On October 17, 2011, after 46 years, The Shed, Stowe’s most hallowed skier’s bar, closed from a terminated lease.
Opened in December 1965 by two ski instructors, Ken Strong and Ted Ross, The Shed became a home for the wild sixties and for awhile, transformed Stowe into the greatest dropout capital east of the Mississippi.
It all started quite innocently one Sunday afternoon in August with a get-together of ski instructors at Jim Jackson’s house. Just before the beer ran out, Ken Strong slipped down to Smith’s Market for another case. While there he ran into Paul Biedermann, owner of the Snowdrift Motel and head of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club. Ken invited Paul to join the party.
Being a mentor and close friend, Paul soon decided that the gathered instructors were all a bunch of underachievers and that their families expected far more of them. Paul read them the riot act.
“You’re all a bunch of reprobates,” he said.
“Cushman, you’re a Singer sewing machine heir; Jackson, your father owns a seat on the stock exchange; Brinkerhoff, you’re a financial advisor and a trust funder; Ross, you’re in the social register and so are the rest of you.”
After letting the group know what was expected of them, he got to Ken Strong.
“Strong, you’re a Vermonter who can’t afford to drink with these guys. I guess you’d better open a bar.”
Paul “just happened” to own a small, 130-year old building on a half acre on the Mountain Road, originally the town blacksmith shop, then a cider mill, and later a youth hostel with a small store and a gas pump.
Ross was quick on the uptake and said to Strong, “What do you think? Want to open a bar?” Two hours later Paul led the instructors to the property where they commenced to “renovate” the tiny structure.
Ted came up with $2,500, Ken borrowed $2,500 from a finance company, the two made a deal with Paul, and so the work began. Every weekend Ted came up from New York and Ken spent his days wrecking and “renovating” their dream—cheap beverages! At night, Ken bartended at Topnotch.
The partners planned to open before Christmas. On opening day Ken went to see David Stackpole, their lawyer. He needed a liquor license immediately and would take the paperwork to Montpelier, get the license, come back, buy liquor, and open by four o’clock.
“What’s your DBA,” asked David.
“What the hell is that?” Ken answered.
“The name of your business.”
“We’re running a contest for that.”
“No DBA, no liquor license,” said David. “Hell, it’s not really much more than a shed. Why not call it The Shed?”
“Okay, put it down,” said Ken. He drove to Montpelier, finagled the license, bought the booze, and that afternoon The Shed was born.
Squashed into The Shed, all of about 500 square feet, was a small bar, 12 tables for 48 people, and an upright piano.
The Shed opened its doors two evenings before Christmas, 1965. Candles were lit, the electricity and furnace worked, and there was a kitchen of sorts out back. The liquor license hung on the wall next to the just-installed shelf that held the liquor.
Ski bums, instructors, and lady friends packed the new gin mill and were raucously enjoying their booze and mugs of beer when BANG, the shelf holding the liquor bottles crashed to the floor, creating a mess of splintered glass and booze. Obviously Ted Ross put up the shelf. He’s an incompetent when it comes to anything except sports, selling, drinking, and playing the piano.
The spillage was made up for on New Year’s Eve. A frenzied crowd sardined itself into The Shed. Ken and Ted were behind the bar, making drinks as fast as possible. Two waitresses struggled to serve the tables. A friend was cooking Shed burgers (made with beer) and walked out of the kitchen enveloped in a cloud of smoke, holding the frying pan he used to burn burgers, as the grill hadn’t arrived. Neither had the exhaust fan.
“I have cooked 167 Shed burgers but I can do no more,” he complained. “I can’t see the stove through all the smoke.”
At 4 a.m. they counted up their receipts and, as Ted wrote in an article called The Shed and I (Vermont Skiing, Winter 1966-67, page 41), “We whistled in disbelief. Our gross was double of what we ever expected.”
Well, not quite. Their gross was $150 and they were charging 25 cents for a glass of beer.
There were the common problems that tagged along after the opening—frozen pipes, clogged drains, a cranky furnace, and the liquor inspector.
The inspector did not like what he saw one afternoon when about 20 Shed regulars were outside, yakking it up and quaffing mugs of beer. Drinking outside, standing up, was a no-no against Stowe and state blue laws. The inspector was ready to shut down the bar and make arrests when Kenny enticed him inside. The inspector walked into The Shed for a few seconds and rushed out. A family of obnoxious skunks had squirted the bar and turned it into a noxious gas chamber.
“Okay, okay you win,” said the inspector, “but do your drinking in the back of the building.”
That’s where on another day regular Jim Jackson snatched the clock off the wall, carried it outside to the rear of the Shed, unsheathed his Purdey shotgun ($30,000 in those days) from the trunk of his pickup, and executed the clock. He said it was eating into his social hour.
Hank Cushman, another ski instructor, had joined the local foxhunt group (a drag hunt) and, one afternoon mounted his horse and trotted into The Shed. The horse immediately made a dump call.
Ted McKay was sitting at the bar one summer afternoon, as he did too often, and appraised his swollen and blackened fingernail, which he had hit with a hammer. He went out to his pickup, retrieved his electric drill, settled into his bar seat, had Ken plug in the drill, and with a small bit drilled a hole in the center of his blackened and swollen fingernail. Blood spurted like a miniature fountain.
During the late fall and winter, The Shed settled into a routine. Every Thursday was burger and brew night—$2.75 for a pint and a burger, presented with fresh Thomas English Muffins flown up personally by the president of the company, Bob Swanson, who lived in Stowe. The place was flesh-packed and the heady smell of beer, sweat, perfume, and easy sex introduced Fem Lib to Stowe. The hunt was on for new affairs, divorces, and marriages, and, of course, a coterie of men and women searching for a trust funder to entangle.
If the drinking got out of hand, capable friends were always on hand to do the bouncing, and outside were two constables or sheriffs, Red Rieber and Poke Slayton. They did not arrest you; rather, if you were staggering and incoherent, they drove you home. However, if you were only half there, they allowed the tipsy to drive and followed in the police car. Stowe was a sensible place before the law-and-order people invaded town meeting.
The Shed fire of 1994 was a disaster, but the bar and restaurant were rebuilt in the next 11 months. It became a big building attached to a small shed. In the new pub was a historic collection of photographs of local happenings and shenanigans, including a number of photographs of groups of ski instructors and ski posters. One poster was of Ken Strong with a big smile, holding his 210cm Hart skis. Naturally, it was published by Hart and the title was in bold, large type: SKI WITH A HART ON. In the corner was Pansy Prince’s famous nude painting of Kate, which originally hung behind the bar at Sister Kate’s, a predecessor of The Shed. The painting caused a ruckus with the defenders of Vermont’s blue laws, so in deference to the state’s modesty, Sister Kate’s bartenders rigged up a curtain which they could drop quickly when the liquor control inspector showed up. Ken acquired the painting after Kate’s closed and hung a license plate with The Shed printed on it over her crotch.
At one point The Shed employed more people than any other business in Stowe. It became tough to meet the bills. Other bars opened and siphoned off some of the ski crowd. Still, there was comfort food—shepherd’s pie, thick and crusty onion soup with cheese, large plates of fattening nachos, Shed burgers of course, their own Shed brew, and even strawberry daiquiris. Ted had long ago sold out his interest to Ken, who ran the business seven days a week, acting as host, overseeing the action, laughing with his friends at the bar.
It was a sad night when The Shed closed. Old timers came out of the cracks for a last salute. Marvin Moriarty and Peter Miller got hammered on tequilas shared with their waitress. Some came from out of town to say goodbye—one even flew in from Minnesota. It was a blurry evening and friends did the chauffeuring, for Poke and Red, the good sheriffs who in yesteryear drove the sloshed home, were long gone, replaced by a new breed of cops who lurked outside with dreams of handcuffing people and incarcerating them in holding tanks.
Besides, most of us who knew The Shed of yore don’t hold our booze well anymore; age has withered us... except for Ted Ross—Mr. Martini—the one who started it all with Ken Strong. He can outdrink us all, not as a habit but more as a philosophy. His mantra was: “I drink at The Shed, therefore I am.”
Peter Miller is the author of numerous magazine articles and several books, including Vermont People, Vermont Farm Women, The Last Time I Saw Paris, A Lifetime of Vermont People. He lives in Waterbury Center.