• The Prickly Mountain gang
     | October 09,2005

    The Warren Store is not your typical Vermont general store. Instead of a clothing sale, it has a "Big Ass Clothing Sale." A sign outside announces not just a "silent" auction, but a "super silent" auction. At noon, an eclectic assortment of tradespeople and tourists lines up to get designer sandwiches with fanciful names –"The Montpeculiar," "Off the Deep End," "The Number Six" – sparkling waters from around the globe and scrumptious desserts. The wine selection is fantastic. Unlike other general stores, there is no white bread, and no guns. What other general store links its Web site to that of Belgian crooner Jacques Brel?

    I meet David Sellers here for a sandwich. With so much of his life having taken place in this small town, it's no surprise that Sellers, 67 with an electrified shock of white hair, is at the epicenter of this community for the lunchtime crowd. Everyone has a greeting, a question, a "see ya later." He works the crowd, but not like a politician, more of a hail fellow, well met.

    He points out the Pitcher Inn across the street. It looks like a village fixture, but it has been newly designed, built from scratch after the previous structure burned down. Developed by Sellers, in partnership with Win Smith, one of the owners of the Sugarbush ski area, it is a three-building complex, representing the past, present and future of Vermont. The main inn building looks as though it were built in 1920, incorporating the details and material palettes from that day. Each guest room was designed to depict a different aspect of Vermont history.

    Sellers, who did the project in concert with Hinesburg architects Mac Rood and Rob Bast, points out the nuances of design. Looking as though it was in place for decades, it concedes nothing to comfort. The inn was the winner of the American Institute of Architects' "Excellence in Architecture" for work completed in the last 50 years. The rest of Warren village looks to have been built around it.

    It's not the first collaboration for Sellers, Bast and Rood. All three are on the faculty at the innovative Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren and all three have roots that go deep into a community they established more than three decades ago called Prickly Mountain. Yestermorrow, in fact, is one of the legacies of Prickly Mountain. It is one of the few places in the country to offer such disparate courses as building a stone wall, installing a solar electric system or constructing a straw bale house.

    Sellers muses about the old bobbin mill – once renovated by Sellers as a commercial space – and hydroelectric project just up the nearby Mad River. Vermonters were using water to power equipment 150 years ago, when "renewable" energy was simply the "energy" of the day. He and his friends had once tried to revive the water-power operation at the site, but the bureaucratic obstacles to revival proved too great. But it was a good idea – just ahead of its time. Lessons of the past often offer the solutions for the future.

    After lunch he takes me to Sellers and Company, Architects. The offices are just around the corner in an ungainly clapboard building that was once the Odd Fellows Hall. The inside is creatively cluttered with such curios as a 1950s-era outboard motor – all interspersed among the drawing tables and computer screens, the normal tools of the architectural trade. Finally, he sends me on my way to the nether parts of Warren with a hand-drawn map to Prickly Mountain.

    The beginning — Prickly Mountain, 1965

    In 1965, Sellers and Bill Rienecke, freshly graduated from the Yale School of Architecture, came to Vermont looking to build something. They were attracted to Vermont as much by the skiing and partying as the opportunity to build without the restrictions of zoning regulations or planning commissions. They discovered 450 acres, mostly abandoned farmland and unimproved forest that they were able to buy for $1,000 down apiece. The name came when another architect friend, John Lucas, sat down on a raspberry bush and — ouch! — Prickly Mountain was born.

    Sellers, amazed that so much land could be tied up with so little money, immediately began to think big. He returned to Yale and did what he has so often done throughout his colorful career: He got people excited about his vision.

    The problem, as Sellers saw it, was that "architects didn't learn to build things in school, but only to draw pictures." The opportunity to actually build something, he told former classmates, was too good to pass up. Come to Vermont, he said, and we can build things all summer. We'll find you a place to live, feed you, and even pay you $500.

    Thirty students took the offer. Sellers rented a house, hired a cook and arranged for credit at the local lumber yard and the IGA food store. (He still smiles when he thinks about how he managed to pull this off.) His motley crew, long on energy and creativity but short on cash and experience, began building houses. The theory was that by the end of the summer the houses could be mortgaged and the debts settled. Decades before Nike ever made it a slogan, Sellers developed the philosophy of "Just do it."

    The crew was intoxicated with a combination of energy and trust and went to work with hammer and nail. As the buildings went up and then as the building season wound down, Sellers hit the road to recruit still more people from other architectural schools.

    The national media took notice. First The New York Times, later Life magazine, but most influentially, Progressive Architecture gave credibility to the developments on Prickly Mountain. The trickle of pilgrims to Prickly became a march.

    At the time, the cultural revolution of the 1960s was in full swing. This was a time when Stewart Brand, in Berkeley, Calif., was reinventing book publishing with the Whole Earth Catalog. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were pounding up and down the West Coast in their psychedelic bus. John Todd, in Woods Hole, Mass., was mulling over the concept that would become The New Alchemy Institute. Greenpeace and Public Citizen were gleaming in the eyes of their founders. And in Vermont, David Sellers was leading bright, wide-eyed, would-be builders to the edge of the building envelope in the appropriately named Mad River Valley.

    The houses that were built were beyond unconventional. There were no blueprints. Plans were scratched in the dirt or scribbled on the plywood and the 2-by-4s being assembled. The houses soared into the surrounding forest, some of them resembling ships more than homes. The landscape, once virgin forest, then cleared pasture, then scraggly hardwood-softwood mix, had witnessed another evolution. Windows and decks appeared where they wanted to be. Solar and renewable energy were part of the gospel.

    The entrepreneurial caldron

    Sellers was on a financial treadmill. By the early 1970s, largely because of construction expenses, he was in debt $250,000. Operating with a social conscience and on the theory that it was "unjust to make money selling land," generous-sized building lots on the mountain were sold for only $4,000 each. Seventy-five acres were set aside for the common good. The Potato Road Association, an organization of Prickly Mountain residents, came to life to make sure that financial interests were never placed above those of the community.

    The gospel was to build; and if you couldn't afford land, then that was not to stop you. In one case Sellers loaned land to three architecture students from the University of Pennsylvania who were bubbling with their own ideas for what is now known as co-housing. Back then it didn't have a label.

    Young architects Jim Sanford, Bill Maclay and Dick Travers tackled the most ambitious Prickly project to date — Dimetrodon, a 10-unit "condominium" with shared walls and a roof constituting a structural grid within which an individual could build his or her own design. The structure also featured a giant solar collector, a wind-powered generator and wood furnace.

    "We came up from architectural school and within four or five days we were building," says Sanford, who now splits his professional time between Manhattan and Vermont, but still lives within walking distance of Dimetrodon. "We were doing our own ideas."

    Assisting on the construction side were, among others, Duncan Syme, another Yale refugee, and a young furniture-maker named John "Sucosh" Norton. ("Sucosh" is a nickname derived from a Japanese word that means "a little bit more." It is a common term in carpentry.)

    Prickly Mountain was a "happening" place, but not for everyone.

    "It was both self-regulating and self-selecting," says Jim Sanford. So, not anyone could live there. But those who did felt like part of a rambunctious family. "If someone came banging on the door at midnight wanting to play hockey, you'd grab for your stick."

    Creative, talented people were attracted to Prickly, but even creative, talented people need to earn a living. Jobs, aside from ski bumming and nail banging, were scarce. For many who wanted the party to continue, the employment option meant inventing your own job. Starting a business as well as building a home was governed by the Sellers creed of "Just do it."

    Prickly Mountain became a caldron of entrepreneurial stew. Suddenly, everyone had a business. Norton, along with other Prickly residents Andy Palmer, Chris McCarthy and Michael Goldfinger, started a furniture company called Union Woodworks. They leased space in the old Bibbin Mill, now co-owned by Sellers. Others soon followed: Randy Taplin was already established as a furniture maker; his wife, Nancy, was a working artist; Serena Fox started a graphic design business; Pierre Moffroid started importing tankless water heaters; Mac Rood and Rob Bass started exploring the manufacture and sale of composting toilets.

    Sellers also looked to be employed. He was hired at Goddard College in Plainfield to teach a class in design and building. One of his students, Don Mayer, was interested in bringing back the windmills that years earlier had been a common source of renewable energy on farms in the Midwest. Lessons of the past; solutions for the future. "Sure," Sellers told him. "We can make that happen." Before long Mayer, with Sellers, founded the North Wind Power company.

    And then two others, Duncan Syme and Richard Travers, started woodstove companies.

    It wasn't long before many of these businesses and enterprises began cross-pollinating with the ideas and skills of other residents of Prickly Mountain. A wind turbine soon was constructed at Dimetrodon. ("The worst wind power site ever!" says Norton ruefully.)

    The commonalities soon led to a unique blend of practical skills and unbridled creativity. One of Union Woodworks' designs was portrayed in a Smithsonian publication.

    "I didn't realize it at the time," says Norton, "but we were part of what is now described as the 'studio craft' movement." The magazine, in turn, caught the attention of an aspiring furniture maker in Santa Fe, N.M., who came to Vermont and tracked Union Woodworks to its Bobbin Mill home. He was John Wall, who would eventually become the other seed of Wall/Goldfinger, now a major business furniture manufacturer in Northfield.

    Wall remembers what his life was like in the early days at Union Woodworks: "I didn't know what I was doing. I showed up at the Bobbin Mill and was told that they would hire me for $3 an hour if I could get a CETA grant (Comprehensive Education Training Act) for half the salary. I drove over to Barre, got the grant, and before long I'm making patterns for the Defiant (the woodstove designed by Syme), The Elm (the woodstove designed by Travers) and restoring windmill blades for North Wind Power (the company started by Mayer and Sellers).

    "I worked in a building owned by Sellers, lived in a building owned by Sellers, and went to his parties. I guess you could say I was his serf."

    Even Sellers himself got into the entrepreneurial game by designing the "Mad River Rocket," a highly maneuverable sled, still on the market, that is steered with your knees, perfect for use in the glades.

    Candy Barr, an established artist who lives in the original Sellers home on Prickly Mountain and who was at one time married to him, puts it this way: "David has always wanted to make the world a better place. He knows how to balance recreation, fun and work. Of all the people ever associated with Prickly Mountain, he's the one who you really want at a party."

    So, on Prickly Mountain you couldn't just go sledding, you had to invent new sleds. You couldn't just play hockey on a frozen pond, you had to design and build a wood-fired Zamboni, complete with hot chocolate dispenser.

    The latter, primarily a Duncan Syme inspiration, worked like a charm until one day it just stopped. Being wood-powered and therefore hot, it melted gracefully through the ice. For the balance of the season it was an interesting obstacle on the playing surface.

    The Vermont business landscape in 2005

    Now, flash forward to 2005. Pierre Moffroid and his wife, Mary, former Dimetrodon residents, have recently retired, having sold their company, Controlled Energy of Waitsfield, to an international conglomerate, The Bosch Group. Just down the road a piece, Northern Power, founded as North Wind Power, has just seen the shares of its parent company, Distributed Energy Systems Corp., jump as much as 21 percent in one day due to robust quarterly projections. Former president Clint "Jito" Coleman, another Dimetrodon original, was named "Business Person of the Year" by the Small Business Administration. At its current rate of growth, Northern Power will no longer be eligible for awards requiring smallness.

    Around the corner on Route 100, Small Dog Electronics owners Don Mayer and son Hapy have won so many awards for their humane, humorous and socially responsible business practices that their Web site needs two pages to list them.

    Wait a minute — didn't Mayer and Sellers found North Wind Power? Yes, and North Wind Power begat Northern Power and, eventually, Small Dog Electronics, one of the earliest proponents of what has become the "socially responsible business" movement. Their trade organization, the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility boasts hundreds of members and is probably the most successful state organization of its type.

    Vermont is dotted with innovative buildings that bring interpretations of "green," "renewable" and "pleasurable" to new levels. And look just below the surface, and you will see the design work and entrepreneurial know-how of many of the familiar names from the early days of Prickly Mountain. In Bristol you can wash down your lunch with a micro-brewed beer made on the premises of the Bobcat Café, whose architect was Jim "Dimetrodon" Sanford.

    In Hinesburg, the headquarters for NRG Systems, a global leader in wind energy, was designed by architect William "Dimetrodon" Maclay, whose team has also been named to design the new Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont.

    And don't forget Warren's Pitcher Inn, created by Sellers, Mac Rood and Rob Bast.

    Over Roxbury Mountain in Northfield, John Wall, now sole owner of Wall/Goldfinger ("Designing and Building Fine Corporate Furniture Since 1971"), has just landed a $1 million job to design and build furniture for the Bank One headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. Farther south in Randolph, Vermont Castings, founded by Prickly residents, is now operating three shifts to meet skyrocketing demand for woodstoves.

    Perhaps no one boasts a more Prickly resume than Sucosh Norton. He built Dimetrodon, started Union Woodworks, was head of the pattern shop at Vermont Castings, president of North Wind Power and is now chief operating officer at Controlled Energy.

    Did the freewheeling environment at Prickly Mountain lay the groundwork for business success? Or did the environment attract talented people who were destined to be successful wherever they went? Was Sellers the straw that stirred the drink, or did the drink even need a straw? How long could everyone imbibe?

    Meanwhile, on Prickly Mountain

    In the beginning were the bright-eyed young architects and carpenters and artists who built the houses that soared into the woods of Prickly Mountain. At the end are curtain calls with the Moffroids, Colemans, Mayers, Nortons, Walls and Maclays taking well-deserved bows.

    In the middle, there were some serious disagreements and bruised feelings. But such bumps probably should have been anticipated among such creative high-energy people. One episode stands out: It revolved around a design contest in the Prickly community that was staged to cope with the 1973 Arab oil embargo. It began when several of the Prickly Mountain denizens decided it would be fun to hold a "design-off" to see who could come up with the best concept for an efficient woodstove. The official contestants were Sellers, Syme and Travers, and the idea was that the winning design would be manufactured and everyone would become wealthy.

    Norton, interviewed recently, says he recalls that Sellers' design for a stove called "The Maple" was "the most eloquent and attractive, (but) its flaw was that it couldn't be built."

    Travers' entry, "The Elm," was a compact barrel-type stove with an elegant glass door featuring a cast-iron silhouette of a graceful elm tree. Syme, on the other hand, created a more traditional Franklin-type stove that combined Early American aesthetics with efficient combustion principles.

    It was Syme's "Defiant" that took off like a Mad River Rocket. That was the stove that Syme and his brother-in-law, Murray Howell, marketed nationwide after founding Vermont Castings.

    Sellers and Syme were college classmates, but their friendship began to dissolve. Howell died tragically in 1983, and in the early 1990s Syme was forced out of the company he founded.

    And Sellers never did hit it rich despite his charisma and incredible innovations. As an architect and designer, he has been involved in projects as diverse as conceptualizing the hospital for Patch Adams' Gesundheit Institute; the waterfront development in Burlington; Maple Tree Place in Williston; and the ongoing restoration of St. John's the Divine in New York City. It's a "to-die-for" architectural resume, but Sellers often became distracted as new challenges would arise.

    Some of his ideas over the years – like the offshore aquaculture farm – seemed just too grand and too far ahead of their times. Most recently, Sellers has taken to the airwaves with a radio program on WMRW called "Sprawl Talk" that can be heard throughout the Mad River Valley on Tuesday afternoons. It's another new beginning for a man who has made a career of them.

    Time passes, water goes under the bridge and over the dam, yet remnants of the Prickly world still exist, and former residents remain interconnected. Syme and Sellers, for example, are once again good friends.

    Two of the original homes have burned down. The wood-fired Zamboni, to the best of Syme's recollection, remains at the bottom of the pond. Sanford has designed two houses for Sucosh Norton. John Wall just bought a used Vermont Elm stove at a yard sale for an addition on his house.

    I follow Sellers' hand-drawn map to Prickly Mountain. There's more construction happening at Dimetrodon. After all these years it's still a work in progress. Only five of the intended 10 units were ever completed, and none of the original inhabitants remains. The solar collector and wind turbine are long gone. Is this success, failure, or semi-success?

    Jim Sanford, who splits his professional time between projects in Vermont and New York City, is unequivocal in his assessment. "Living at Dimetrodon was a delight. The five of us (himself, Maclay, Travers, Norton and Coleman) grew up together, raised our families, and remain as close as ever. The only reason we moved is that we outgrew the space."

    More than coincidentally, all of the original inhabitants live within a mile or two of Dimetrodon and make a practice of celebrating holidays together — New Year's at the Moffroids', Easter at the Maclays', Christmas at Sanford's.

    "We're a tribe," says Sanford, one that exists within the larger tribe of the alumni of Prickly Mountain. "We started as an architectural project and ended up as a social experiment," he adds.

    The structures of Prickly Mountain have mostly endured, but it is the community that is truly resilient.

    The best demonstration of that is the Prickly Mountain float in the Warren Fourth of July parade. The first was in 1965. At the time Warren was a sleepy little village with a sleepy little parade on the Fourth. Now, as many as 15,000 people from miles around choke the streets to participate in the fun, many of them coming to see what new absurdities the Prickly-inspired participants will come up with. It ain't yer average Fourth of July parade. "We're the Fourth of July capital of the world," says Sellers proudly.

    The Prickly Mountain entry is subject to self-imposed rules. They are few, they are loose, but they are important. The float must be built by the community. It must have a theme. It can't be started more than two or three days in advance. No motors allowed. It must be huge! The result must be artistic, creative and ingenious.

    Norton describes the process: "It's a commitment to community rituals and processes. The key elements are collaboration and a tremendous amount of trust. You could describe it as design charrette, where we set out to do the impossible. You also could call it a right brain activity, carried on by 50 people."

    The Fourth is a touchstone, an informal reunion for talented, creative, freewheeling people who were once attracted to live and work with others as passionate as themselves. The Fourth gives them all an excuse to return to the well. There's more gray hair, and some of the hairlines have headed north, but for a few crazy days, it's 1971 again.

    Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer who lives in Randolph. He is the founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com).

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