The days start early this time of year for John Laberge, and run into the dark until his partner Lydia Hibbard comes out to his shop to insist he come inside to grab some grub and a bit of rest before the next day’s dawn cracks its whip and he’s back at it again.
Days have been long and nights short for weeks for Laberge, but it has been this way for the past 28 years.
Laberge says he’s a sportsman, he likes hunting and this is hunting season. But he doesn’t hunt much.
“I don’t have time for it,” he said.
Laberge’s time at this time of year is committed to his side hustle – or one of his many side hustles.
This is a man whose side hustles have side hustles.
His falls and early winters are focused on the Yankee Classic Sportsman Show in Essex Junction.
The Yankee Classic Sportsman Show
The Yankee Classic Sportsman Show is a yearly fishing, hunting and outdoor exhibition at the Champlain Valley Exposition highlighting Vermont’s outdoor sporting community that Laberge has sponsored for almost three decades. It runs 12–7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17; 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18; and 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19.
Laberge has spent a lifetime picking up endeavors that have been fumbled by others – or were just waiting to be picked up – and running with them.
Almost three decades ago it was an outdoor sportsman show.
“There was somebody else who had a show and it was terrible. So, I told them, ‘I think I’m going to start my own show.’ And they said, ‘We’ve been doing it for a while. We’re not worried about you,’” said Laberge. “I just worked a little harder. They went out of business the next year.”
The Yankee Classic Sportsman Show covers 100,000 square feet in three buildings at the Expo, featuring exhibitions, displays, demonstrations, lectures. There will be over 100 exhibitors from all over the country and 50 seminars on subjects like hunting, tracking, fishing, calling, regulations, cooking game, shooting, trapping, and wild edible and medicinal plants.
In a bit of an understatement, Laberge said, “It’s a lot of work.”
Standing in the mud on an unseasonably warm January late afternoon, he reflected on the vagaries of a venture that is not unlike farming in being very dependent on the weather. If the weather’s bad, the crowds are smaller.
“It has its ups and downs. Last year, it snowed Saturday and Sunday and Sunday we had 28 people through gate,” Laberge said. “I lost over $55,000 last year on the show.”
So, while some Vermonters may be moaning about having a mud season in the middle of winter, he’s hoping for it to last about a week and half more.
One of the exhibitors at the Yankee Classic Sportsman Show will be Laberge himself with his Whitetails of North America collection, another of his side hustles that was spawned four years ago when he was searching for someone with a display of white-tail deer for the Yankee Classic.
“One year he just couldn’t find anyone available, so he said, ‘Well, I can do this,’” said Hibbard, a former lawyer who deflects the limelight but shares the passion.
Now, the two of them are busy from October through March because as soon as the Yankee Classic Sportsman Show closes, they’ll be packing up a large trailer with around 25 of the 60 whitetails in his Whitetails of North America collection and heading to shows in places like South Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Saskatchewan, Canada.
They’ll often spend as much as eight weeks on the road before making it back home to Vergennes.
A sportsman and sports
Laberge has had a finger in lots of different pies since he was a student in Charlotte. Back in those days there was no Champlain Valley High School, so after Charlotte Central School, he chose to go to Burlington High School where, he football and baseball and he played two other sports at once – tennis and track.
He was good enough that he didn’t need to practice tennis so he would go to track practice instead.
His tennis game didn’t suffer: “I was Vermont state champion for a few years.”
As an adult he started in the construction business, became a contractor, moved to Williston, built a lot of houses and apartments, but he kept developing side hustles. “I broadcast auto racing for 20-something years. I broadcast St. Michael’s College basketball and University of Vermont basketball for 22 years. So, I’ve done a little bit of everything,” he said.
Broadcasting worked out well for him. He had his own network. “I bought airtime from the radio stations and then everybody worked for me,” Laberge said. “We had 10 stations in six states in New England that we broadcast auto racing on.”
Another side hustle: gun safes. During the peak time of that business, he would sell five trailer truck loads of gun safes a year.
“It was a great business,” he said.
Laberge had his own stock car racing team. Besides racing at Catamount and Thunder Road, they raced in Milwaukee, Nashville and Cincinnati. “It was fun. It was fun,” he said as the early dark of the new year descended.
Side hustling into Florida
“I had another business in Florida at the same time. I was selling ... you’re going to laugh ... frozen drink machines. We had them in all the pool bars and stuff. It was a great job. So, I’d fly down one week, then I’d fly back. During the season I’d fly into the closest city and my brother would leave a car there. And I would go to the racetrack and we’d broadcast the race, then we’d drive back home. Oh, god, what a life,” he mused.
But back to the side hustle at hand. Laberge emphasizes that the Yankee Classic Sportsman Show is a big adventure for kids as well as their parents. There’s a trout pond, air rifles and archery.
Laberge works hard to make sure that the event is fun for the whole family because, he said, “Hunting in Vermont is going down. If we don’t bring the women and the kids along, all these old bucks are going to be dead, so we need to bring young people along.”
Hibbard added, “And it’s nice because it benefits a worthy cause.” A portion of the proceeds go to Camp Ta-Kum-Ta in South Hero for children who have or have had cancer and their families. The camp experience is provided at no cost.
The night had descended completely by this point. But the lights were bright in Laberge’s shop.
And there were whitetails to go before he’d sleep.