as a literature class, as part of their stay. “Pretty much everything that has happened here has been the idea of one person working here at the time,” Russ Spring says.
One of the longtime members of the Craftsbury staff is John Brodhead, a familiar face from the trails or the dining hall. Brodhead is the Craftsbury Marathon and ski program director. He started nearly 30 years ago, in the winter break of 1980-81.
“It was pretty much a mom-and-pop operation, and what few staff were here, were pretty much doing everything,” Brodhead says. “Over the years, each of us who stayed with the center have become more specialized. But sometimes I look back at the earliest years and all the fun that we had, cooking, washing dishes, sometimes making beds and cleaning the dormitories… we call them lodges now.”
It was somewhat of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation, with the staff often outnumbering the guests. “Sometimes it was pretty sketchy getting a paycheck,” Brodhead recalls. “But we all loved what we were doing so much we were willing to try to make it work.” Brodhead was living where the main office is now located. He still works out of the office he once lived in. He has seen the steady progression of adding programming and improving the facilities, making Craftsbury what it is today.
“The sculling camp started off with two weeks of sculling, and now we’re up to like 30 or so. It just seemed that gradually each summer, we were better known and there were more people.”
“The facilities were continually improved—we started off on army cots lined up in what used to be a classroom. The lowest price was $4 per night. We really tried to reach out to the cross-country skiers, who were the hardcore, granola-eating, gator-wearing crowd who would arrive in their VW Microbuses and be happy to find the place. They’d go out and ski their hearts out all day.”
Times have changed, Brodhead says. “Now people have high expectations. They expect the trails to be groomed by a Pisten Bully,” and want private bathrooms with their accommodations. “We’re certainly fancier than we used to be.” Brodhead describes the current clientele as “much more gentile,” expecting a certain level of comfort, and credits the elder Russell Spring for investing his own money to improve the facilities. “Most businesses like ours would have gone bankrupt years ago,” Brodhead says.
Craftsbury is home to the TDBank Craftsbury Marathon, a race that is as important to Olympians as it is to the local Craftsbury community. The race, which offers a highly competitive 50-kilometer course as well as a (still tough) 25-kilometer non-timed tour with gourmet food stops, is a huge community event for the tiny town of Craftsbury. The race, now in its 29th year and slated for January 30, has grown into a week-long event featuring a Master’s Championship on Thursday and a Friday night sprint race featuring some of the country’s best Nordic ski athletes.
But even from the early years, the outdoor center hosted competitive races. In 1980-81, Craftsbury hosted the Dannon (yogurt) Series, which were the biggest races around, aside from the National Championships, Brodhead says.
“So, I think right from the get-go, even before I worked here, I used to come up for the races in the late ‘70s. They were very high-end in terms of the competitors that came. All the skiers who were competitive in the eastern U.S. converged on our races.”
Beyond top athletes, some other well-known people have visited the Craftsbury Outdoor Center over the years. Madeleine Kunin was a regular skier when she was Vermont’s governor, and Martha Stewart went to Craftsbury when she needed a snowy backdrop for a magazine cover. “That was before she went to jail,” Brodhead quips. “She arrived with her entourage, hairdressers, photographers, assistant photographers. They were looking for a snowy scene. Our marketing actually worked. She spent three days here, and I sort of chauffeured them around.”
A few of Brodhead’s college friends came up to ski, including Vince O’Connell and his partner Kathy Swanson. She was a fanatical knitter, and convinced Vince to try knitting. “Vince doesn’t do anything halfway,” Brodhead says. “He knit this sweater—we called it the Kevlar sweater. The stitching was so tight it could stand up by itself. From that sweater, Vince went on to found VOmax clothing apparel—lycra sports uniforms. He ran it for 25 years, but he started it right here in the dormitory with a little sewing machine,” remembers Brodhead.
One of Russ Spring’s favorite memories is of the Danish Olympic rowing team training at Craftsbury prior to the 1996 games in Atlanta. “It was such an amazing team to watch row. Just the way they carried the boats to the water with such precision… It was a privilege to have the Danes here and work with them.”
Another fond memory is of the Mud and Ice Quadrathlon, an end-of-the-ski-season race that involved skiing, biking, running, and canoeing. Competitors had to ride through the slush and paddle through the ice. “But we got old and conservative and decided somebody might get killed,” Spring says, so the race was canceled.
Brodhead is a little nostalgic for the days the staff lived together, working largely on heart, taking wild trips to a Hardwick bar in the senior Russell’s eight-passenger station wagon they called the Green Dragon. But Brodhead is proud of the Craftsbury of today, which is what so many people worked tirelessly to create.
In 1994, the elder Springs handed the business to their son, but the elder Russell didn’t go far. “He always stayed around, checking on everything,” the younger Spring says.
In 2008, the Spring family sold the business to Concept2 co-founders Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer, who have turned the center into a nonprofit and expanded outreach to get more community members skiing.
“This was the major interest of his life,” the junior Spring says of his father. “Last year, when he sold it, a big part of the negotiations was him still having a role. He loves coming in and having a meal. The new owners gave him and my mother a lifetime meal pass. My father’s favorite thing to do is come and socialize with the guests. That’s probably more important to him than any kind of money. My mother has other interests—she enjoys being involved with the center on some level—but she likes traveling. My dad’s pretty happy to limit their travels to Craftsbury Village.” The two presently reside in a house on Little Hosmer Pond.
Sky Barsch is a freelance writer in Orleans, VT, and a frequent skier at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. You can reach her at [email protected].