Nancy Price Graff is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Montpelier. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at maplecornermedia.
For more than half a century, weary automobile travelers transversing Vermont along Route 2, could turn with a sigh of relief into Wallinda Cabins, just west of Marshfield. There they found a row of five small cabins as evenly spaced as teeth, as white as Chicklets, each one furnished simply with a double bed, freshly washed sheets and towels, knotty pine paneling, a toilet, a shower, a chair, and eventually an electric heater.
In 2002, however, Darlene and Ron DeVincenzi, the most recent owners and operators of Wallinda Cabins, locked the cabin doors for the last time, citing a shortage of teenaged help, changing tastes, and a weak Canadian economy. This past summer the cabins began journeys of their own, sold off one by one to neighbors and local residents to begin new lives as chicken coops, guesthouses and tool sheds. Other cabin courts, as these miniature villages were sometimes called, have met similar fates, but each disassembling brings Vermont closer to losing forever these vestiges of its past.
“What you have to know,” says Ron, “is that the first stage of travel accommodations was inns. Tents, then cabins came along in the second stage, in the 1920s through the 1940s, when people started touring. The third stage was independent motels. Then came the Comfort Inn.”
Of course, what made the touring possible, beginning in the 1920s, was the proliferation of the automobile, automobile clubs that provided good maps, cheap gas, and a pervasive cultural restlessness that put hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of Americans behind the wheel.
The Wallinda Cabins were built in the early 1940s by Charles and Gustave Lindwall, who turned their last name into an anagram that stuck for the next 70 years. Vermont, in that decade, boasted only a handful of paved roads: Routes 5 and 7, running north and south, and Routes 2 and 4, running east and west, all of them federal highways. The state was just launching its highway-improvement program to pave more of the state’s roads in the wake of the 1927 flood.
Drivers pitched tents willy-nilly beside the road, wherever they could find space in a field. Eventually, seasonal cabin courts sprouted beside the asphalt, where the traffic was steadily increasing. Farmers with fields that backed up to the highways discovered they could make extra cash by using a strip of farmland beside the road to create a cabin court.
Anyone could build a decent tourist cabin simply by following the plans published in magazines such as “Popular Mechanics.”
“Mail order services sold plans, or you could order prefab kits to assemble yourself,” says Devin Colman, an architectural historian with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and a devotee of Vermont’s tourist cabins. “And the layout of the courts was surprisingly consistent, usually a horseshoe shape with a common area in the middle for picnic tables, croquet, or horseshoes.”
By 1942, with at least 82 cabin courts scattered among 52 towns, visitors to Vermont could hardly throw a stone without hitting a cabin court.
“We never advertised. We didn’t have to,” says Darlene, who grew up in the blue farmhouse across Route 2 from the cabins after her parents moved up from Queens and purchased the Wallinda Cabins in 1963. In Marshfield, alone, three cabin courts existed within two miles of each other.
An hour up the road, Injun Joe’s, is still there, a cabin court built into a hillside overlooking Joe’s Pond. An hour down the road were two other cabin courts, both out of business now: Toy Town, in Montpelier, known for its miniature replica of the Vermont Statehouse, and Camp Meade, in Middlesex, memorable for its display of military vehicles.
In truth, none of the cabin courts had to advertise because the state did it for them. Beginning around 1917, the Vermont Bureau of Publicity published annual booklets listing all the tourist accommodations available in the state and giving a short description of the amenities. This was part of a desperate effort by Vermont to boost tourism, market its landscape, and swell the state’s coffers.
Depending on what services the courts offered, travelers could find fresh vegetables and milk, innerspring mattresses, swimming holes and hot showers. The going rate was $1 per person, per night. Some of the listings ended with a racist warning, the word “Restricted,” which meant that Jews and possibly people of color were not welcome.
Ron says their business peaked about three decades ago. “The cabins were a great business in the 1980s,” he says. “We even considered expanding. We are midway between Toronto and the Canadian Maritimes. From 1987 through the early 1990s, all the cars going by were Canadian. But in the 1990s the Canadian economy went south and Canadians stopped traveling. “
Although Darlene and Ron do not miss the cleaning, the repairing, the painting, and the plumbing that were an inevitable part of running the Wallinda Cabins, they recall warmly the community of tourist cabin owners who maintained a network of clean, comfortable lodging for Vermont travelers for more than 50 years. The owner of the nearby whimsical Unique Cabins would call if his court was full, for example, to ask the DeVincenzis to reserve a cabin for a traveler he was sending their way. No deposits, no credit cards exchanged hands, just a verbal assurance that there would be a bed waiting when the tired tourist arrived.
“We met a lot of really nice people. We made so many friends,” says Darlene. She recalls warmly the older New York couple who always stopped while traveling to and from the Fryeburg Fair in Maine, and the Maine clam fisherman who was another regular. Ron once offered to let the man pay in clams.
Colman says that — despite the DeVincenzis’ success in the early ‘80s — the era of tourist cabins began fading in the 1960s and 1970s, when corporate motel chains gained favor. These new motels offered everything from air conditioning to soda machines, plus more consistent quality. Some cabin courts tried to make a bridge between the individual cottages and the new motels. Windmill Motor Court on Route 7 in Shelburne, for example, simply pushed its cabins together to create something that could pass for a motel. Most cabin courts, however, could not evolve: They were what they were, and increasing numbers of travelers preferred something else.
“Overall, the hardest thing with the cabin courts is figuring out what to do with them now,” says Colman. He thinks of them as period pieces representing the way people once traveled, but turning the countryside into a living museum is impractical. “And once you start breaking the courts up, they lose their significance. They really only convey their history when they’re in a grouping as a cabin court.”
It is a conundrum. Selling the cabins off individually, as the DeVincenzis have done with the Wallinda Cabins, preserves the buildings, whether as writing studios or children’s playhouses, but it doesn’t preserve the community spirit of the cabin court era, which helped put Vermont on the national map. Darlene and Ron DeVincenzi, who have only a towel shed to look at now, would be the first to admit that.
Correction: This piece was edited to clarify the meaning of “Restricted” in Vermont Bureau of Publicity tourist marketing material of the time.