You Must Believe in Spring

Old farms have deep roots, and people tell us they love the fact that our Mill, formerly the Gibbs farm right on Rt. 100 between Waterbury and Stowe, has been producing food for two centuries. The Vermont farmhouse and dairy barn we operate out of date back to the early 1800s.

The roots of our cider mill also run deep: Cold Hollow Cider Mill was founded in 1974 in Bakersfield, Vermont at the base of the Cold Hollow Mountains by Eric Chittenden (a descendent of Vermont’s first governor) and his wife Francine.

It’s been a mostly sunny ride, and I like to think those deep roots (along with Vermont ingenuity, an independent streak, and a splash or two of red wine) helped us get the old Mill through a few stormy seasons since my husband Paul and I bought it at the very turn of the millennium in January, 2000.

Making a grow of it.

Before us, the Chittenden’s ran and grew the business for 25 years, moving the operation to its current location in 1976. By the late 1970s, the site of the old Gibbs farm was thriving again. The retail operation and mail order business grew rapidly and the Mill soon became one of Vermont’s top tourist destinations, bringing smiles to over 300,000 visitors annually. Along the way, Cold Hollow became one of the top producers of fresh apple cider in New England.

New additions. And new owners.

Like many endearing old Vermont structures, the Mill has ended up being updated a number of times throughout the years, and has also changed hands. After a quarter century, the Chittendens were ready to move on from running the Mill, and my husband Paul and I we were ready to take the challenge.

Skiing into the cider business via a rough patch.

My husband and I were – and still are ¬– heavy-duty skiers. In fact, he was working in the ski industry in 1999 when things started to fall apart. Or started to come together, depending on how you look at it.
The resort Paul worked at had recently gone public, and he was forced to lay off a number of longtime employees before being laid off himself.

Perseverance. Very Vermont.

Our funds were drying up. All we had was a dwindling severance, a bunch of aging ski gear (including
our 30-something knees), and a growing love of Vermont.

We were no longer finding the corporate world appealing, fulfilling, or even that interesting. We found out through the grapevine that the old Cold Hollow Cider Mill was for sale.

How hard could it be?

Call us naïve or just plain stupid (probably both) but we decided to go for it, using our entire personal nest egg. Which was not much. We had some doubts the place would even generate a cash flow. So did the seven different banks that promptly turned us down. Finally, a bank decided to take a chance on us.

Self-sufficiency. Luck. And third mortgages.

It’s often a very fine line between smart and crazy. We were ecstatic. And terrified. As we worked six or seven days a week to get the business to work, the situation became semi-dire.

Hard Vermont winters are one thing. Hard Vermont years are another. But real estate was still hot, and it was hard to believe what our self-renovated old farmhouse was now worth. And yes, by 2005 we had already refinanced it three times to make payroll.

The funny thing is, we were…happy.

At least all our money was now invested in ourselves, our neighbors, and our state. That made it feel worthwhile and rewarding. And more often than not, it was fun.

Things improved. Slowly. We never stopped having fun, and over the 20 years we’ve operated the cider mill, we’ve always had – and still have – an exceptionally great staff. We couldn’t do it without them.

We’re blessed.

So if the church next door needs to use our parking lot, we just let them.
We still do many deals on a handshake, and the Mill more or less clicks along with our old vintage GE refrigerators. Our 1950’s maple syrup boiler. Our old school rack-and-cloth cider press. Our semi-mismatched signage. And a fifth generation Vermonter named Bobby in charge of cider jelly production.

It’s more art than science. The state of Vermont is our basic flavor profile: maple, apple, and honey.
That’s about extent of our market research. The people who stop by our luncheonette for a bite, or shop our catalog of Vermont favorites, are always telling us we should keep it that way.

Hard cider from a real cider mill? An easy decision.

A few years ago, we began selling modern hard ciders made from our own fresh McIntosh cider.
Smiles all around. It’s the good stuff, and it’s on tap in our inviting and comfortable tasting room and in cans and growlers to go. Our first flavor profile was called Barn Dance. And sure enough, we installed a dance floor in the tasting room featuring artwork of the work boots on the label. We love to dance.

Gratitude matters.

We enjoy making people happy in our own small way. To our customers everywhere, our employees, all our friends and neighbors here on old Route 100, we say thank you.

With Vermont gratitude,

Gayle Brown

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