Friday, January 4, 2019
Written by Sam Loesch
Four families and their symbiotic connections with Sugarbush and the Valley
The following accounts serve as testimonials of the strong community at Sugarbush and in the Mad River Valley. I set out to interview families who had historical connections with the mountain, hoping to learn about their habits and rituals. I ended up with more than that: unique stories from folks who call the mountain a family member, credit time on the chairlift with teaching their kids essential life lessons, and started lifelong careers working for or inspired by their time at Sugarbush. Working in artisan shops, liquor stores, schools, and the resort itself, they remain enthusiastic about and engaged in the community.
The ski industry here and the economy built around it have allowed the people I spoke with to live and thrive in an exceptionally beautiful place. Meanwhile, the resort has evolved from the main attraction of the Valley to being an integral part of the larger community. As Sparky Potter puts it, “We don’t have a town hall; we have the Gate House Lodge.”
Sparky and Peggy Potter
“The best ride of my life,” Peggy Potter says of a Friday-afternoon trip in the late 1960s from St. Lawrence University to Sugarbush during her freshman year, with the senior who would become her husband. From $7-a-week food budgets to becoming a Mad River Valley family of five, Sparky and Peggy Potter’s story is one of love, art, skiing, and, most of all, community. The Potters take very little credit for their rewarding life here; instead, they give it to the Valley, Sugarbush, and the intersecting relationship among the ski bums, visitors, farmers, and local residents. As Sparky explains it, “People lose their old soul and gain a new one when they come here.”
Sparky recalls his strong connection with the mountain as a ski patroller in the late ’60s. He began his professional life here with 6 a.m. pink-sky mornings, long days of skiing, and nights spent replicating favorite album covers by painting and burning designs onto old barn board. These nocturnal doodlings were the precursor to Wood & Wood Signs, founded in 1972. Peggy worked in area restaurants and, she says, “rode a wave” of good food, interesting people, and good times. She says that working in the bustling restaurant industry in the Valley and experiencing the changes in American cuisine resulted in some of the best experiences of her life. (Before Sugarbush, Peggy thought the only way to earn money was to work a nine-to-five job; she was happy to find out she was wrong.)
During those years of carefree ski-bum culture, one of the most anticipated events was the annual Valley Academy Awards night at the Blue Tooth, run by Charlie Brown, one of the bar’s owners. Brown enlisted the help of the Potters, which gave them the chance to chase after other passions: music and photography. Dream On Productions, including Charlie, Sparky, Peggy, and Irving “Rush” Rushworth, grew into a business producing expedition documentaries and commercial marketing, along with work for New York ad agencies and the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Sparky Potter enjoying some spring skiing (1960s)
The Potters built their house in Waitsfield in 1974 and created a slide-show room in the basement. Sparky and Peggy would host parties with far-reaching mixes of guests—musicians, expeditionists, clients, family, and friends. (All three of Peggy’s siblings followed in their sister’s footsteps and became residents of the Valley.) Guests would eat and drink upstairs, and then be guided by the Potters through the “Tolkien-inspired,” intricately detailed hallways and spherical hobbit-house-like doors to the downstairs theater, to see slideshows of mountain and valley photos. “I love saving moments, recalling something forty years ago that comes back and I can remember in awe,” Sparky says of his love of photography. Sparky and Peggy’s daughter Charlotte says that even in this technological age of endless multimedia feeds and exposure, turning the lights off, putting music on, and watching slideshows today is just as enthralling as it was when she was a little girl.
Raising three kids brought Sparky’s attention fully back to Wood & Wood, and he has created signage for ski areas all over the country. “All my first clients came from Sugarbush,” Sparky says. “And I am forever grateful for that beginning.” Peggy is a partner at Artisans’ Gallery in Waitsfield Village, a store that was born from a handful of early exhibitors at the Waitsfield Farmers Market (where her colorful “Peggy Potter Bowls” had a twenty-year run). The market has grown to become one of the best in the state, attracting farmers, craftsmen, and food purveyors from all over Vermont. Meanwhile, the gallery, now in its twenty-third year, features local artisan jewelry, home décor, fine art, clothing, and more.
One of the Potters’ milestone memories of the Mad River Valley and the community that thrives here is the response to Tropical Storm Irene. They recall what seemed like the entire community putting their lives on hold for weeks on end with no hesitation, to help repair the badly damaged area (including the Artisans’ Gallery). For the Potters, the Irene benefit concert and brunch at Gate House Lodge was not only a special community event, it was also a very special moment in their lives: their younger daughter, the singer-songwriter Grace Potter, performed a show for a small audience of people who were dedicated to helping the Valley recover from the storm.
Sparky still skis around seventy days a year. Peggy doesn’t ski anymore, but she still loves the mountain culture and the après-ski scene, especially at Chez Henri in Sugarbush Village. All of the Potter children—Charlotte, Grace, and Lee—grew up skiing Sugarbush, Mad River, and the woods. Now the newest member of the family is developing a love for the mountain energy. One afternoon last spring, one-year-old Bowden could be found grasping a ski pole in the lodge while her parents, Patrik and Charlotte, traded off making turns on the slopes outside.
I met with Sparky and Peggy after seeing Sparky bid the 2017–18 ski season farewell on the Spring Fling trail with Patrik, Charlotte, and Bowden. He told me that one winter day last season, he was skiing and suddenly felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the people who not only keep the trails in pristine skiing shape but also have cultivated a community that he and his family are very much part of. He turned to the edge of the trail, approached a seasoned groomer, hugged him, and said, “Thank you.”
The Potter family on a recent visit to the Waitsfield Farmers Market
Cherri Sherman remembers well the New Year’s Eve in 1967 when she took a Greyhound bus from Syracuse, New York, to the Green Mountain State. She had a weekend’s worth of clothes and a pair of new skis, purchased with her first paycheck. For as long as Cherri can remember, she just wanted to ski.
When Cherri arrived in Vermont that snowy Friday night, she rented a car and drove straight to the Blue Tooth on the Sugarbush Access Road, which was, as she says, “bumping . . . singles galore!” The locals were amused when Cherri started to inquire about a place to stay that night, one of the busiest on the mountain. After passing numerous no-vacancy signs and worrying that she might have to resort to sleeping in her ski suit in her rental car, Cherri drove into Warren Village and knocked on the door of what is now the Pitcher Inn. The innkeeper rented the wide-eyed, petite New Yorker a room that weekend for the going rate of $5 a night—and then most every weekend after that until Cherri moved to a house in Warren and became a full-time resident of the area.
The Sherman family (1984)
“The Valley was a little bit different back then,” Cherri says. There were not, for example, as many condominiums and hotels as there are today. Instead, there were communal ski homes, filled by a steady base of people who all knew each other. Cherri worked at the Wünderbar, where she and the other waitresses swooned over the Austrian ski instructors and the elegance of their accents. But one day on the Valley House Double, Cherri shared a chair with a “down-country” man who would become her husband and life partner.
Bill Sherman moved into Cherri’s Warren home, which they kept when they moved to Stamford, Connecticut, in 1972. For twenty-nine years they lived in Stamford and traveled to Sugarbush on the weekends, with a family that grew to include five daughters. Cherri credits Sugarbush with teaching her daughters independence, social skills (“chair chat”), and, of course, the importance of powder sick days. Cherri jokes that her kids’ teachers questioned the family’s weekend activities since the girls were star students except on Monday mornings, when they fell asleep at their desks. (Cherri kept those conversations from her husband, for fear that he would reconsider their weekend warrioring.)
When Cherri’s husband died sixteen years ago, she left Stamford and “came home.” Today, Cherri lives in the same Warren house she and her family shared, and manages to ski more than seventy days a season while also volunteering at the Warren Elementary School. She has written essays about her experiences at Sugarbush and also her love for the antiquated (and recently replaced) Valley House Double (a chair from it sits in her backyard). In the Castlerock Pub, Cherri introduced her daughter Katie to her future partner; another daughter, Liza, was married at the Sugarbush Inn; and this winter, three generations of her family commemorated Cherri’s fiftieth anniversary at Sugarbush by skiing North Lynx at sunrise via the cabin cat.
Cherri Sherman in 2017 at a party celebrating her fifty years in the Mad River Valley, wearing her original waitressing uniform from the Wünderbar
Cherri says that her trip to Sugarbush that New Year’s Eve decades ago was the “pivotal decision” of her life. Sitting on the Warren Store porch on a spring morning, in tortoiseshell sunglasses, salmon-colored pants, and pearl earrings, her beautiful silver hair glowing in the sun, Cherri joked about the fact that these days, Sugarbush employees offer to carry her skis from the parking lot—and said she hopes that the day when she can no longer carry her own skis to the lift is still very far away.
Ed Dettor came to the Valley in 1964, also from Syracuse, New York, with his best friend from high school, and rented a house on Main Street in Warren that hangs over the Mad River. Their days were spent skiing, and their nights were alive with the buzzing energy at the local bars. Ed was accustomed to smaller mountain chains in upstate New York, and remembers driving up Route 100 for the first time looking in awe at the Green Mountains—“Now these are mountains!”—unaware that he would call the Valley nestled between them home for most of the rest of his life.
Throughout his many decades here, Ed worked at most of the best local bars, tending at the famous Blue Tooth for nine years and the on-mountain Wünderbar for more. While Ed was bartending at the Blue Tooth, the restaurant was named one of the top twelve ski bars in the country. It was extremely busy, “and extremely loud,” Ed remembers. Other years were spent at the Phoenix, the Den, and Old Tymes.
Ed lived in Aspen, Colorado, and Maine, but was always drawn back to the Valley (in part, he says, because there were “too many trust-funders in Aspen”). He raised his son and daughter in the same house in Warren that he bought in 1982, and both of his children attended Harwood Union High School. Ed no longer skis, but before his son left for the New School in Manhattan, Ed would hike up the trails and photograph him skiing off jumps at Sugarbush.
What keeps Ed in the Valley? He says it is the same friendly and exciting place it was forty years ago. When asked whether he prefers mud season (spring) or stick season (fall), he says stick, as it is the exciting waiting period before the next influx of people arrives in the Valley. These days, Ed still enjoys his riverside Warren home and works in Mehuron's liquor store in Waitsfield—in a way, he is still tending bar and serving happy guests.
Kelly (Murphy) Wood
Kelly Wood was here almost before Sugarbush was Sugarbush. Kelly’s father, Jack Murphy, founded the resort with the Gadd family in 1958. Kelly and her three siblings all worked on the mountain: grooming the trails, making snow, selling tickets, and working the switchboard. All of the Murphy kids skied, and on the days they weren’t in school, they were skiing or working. The Murphy family was able to seamlessly blend employment, community engagement, and family, and the remaining members still do.
Today, Kelly and her brother Mike are still at Sugarbush. Kelly works in the accounting office, and, until recently, Mike drove the cabin cat for on-mountain adventures. They both fondly recall the late 1970s, when green down jackets were the standard attire for employees—what was known as the “Green Jacket Era.”
Kelly’s memories of the mountain are colorful: the green jackets, and the red gondolas. A few of those iconic gondolas now serve as yard ornaments throughout the Valley, and when she drives past them she remembers the bulbous chain of them transporting eager skiers to the top of the hill. Now, Sugarbush visitors ride the high-speed quad chairlift Super Bravo up to one of the most popular trails on the mountain, Murphy’s Glade, named after Jack.
Jack Murphy and family on the top of Lincoln Mountain, looking south
Kelly left Vermont for ten years and worked at Snowbird in Utah, where she met her husband. She returned with him to Vermont in 1989, drawn back by the state’s perfect mix of seasons—intense green in the summer, and pure white in the winter. “Sugarbush is like a family member; it’s one of my siblings,” Kelly says. Even with all the changes to the mountain—“for the better,” in her mind—in the important ways it is still the same place it was decades ago.
Kelly has been off skis for a number of years but is planning on returning to the slopes this season. She is looking forward to a “Murphys on the Mountain” day with her brothers and extended family. “It would be great to go skiing and riding again with Mike and Casey and my brother Chris’s family too,” she says. Kelly has never tired of this small-town, big-time mountain, and although it is no longer owned by the Murphys, the family-owned nature of Sugarbush remains the same.