“It’s About this Beautiful Lake, Nothing Fancy”: An Interview with Russell and Janet Spring

GRP Rower Phil Grisdela wrote a great interview of Craftsbury’s former owners and camp founders, Russell and Janet Spring for the recent Hosmer Ponds Watershed initiative 2014 Summer Mailing. Lots of good stuff in the recent edition, but this interview seemed especially worth sharing.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Russell Spring Sr. doing what he enjoys most, sitting in his living room looking out over the pristine view of Little Hosmer. It seems right that after being drawn to the area for its beautiful scenery and down-to-earth community Russell is still enjoying the same view he was attracted to from the beginning. Russell played a critical role in creating today’s Craftsbury, while preserving what has always made it such a special place. With people skiing in the sun on the snowy lake in the background, Russell shared some of his memories about how he got here and what the area means to him.

Russell first came to the region with an Outward Bound Program after graduating Yale and immediately fell in love with the beauty of the region. He moved to Stowe in 1950 where he met his wife Janet in 1953 while they were both downhill ski instructors. After several years, they began to look for ways to escape the “rat race” they felt the town was becoming. In 1972 Russell and Janet sold their house, purchased an RV, and were ready to take up cattle ranching in Wyoming when the deal fell through at the last minute. With no contingency plan, the family took the advice of some friends who had suggested moving to Craftsbury. Russell and Janet had first discovered the village coming back from family sailing excursions on Caspian Lake. Their first stop was what is today the Mill Village B&B run by Nancy Moran. The family moved in, along with a “travelling zoo,” that included a goat, a horse, a donkey and a flock of chickens. They would stay in that house for a year before finding the home that Russell and Janet still live in today (sans zoo). Sitting in his chair overlooking the lake, Russell says proudly, “when I look out today, it’s not a whole lot different now than it was then.”

Craftsbury was a natural fit for the Spring family, who came to love it for what Russell says it still is today, “a non-commercial, down to earth, positive community.” The town decided to protect the lakes by enforcing a 5 mph speed limit and also by capping the size of outboards that could be run.  Russell began commuting into Burlington to work as a stockbroker, but soon realized that wasn’t what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. A tree farm was his next venture, but as Russell noted wryly, it was “a tough way to make money.” In 1973, a year after moving to the area, Russell turned to the Windridge Tennis Camp where the current Hosmer Point Camp sits. The tennis courts for the camp were created using local Craftsbury clay with the help of Sunny Sweatt, who Russell describes as one of his “personal heroes” and “a wonderful Vermonter.” That same year, Russell and Janet started the Craftsbury Academy Physical Education program (CAPE), which established a strong relationship with the community that would be critical for what was to follow. Students came every week after school to experience the outdoors; whether it was white water rafting in the spring floods, road biking, cross country skiing, rock climbing lead by Janet, or anything else the duo could think up to get kids outside. The Springs wouldn’t stop there though. Driving to work at the Windridge camp in 1976, Russell passed the defunct Cutler Academy and saw a new opportunity on Great Hosmer Pond. After leasing the property for a year, he partnered with Arnold Smith and Dean Brown to buy it outright and lay the foundation for the Craftsbury Outdoor Center that we know today.

From the beginning, the Outdoor Center was “about experiencing this special world,” as Russ Jr. puts it, including the community and bountiful natural resources. Russell felt that what was most important lay just outside his window: “this beautiful lake, nothing fancy.” He then outlined the key ingredients of the Center: “quality food as well as simple and comfortable lodging.”  Russ Jr. jokes that “while the lodging may not have always been comfortable it was certainly always simple.” Even when pressure came from potential investors to buy the center and Murphy’s field to build an international hotel complete with golf courses, a Japanese garden and condos, the Springs stuck to their ideals. Janet remembers that when “we got mixed up with people like that we were able to extricate ourselves.” The Center began with youth soccer camps and cross country skiing in the winter, but would expand to include the Elderhostel, sculling programs and running camps that we still enjoy. According to Russ Jr., “each one of those (programs) was one person’s really good idea.” Russell focused on bringing in people and investors who also believed in his dream: “the key things were those that [fit] in with our feeling about what this world was about,” he explains. “And that’s right where we are today,” he continues, pointing to his view of a pristine Lake Hosmer. Russ Jr. added that “investors were not investing because of a certain return they expected to get, they were investing because they totally believed in the vision. Most of them never expected to get any return, they were actually shocked when we were able to give them an excellent return on their investment.” When it came time for Russell and Janet to pass on ownership of the Center in 2008, they worked with Dick and Judy Driessigacker who had a “similar love for the land and didn’t want to change what had already been done, just to keep it going,” that Russ Jr. explained was different from other potential investors.

The Outdoor Center would not have become the place it is today without the unique Craftsbury community that valued the simple, quality outdoor experience that we’re lucky to have. “The way we wanted to go fit in with where the community was coming from,” Russell remembers. “We were looking for something that appealed to us personally, and it turned out there were a lot of people who felt the same way,” he added. The close integration of the Outdoor Center with the community through programs like the CAPE after-school activities made the center feel as if it was working for the community and not just for profit. Russ Jr. jokes that “we were always a virtual non-profit anyways!” The shared dream of the Spring family, the Craftsbury community, and now the Driessigackers, is what makes today’s Outdoor Center possible. Looking out over Little Hosmer, Russell remembers his work with a smile. “It’s a very positive statement of what one can do in this world, you just have to find out what’s important to you,” he says. Janet shows one of the great strengths of this team by adding “and hang on like a bulldog!”

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One Response to “It’s About this Beautiful Lake, Nothing Fancy”: An Interview with Russell and Janet Spring

  1. Pingback: A remembrance of Russell Spring | Craftsbury Outdoor Center Blog

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