DORSET, Vt. -- Seventy-five years before Californians struck gold, Vermonters tapped a mother lode of something almost as valuable. The Dorset marble seam, which protruded like snowbanks in places, ran from the state's southwest corner to the Canadian border.
Between the 1780s and the 1930s, quarries in what came to be known as the Marble Valley delivered blocks of white stone for countless civic buildings, from the Lincoln Memorial to the New York Public Library, as well as for 5,000 headstones to mark the graves at Gettysburg. In 1908 Vermont quarries were responsible for 60 percent of US revenue from marble.
Today the quarries are but swimming holes in the village of Dorset, for which the seam of white stone was named, but broad marble sidewalks still line Route 30 as it passes through the cluster of white clapboard buildings at the center of town. The prosperity of the quarrying days has been revived by skiing and snowboarding, and Dorset's population is edging back to its 1870s peak of 2,200. Downhillers flock to Stratton and Bromley mountains, which lie within a 30-minute drive. About the same distance away in Londonderry is Viking Nordic Center, and cross-country skiers can also ply miles of trails and roads at
Even though most of the shopping and skiing takes place out of town, Dorset's mountain views and pastoral countryside are attraction enough for most visitors, as they have been since the 1870s, when clergymen and their families started boarding with farmers in the summer. Nature worshipers followed, then artists, and by the turn of the century Dorset's reputation as a resort community rivaled the fame of its local stone. Over time, the artists held sway: A white building on Church Street still houses the Dorset Colony for Writers, and the local playhouse stays open year-round. And wherever artists, theater people, and their patrons settle in, fine dining is never far away.
This happy confluence of culture and geography, located about 2 1/2 hours from Boston, means that a weekend here in any season can be divided between outdoor and indoor pursuits. For adults, hiking around Norcross-West marble quarry, the country's first (1785), brings out the childlike impulse to scramble among the piles of car-size blocks scattered in the woods around the gaping pit. In winter this presents a serious hazard for hikers, who could slide into what amounts to a giant well, which only partly freezes because a stream spills into it. But for careful explorers, tracing a wide ring around the quarry makes for a delightful prowl.
For families, a safer option is the Merck Forest & Farmland Center in the neighboring town of Rupert, about 5 miles north of Dorset center. A picnic of goodies from Peltier's Market in Dorset will fuel an outing of skiing or hiking on the 28 miles of trails winding through this 3,100-acre property. (Cross-country ski trails are not groomed.) The center's mission is to teach and demonstrate the benefits of innovative, sustainable management of forest and farmland. The property's demonstration farm raises a handsome breed of cattle called Randall Linebacks (which look like snow-dusted Angus), along with sheep, draft horses, and heirloom breeds of chickens and pigs, all of which can be visited in their respective barns. College-age interns care for the animals. During a recent visit, Lily DiMauro, an intern from New Haven, said that while she has no plans to become a farmer, she enjoys farm labor ''because it's relaxing and it works my body." Every day she hikes a mile to the barns from a wood-heated lodge on the property, which lacks electricity and indoor plumbing. Lily likes the place but won't be re-upping for another internship. ''It's just too cold," she said on a 10-degree day, dodging the hogs milling around her as she placed basins of grain in their pen.
For indoors exploring, Route 30, Dorset's main drag, offers browsing opportunities for antiques lovers, who can continue on to Manchester Center and find even more. The trip south on Route 30 should include a stop at H.N. Williams Country Store, an 1840 harness shop that has always been owned by the same family. The simple store, a warren of connected rooms that still smells faintly horsey, carries a jumble of groceries and horse feed, Vermont honey and cheese, and clothing that runs from Carhartt logging pants to upscale skiwear.
Among Manchester's unique attractions are Hildene, the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's son, and the grand Equinox Hotel, both elegant remnants of the area's resort days. Now a house museum with formal gardens in summer and a working farm, Hildene offers weekend tours of the 1905 Georgian Revival mansion on winter weekends; cross-country skiers and snowshoers can buy day passes to use 21 packed trails on 400 acres of woods and meadows, located just off Route 7A south of Manchester Center.
The Equinox, now a resort and spa with restaurants and a golf course, began as a pre-Revolutionary War tavern. Spread out over four connected, stark-white Federal buildings on Main Street, the hotel is worth at least a walk-through, if just to experience its old-school luxury. Leading to its doors are -- what else? -- marble sidewalks.
Though Manchester boasts several popular taverns and bars (the Perfect Wife, Mikas, Mulligan's), theater is the main evening event in Dorset. This winter, the Dorset Players are staging community productions through May in the funky Dorset Playhouse, a building cobbled together in 1929 from pre-Revolutionary barns. (''March Is for Murder" month features a whodunit, ''Rehearsal for Murder," and a One-Act Festival.) In mid-June, the Dorset Theatre Festival takes over and puts on professional productions six days a week through mid-September.
Until then, this village in the Marble Valley remains a place to savor life in the slow lane.
Contact Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, at firstname.lastname@example.org.