New England Human Interest StoriesA Boston Flatlander Who Made It Big in the Mountains
By James H. Hyde
She wasn't a native; she'd been born and raised in Boston. But through her common sense, sense of humor and generosity, it wasn't long before she was considered an honorary native.
What brought her to Stowe at first was the serenity and skiing. Stowe Mountain Resort, owned by a large insurance company as a retreat for its executives, was the first ski area built in the East. It was opened to the public in the 1950s. Today, the resort has far eclipsed what it was in the 50s. A condo on the mountain will set you back a cool $1 million.
But for Darby Chambers in the 1950s and 1960s, Stowe represented the ideal escape from an urban lifestyle of endless invitations to cocktail parties and dinners, country-club events and various balls together with silent auctions.
To Darby, it was a social quagmire for those who find the demands of making the Society page an absurdly stressful obligation. Appearing in a Boston newspaper was to Boston Brahmans what being published is to a scientist.
But Stowe was Darby's escape and beside its bucolic pleasures, something else had caught her eye; an 1800s farmhouse that had been converted to an inn.
As trips to Stowe became more frequent, this marvelous red-clapboarded, white-trimmed lodge beckoned Darby. Her husband, John, was a highly successful advertising mogul who mined business from the parties and balls. He was a Madison Avenue mover and shaker, and the idea of being an innkeeper in deafening quietude failed to make the top ten on his list of things to do with his life.
But, with each Stowe trip the summons to Darby from the inn grew more strident. It was to her what the ring was to Frodo, and after one more look at it, she made the decision to buy it.
It would become her slice of heaven on earth, a very special, homey place with warm hearth for skiers and tranquility to those needing respite in summer. It was also the ideal place to raise her daughter, Mary B., and her beloved English Setters.
Her masterpiece, Ten Acres Lodge, still sits today where it did back then on Luce Hill Road looking much as it did when she bought it. Its price tag, though, has made what she paid for it seem like pennies in comparison. It was sold recently for nearly $12 million.
From the front, the view of the Worcester Mountain Range hypnotically awes those who see it, and rooms on that side of the lodge are highly coveted.
The Worcester range runs parallel to Mt. Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont, and Camel's Hump, a popular hiking and activities area well south of Stowe.
The dueling ranges made Lamoille County a Jeopardy question: "This U.S. county has the shortest days of any other county in the country." Nobody asked the correct question, but it suffers the shortest days because the sun is tardy each morning in rising over the Worcester Range and gently pulled down before its time by Mt. Mansfield.
For Darby, the lodge was never a B&B. That inn type had yet to go vogue back in the 1950s, and lodges were linked solidly to skiing. Skiers didn't stay at an inn. The stayed at a ski lodge.
To her it was a cozy home where friends from Boston and people as far away as California could made the trip up to share some special time and laughs with a marvelous woman.
She was a gourmet chef, and although she didn't serve lunch, she delighted in plating superb meals to those staying at Ten Acres and those in town who wanted an original Darby Chambers dinner.
As she settled into a more sedate lifestyle, her love of the Mountains grew and her passion for her way of life became airborne. Sharing her description of it made one's mind yearn for a do-nothing reprieve, and she rarely failed to book a room. Very seldom were there vacancies.
Darby had a unique personality and sense of humor. Quick witted with a raucous guffaw, she could make even the most melancholy person laugh. Her intelligence and common sense were far larger than she.
It wasn't long before she began to see that the town had some pimples in need of attention and some objective guidance from a flatlander, so she ran for a seat on the Stowe Selectboard and won. At the same time, she became a quadrennial delegate to the Republican Conventions during the 1950s and 1960s.
Finally becoming the Selectboard chair, word of her reputation and skill as a politician made its way to Montpelier, the state's capital, where she was called upon by the governor and representatives in the Statehouse alike for her imaginative solutions to gnarly problems.
In addition to her interests in all things bucolic and political, she was keenly interested in dogs, especially English Setters, of which she owned several. She took great pride in showing them.
At the time there were only two dog clubs in Vermont, one for Burlington and one for the rest of the state. Darby joined the latter, and in 1954, after other fields in Montpelier had failed to suffice for the shows, she convinced the powers that be to bring the shows to Stowe. She then served as the Show Chairman for the next ten years.
It was through her love of dogs that she came into our lives.
We, too, showed English Setters, three, all red-and-white. Two were champions and one had come a hair's width from being the best in show at the AKC show at Madison Square Garden. My parents complimented her on her dogs, and that began the history of intertwined lives.
My parents had skied at Stowe from the time they were married. The choices then for ski areas and places to stay were nowhere near as many as there are today. But having met Darby they had a great place to stay with a friend and to be served gourmet manna.
Back then, there were a number of institutions in Stowe whose reputations had spread beyond Vermont's borders. Ten Acres Lodge was one and The Shed, a restaurant famous for its hamburgers, another.
Whenever they were in Stowe, my parents ate at the Shed and stayed with Darby. Darby, who also enjoyed the Shed's food, one day made an unusually grand entrance. She lost control of her car and drove into the building.
Thanks be to God, she was uninjured and the damage to the Shed wasn't substantial, but it was an event she never lived down. That, perhaps more than anything else, brings the smiles to old-timer faces.
In the mid-1960s, with Darby urging them on, my father and his best friend bought 100 acres of land in South Londonderry, Vermont for $100 an acre, and we built a great house on the site, way back near the woods and with a spectacular view. Darby would visit occasionally when we were at the house, and we'd sometimes take the lengthy trip to Stowe for a day or two to visit her.
While Darby could keep her guests rapt with her stories and jokes, she also hosted celebrities, with whom she was quite comfortable. When an AKC dog show in New York coincided with a New York visit by the Beatles, she met them.
Turned out that they and Darby were in the same hotel and on the same floor. When she ran into them at the elevator, she invited them to her room for a drink, and they had what she described as a fantastic time. We grilled her for hours about what they were like.
Today, both the Shed and Ten Acres Lodge remain icons in the wealthy enclave Stowe has become. Only the sign has changed on the exterior of Ten Acres.
The Shed used to use an old dining room with a true country ambiance unmatched anywhere. But they decided to add a new steel-and-glass wing to the building, and that's where they sit guests now. One can peer into the old dining room as it sits empty, but it brings sadness to the hearts of those who remember the way things were when we dined in that room.
For Stowe, Darby Chambers is a name that will be remembered for another generation or two. To our family, she is an unforgettable soul who could make you laugh no matter what your mood. We miss her, but there's comfort in knowing that she's still remembered fondly, albeit for having invented drive-through restaurants.
Author Box: James H. Hyde is Co-Founder, Editor and Designer of http://www.newenglandtimes.com and http://www.exploringnewengland.com. He has served as Managing Editor of three magazines; is a winner of the prestigious Jesse H. Neal Award for "Best In-Depth Analysis Article of the Year"; has written two syndicated newspaper columns; and has written for "The New York Times."
Feast on a Down East Breakfast from Stonewall Kitchen, of York, Maine!
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