By Mary Kathleen Mehuron
I was determined to get my hands on a photograph that figures prominently in Ellie and John Hilferty’s first book, “Skiing in the Mad River Valley.” Writing the Take Me Back column is a lot like being a detective. Something or someone happens along to point me in a particular direction. To find out more, I have to talk to people, look through storerooms of stuff, listen to old tapes and conduct interviews. One poor guy was trying to get some work done on his tractor, when I showed up out of nowhere and started asking questions.
It’s funny that I am taking such an interest in our Valley history because, in school, history was my worst subject. I couldn’t ever remember all the dates of different events. So, what made me want to get this column going? I’m a people person, I guess. Interested in the stories of the people around me. And I wanted to find that picture in the Hilferty book so I could finish up my article.
Ellie Hilferty of Moretown has a son who’s named John just like his late father. I found him on Facebook and wrote a private message about the photograph I was trying to find. He told me Ellie was his mother and that he would ask her about it. One thing led to another, and I got Ellie on the phone. She’s so interesting that I went ahead and bought their ski book, and a second book called “The Mad River Valley.” John Hilferty was quite the writer.
He wrote, “Every history of a community of neighbors has a thousand authors -- from the local collector who patiently chronicles events and genealogies, to each and every resident who kept a family tree or deposited old photographs in a shoebox. It is from all these sources that these fine photographic records of the Mad River Valley are delivered. The Historical Societies of Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston, Duxbury and Moretown are to be thanked for the major supply … Special thanks go to Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom and to the several authors who over many years have been responsible for the ongoing publication of a splendid series of local histories.”
John was right. “History of Waitsfield, Vermont with Family Genealogies 1782- 1908” is a terrific resource. It was published in 1909 by Mat Bushnell Jones. Then a member of the Bisbee family decided to take it from there when he retired from being a professor. Richard M. Bisbee wrote and published in 2006, “History of the Town of Waitsfield, Vermont 1789 - 2000.” Both books are available free online on the Waitsfield Historical Society website. The Hilferty’s have their two books to offer. And “Connecting Family, Friends & Neighbors, The History of Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom” by Jan Pogue and Kevin Eurich is a great read. We are fortunate that many of Waitsfield Telecom’s history inserts to the phone book are available online as well. And both Mad River Glen and Sugarbush have chronicled their histories across different mediums.
John Hilferty further wrote, “In the Mad River Valley, settlers saw, as we do, heavy morning fog clearing, sweeping itself broom-like over the river, vanishing in a warmed-up field; the sun’s horizontal beam stabbing the wall of an old barn, stretching the shadow of a maple tree, or sending up diamonds from a snow-filled pasture. They saw, as we still do, twilight’s purple cast, the tiny prick of a lamp glowing from a window on a mountainside, and a night so black the stars appear as millions.”
Each image rings true to our life here. The visceral reaction we get when we take in the beauty around us. I think the poetry of his use of commas makes me feel the same way I do when I walk down the Waitsfield Common Road and catch the view. And did you see that one semi-colon and the way it makes you stop. As you might stop to look at the landscape. When you take a breath in and smile.
“It is amazing that what the first farmers found in this valley had been so gently handed down and commended to all who followed. They gave us a river and fields protected and unsullied, villages that remain quiet and unhurried. Between the time of the settlers and the present, this was not always so. People yielded to a man’s natural instinct to mess things up in order to make a living, before finding the means to restore the valley to its perfection.”
John and Ellie conclude their introduction by reflecting on a period of rapid growth here in the Mad River Valley. “First came Mad River Glen in 1948, followed by Sugarbush and Glen Ellen. The latter two became one, and attracted to the once-sleepy, laid-back valley a glittering array of entertainment superstars and an assortment of urban-dwelling flatlanders. People took to the slopes, and other tourists began visiting the area’s many old farmhouses, which were repaired and kept in good condition by the people that loved them. Combined with their beautiful surroundings, the farmhouses became so attractive they spun off another industry: weddings.
“Few other tourist areas have held so fast to tradition like this valley. Old general stores still peddle oil lamps, quilts, candles, pickles and preserves, udder balm, needles and thread, sleds and toboggans, flannel shirts and cumbersome snow boots.
“Most of all and best of all, the scenery comes free, and it all connects in the string of time with the people and places whose photographs are in this book.”
The Hilfertys wrote that 17 years ago. Today we find ourselves in another time of rapid growth. A real estate boom fueled by the pandemic and, for many, a new ability to work from home. Many have fought very hard to keep our valley pristine. But all the stores we had back then? Many are gone. Other businesses as well. Perhaps we need to give careful thought about where this Valley is headed. Hopefully, people way smarter than I am, will lead the way.
In the meantime, let’s return to John’s concept that it takes 1,000 authors to really capture the history of our small community -- the Mad River Valley. If you have a photograph or story to share, please write to me at