Way back when, in the 80’s, when I began my career at the College and started skiing regularly at the College-owned Rikert Ski Touring center at Breadloaf, some “newer signs” were being mounted on the trees, indicating new trail names. Apparently, until a few years previously, the trails had descriptive names, such as “Turkey Trot”, “Snow Snake” and “Figure 8”, and these, rather than their newfangled names were still commonly used, but the college trustees chose to rename these trails to honor famous Middlebury figures – some of which were truly connected to the Breadloaf campus, and some whose direct connection to the environs still seems a bit mysterious. Nonetheless, most of the old names are now only vague memories of the old-timers, and the 30+ year old new names are used on the modern trail maps, as well as the signage out on the trails. I thought it would be fun to ski all of the trails named after historical figures, and find out a little bit about each of them.
Leaving the open field, and entering the woods, the first trail most first-timers ski onto is the Battell Trail. It is only fitting that this well-loved trail is named after Joseph Battell, a scion of Middlebury who built the Breadloaf Campus as a mountain resort, and donated it to Middlebury College to create the Breadloaf Campus. Full disclosure here – my endowed chair at the college is named after a few of his descendants, so I guess I too have benefited financially from his generosity! I could write a whole post on Battell, but there are a lot more names coming.
After a short climb on the Battell Trail, I took the right turn onto the Cook Trail, a delightful little dipsy-doodle descent, complete with a mini-jump that has been part of the trail for as long as I have skied it. The Cook Trail is named after Reginald Cook, an English Professor at the college, and also director of the Breadloaf School of English, the summer Masters Degree program, in the mid-20th century.
The next named trail, “Thomas” was one I had no idea on. Rebekah, a college archivist, did a little sleuthing for me, and suggested that the trail is named after John Thomas, the Middlebury College President from 1908-1921. He is also known for having founded the Breadloaf School in 1920, so it makes sense that he would be honored with a posthumous trail name!
After a short stretch rejoining the Battell trail, I finally got to a trail named after an actual skier! The Bower Trail, named after Middlebury Alum John Bower ’63, arguably the most famous Middlebury College Athlete. In addition to winning the NCAA Championship in cross-country skiing in 1961, he also was on the US Olympic Teams in 1964 (Innsbruck) and 1968 (Grenoble), and returned to coach the Middlebury Ski Team before leaving to direct the nordic program at the US ski team.
My wandering path next brought me to the Freeman trail, named after Professor Stephen A Freeman, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 478 (OK maybe I stretched that a little, but he was over 100!). Freeman is known for bringing the Middlebury language programs to international prominence, and establishing the schools abroad. I don’t know of any special connection he may have had to the Breadloaf Campus, or the Rikert Ski area. Does anyone else know?
I next did a short loop on the Gilmore trail, named for the adjacent Breadloaf Dormitory by the same name. I wasn’t able to connect this trail name to any Middlebury College name of prominence, but my college archivist connection Rebekah guesses that it was the name of a local landowner at some point. Looking on geneology confirmed that there were indeed Gilmores living in Ripton in the 19th century, but I couldn’t find much more, although I suspect that time spent looking over Ripton land records could confirm or deny this. I will also take a look around some of the local cemeteries this summer with my eyes open for the Gilmore name. I did, however, find a blog post describing past alcohol-fueled literary debaucheries by some of the summer residents of Gilmore House!
The next named trail on my jaunt through the woods, is another one named after an actual skier, the Sheehan Trail, named after “Bobo” Sheehan, Middlebury Class of ’44, whose name is also attached to one of the chair lifts at the Snow Bowl. Sheehan, a born and bred Vermonter (from Newport), also the was the coach of the college ski team from 1947-1967, and was also the father to professional golfer Patty Sheehan. Although I suspect that he was more known for his prowess as an alpine skier, I think he deserves a nordic trail as well.
The next named trail, Frost, needs no introduction. He lived here, wrote here, and walked here. And yes, probably slept here as well.
Although I didn’t ski at all on the Holland Trail, I did pass by the sign for it. This was a tough one to figure out, but a friend who is a former Rikert Employee and Google Whiz (Thanks Nate!) came up with a likely candidate, Laurence Holland, a longtime Breadloaf professor and Chairman of the English Department at Johns Hopkins, who apparently met his demise while swimming unsuccessfully (That is a euphemism for “drowned”) in the Ripton Gorge in 1980.
The next trail name as a little bit of a mystery as to its name, “Mandy”. I have heard two explanations as to its origin. The more reputable of the sources seems to think that the trail name is associated with a former Breadloaf employee whose last name was “Mann”, while another current employee thought she had heard it was named after someone’s dog. I am going to have to ask some old-timers about this one!
After rejoining the Frost Trail, I took a sharp left turn, and came down from the upper reaches of the old racing trail, and descended the section known as “Craig’s Hill”. Chatting with a former Rikert employee, he seems to think that the Craig name was associated with a landowner in the area, past or present. Most people who ski at Rikert probably don’t give too much thought to land ownership, presuming that all the land is either Middlebury College property, or part of the national forest. Actually, the land is a patchwork of private, college and public property, and I know that expansion of the cross country skiing is limited by the needs of local property owners.
Still following the path of the old racing trail, I came to the Upson Trail, still commonly known by it’s old name “The Figure 8”. A few years ago, on this blog, I wrote a little bit about Mr. Upson, but self-plagiarizing:
W. H. Upson had been a prolific writer for the Saturday Evening Post, as well as other periodicals during the mid 20th century. Although he lived in quite a few parts of the country, including a stint at the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Illinois,when he eventually settled in the Middlebury area, he frequently attended the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, and taught creative writing on occasional at Middlebury College.
The house on RT 125 called “Earthworm Manor” is also his former home, and is still used as a Breadloaf School of English residence.
The last descent down to the Breadloaf Barn, home of the Rikert Center, is down a trail now labelled as the Tormondsen Trail. This trail, the current racing trail, is named after John Tormondsen ’82, a former All-American skier and generous donor to the college – and even younger than me! I have presumed that he donated a lot of money to the college to support the Rikert area’s recent upgrades, as well as making the donations such that the common room of the building where I work, Bicentennial Hall, is also named after him. Thanks!
On a more somber note, the trail maps for this final descent also still also bear the Cubeta name. The now-deceased professor for whom this trail was named long ago, was a powerful English Literature professor, Provost of the College, and head of the Breadloaf School. In the Middlebury College version of #metoo, about 30 years ago, enough men started talking to each other, and realized that they weren’t the only ones being sexually harassed by this professor.
Now, you might guess from the length of this posting, that this was an epic long ski tour. Nothing could be further from the truth – I covered a lot of Middlebury College history in about 4 miles!