Published: Friday, February 1, 2008
By Michelle Edelbaum
Burlington Free Press Staff Writer
BARRE -- Pierre Couture knows the terrain and history of the 1,200 acres around his East Barre home as well as he remembers his childhood in the heart of Vermont's granite country.
Couture, 52, is the owner of Millstone Hill, a recreation center, lodge and bed-and-breakfast, which offers biking, hiking, walking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. He opened the facilitythree years ago. The center has expanded from 15 miles to 65 miles of trails and Couture is working to make it the site of a cultural heritage trail. This weekend, Millstone Hill is the hub for community and outdoor recreation activities associated with the second annual Barre Winterfest.
At the peak of the granite boom, more than 70 independent quarries were in operation in Barre, said Couture, who has dedicated much of his time to learning about the area and industry's history.
Today only two quarries surrounding Millstone Hill are active, but Couture's youthful memories of swimming in quarries with his four siblings and exploring the stone strewn landscape are vivid.
"It was our neighborhood playground," he said. "In the summer we'd go swimming and fishing and in the winter ice skating."
His love for the land and deep interest in the history of the area spurred him to open Millstone Hill.
"It's really that aspect of growing up in the quarries that has driven me to keep them open for recreational purposes," said Couture, as he walked Millstone Hill's trails on a recent weekday.
Couture grew up on a farm less than a mile from his current residence next to Millstone's touring center. His father ran a dairy farm and milked cows from 4 to 7 a.m. before working an eight-hour day at the granite quarries and then milking again until 8 p.m. Twenty-six years ago, Couture bought the 125-acre family homestead where his mother still lives and has since purchased 225 acres of adjoining land with the idea of one day opening a recreation center.
The acreage contains six abandoned quarries, untold numbers of granite waste piles and a residence he turned into a bed-and-breakfast. Couture began cutting trails on the land for his own use and satisfaction.
Many are bordered by granite waste; in some areas neat rectangular blocks are stacked to form high walls, in others areas random sized chunks are haphazardly piled on top of one another to create a mound of protruding granite limbs. The trails range from wide former railroad beds to tight routes through wooded terrain and pass along corridors with stunning mountain vistas or up-close views of gaping former quarries.
Friends and family questioned Couture's desire to own property they saw as a "wasteland," he said. He believed the area could be vibrant again.
"It's the town's history, and it should be part of its future, too," he said.
A stab at opening the land to recreational use in the early 1990s revealed the potential for a vibrant recreational center, but the operation needed lodging to anchor it. At the time he owned Whimsicality, a Vermont gift business, but in 2005 he made the leap.
"I had spent 20 plus years in the gift business, and this is what I dreamed of doing since I was 20 years old," he said.
In addition to his acreage, Rock of Ages gave Couture permission to develop a trail network on almost 1,000 acres of their adjoining land. While Couture enjoys the activities the trails afford him -- hiking and skiing -- he spends most of his time building and maintaining trails with the help of the nonprofit organization he founded, Millstone Trails Association. Neighbors have volunteered their land for trails, but Couture said the association needs to be able to maintain existing trails before it can expand.
He's modeled Millstone Hill and the nonprofit organization off East Burke's Kingdom Trails Association. Tim Tierney, executive director of Kingdom Trails Association, said the group is happy to support Couture's efforts to build a sustainable, small trail system and share their 15 years experience in creating more than 100 miles of trails on property from 43 private land owners, the state and town.
"We don't look at it as competition,
Prospects for expansion are strong, and Couture is giving attention to his other passion: history. His vision is to create a cultural heritage trail on the center's network. This designated walking route would take visitors past 36 historic locations marked by signs providing information about the significance of each site.
Highlights include the last remaining wooden derrick, a technology to move blocks of granite, and a towering grout pile that offers a panoramic lookout with views of the Green Mountains in the distance and former quarry land below. Another marker would provide information about the railroad tracks that ran along the trails, noting the importance of trains to the success of the granite industry.
An initial grant application to fund the bright yellow signage was awarded, but then budgeting constraints eliminated available money. Couture is pursuing other ways to get the cultural heritage trail funded.
"I'm doing something in this part of Vermont that hasn't been done before, with the lodging and recreation," Couture said. "At one point, Barre was the most important town in central Vermont. It's all about its past, but can be about the future, too. ... I see it continuing to grow."