Head for the Hill | Development | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Development

Head for the Hill

One entrepreneur aims to make a former quarry into an outdoor destination


Published March 9, 2011 at 12:52 p.m.

Pierre Couture
  • Pierre Couture

Millstone Hill: Come for the cross-country skiing and mountain biking; stay for the lessons in Vermont history and sociology.

One of the state’s most unusual recreation areas, a 1500-acre expanse maintained by the nonprofit Millstone Trails Association, is situated in the hardscrabble village of Websterville, where Vermont’s first granite quarry was excavated in 1790. Like the rest of Barre Town, Websterville and adjoining Graniteville were booming a century ago as hundreds of European immigrants employed by 60 companies toiled to satisfy demand for the high grade of granite ingrained in the hills of central Vermont.

Today, the Millstone Hill quarries are iced over and silent. Stands of sugar maple, hemlock, spruce and fir now cover land that was stripped bare in the frenzy to extract Websterville’s valuable stone. The granite companies long ago fled this vestige of the old Vermont, taking prosperity with them.

Pierre Couture, whose father was a quarryman and a dairy farmer, has a plan to revive the moribund local economy. He’s developing the Millstone Hill Bed & Breakfast and Touring Center into a destination for outdoorsy New Englanders and New Yorkers.

An extensive network of trails has been cut in these disused quarry lands still owned by Rock of Ages, as well as by two local fire districts and a few private individuals, including Couture. In the six years that the trail network has officially been open, fat-tire and skinny-ski enthusiasts from Vermont and beyond have made Millstone Hill a popular place in all seasons. The Boston Globe ranks it among the 10 best mountain-biking spots in New England.

Gliding along the untaxing terrain, it’s easy to see why upward of 100 bikers and skiers flock here on sunny or snowy weekends. In addition to the usual beauty of Vermont woodlands, Millstone Hill offers dramatic examples of industrial archaeology. There are 28 flooded quarries to gaze at from overlooks or, in the warmer months, to take an unauthorized swim in. Bikers, skiers and hikers may encounter a rusting boiler or an abandoned boxcar, signifying that this is no postcard-pristine preserve. The weirdest and most wonderful sights, however, are the 50-foot-tall pyramids of granite scraps and the walls of granite blocks that look like the work of Incan architects.

These aren’t sacred ruins that have somehow been transported from Machu Picchu to Websterville. They’re remnants of trestles for the trains that once transported granite slabs to studios where they’d be rounded into millstones or squared into paving stones, Couture explains.

Making use of the marketing skills he learned at Boston College in the ’70s, Couture is billing Millstone as “central Vermont’s manmade natural wonder.” He operates a rustic lodge as well as a bed-and-breakfast cottage to accommodate the affluent out-of-staters he’s luring to this amalgam of quaint and funky Vermont. And Couture knows what his guests like. Inside and out, the lodge fulfills the fantasies of Vermont Life subscribers. They can buy maple syrup and artsy-craftsy tchotchkes in Couture’s restored Millstone Hill Country Store just a crystal’s throw from the lodge.

But he’s not some tourism pimp hawking a hackneyed version of Vermont. Having grown up on a dairy farm that’s now part of the trail system, Couture knows and honors local lore and history. One wing of the general store houses his Vermont Granite Museum. Its small rooms are filled with photos, artifacts and text panels telling the story of an industry that ran deep in the local culture, as well as in the earth of Websterville and Graniteville.

Couture is aiming to meld new and old Vermont into a harmonious, thriving hybrid. He wants to bring “the recreation-based economy to a part of Vermont that’s been bypassed by it,” he says. In Couture’s view, it’s Barre Town’s turn to make some money from the college-educated, health-conscious weekenders who go shopping when they aren’t skiing or biking.

But “the people around here just don’t get it,” Couture laments. “There’s a lot of negativism in the neighborhood. It has to do with suspicion of outsiders, fear of change.”

The two Vermonts — one wearing North Face and driving a Subaru wagon; the other in Carhartts and a Ford pickup — do seem more likely to collide than to coexist in these conservative parts. The tectonic stresses of contrasting values and lifestyles appear to be as pronounced as the granite upthrusts that make Millstone Hill’s woodscape so otherworldly.

A group of Websterville residents recently organized an effort — ultimately unsuccessful — to force a revote on a ballot item that Barre Town voters had approved in November. The measure authorizes the town to borrow $100,000 as its contribution to the estimated $1.2 million purchase price of a 370-acre parcel of land that includes the Millstone trail network. The property would be preserved forever as the Barre Town Forest.

Eugene White, organizer of the revote petition drive, says he’s concerned about biking’s impact on wildlife habitat and Websterville’s water resources. White, 64, also doesn’t like that “some conservation outfit will dictate what can go in there and what can’t.” A majority of Websterville’s 120 residents feel the same, White contends.

That may be so, but 1910 Barre Town voters supported the $100,000 commitment, while 1086 said no. That sum will match a contribution from the Millstone Trails Association, which is conducting a fundraising drive. The $1 million balance will come from state, federal and private sources, says Kate Wanner, the Montpelier-based Vermont project manager for the Trust for Public Land. Wanner’s national group is the “conservation outfit” coordinating the campaign to preserve Millstone Hill.

In the dimly lit and sparsely stocked Lawson’s Store just up the hill from Couture’s busy general store, the talk one recent Saturday was of the project’s effect on property taxes. Payback of the $100,000 loan will increase taxes $7.70 in each of the next four years for the average Barre Town home assessed at $175,000, according to officials’ calculations. The town will also lose about $8000 a year in taxes currently paid on the property by Rock of Ages and other landowners. Some of that loss can be recouped through timber harvesting that will periodically be permitted in the Barre Town Forest, Wanner says.

The Trust for Public Land hopes to finalize a deal with Rock of Ages by the end of next year. The Barre-based company, which was recently sold to Swenson Granite of New Hampshire for $39 million, will market its 343 unused acres to private interests if an agreement is not reached with the trust, says Rock of Ages vice president Paul Hutchins. The company has been generous, however, in giving the public access to its unused holdings for many years.

Couture recalls that, as a teenager bound for Boston, he was happy to be leaving Vermont, which he then viewed as “the armpit of America.” But in college and afterward, as he sold Vermont products at Faneuil Hall, he came to appreciate the state’s “mystique.” Couture returned to Websterville to carry on his family’s tradition of “stewardship of this land.” He says he wants to help the area prosper again “by conserving what’s here and by bringing in new opportunities.” With any luck, those opportunities will benefit the Carhartt crowd and the North Face contingent alike.