The heartwarming story behind The Vermont Country Store
Stepping through the front doors of the original Vermont Country Store in Weston, one is instantly transported into a wondrous world of rustic reminiscence. The walls are lined with a thoughtfully-curated assortment of well-made and hard-to-find products,
and the spacious rooms are staffed with friendly sales associates dressed in flannel shirts and aprons. As The Vermont Country Store celebrates its 75th anniversary, the thoughtful and enterprising spirit that once compelled Vrest Orton to open the business in 1946 is now manifested through the considerate oversight of his three charismatic grandsons: Gardner, Cabot and Eliot Orton.
Following in the footsteps of their father, Lyman, who ran The Vermont Country Store with care and grace for several decades, the three brothers now serve as the current proprietors of The Vermont Country Store. Together, they pour their love and attention into running the business as a collaborative leadership team. As eighth-generation Vermonters and fifth-generation storekeepers, they are grateful for the opportunity to serve as the stewards of the cherished Vermont institution. As they move towards the future, they remain firmly rooted in the humble and hardworking values that have defined The Vermont Country Store since its inception.
The story behind The Vermont Country store begins in North Calais, Vermont in 1897, where Vrest Orton’s father Gardner Lyman Orton opened a general store with his father-in-law during the same year that Vrest was born. Although Vrest thoroughly enjoyed spending his earliest years in his father’s shop, he was nevertheless drawn away from the picturesque mountains of Vermont by a deep yearning for intellectual fulfillment – and an equally profound sense of duty to his country.
After Vrest returned from serving in the U.S. Military in France during World War I, he enrolled at Harvard in 1923. He then relocated to New York City in 1925. While there, Vrest wholeheartedly immersed himself in his work in the publishing industry. He forged strong professional connections through his work at prestigious magazines such as American Mercury, Saturday Review of Literature, and Life. Over the course of his career in the magazine business, Vrest built a reputation for himself as a distinguished arbiter of typographical and literary knowledge. In 1929, Vrest embarked on his first self-started entrepreneurial journey when he founded The Colophon, a thoughtful and discriminating niche literary magazine that catered to the tastes of a distinguished cadre of international book collectors. Vrest then returned to Vermont, where he settled in the idyllic village of Weston. After re-establishing himself in the Green Mountain State, he continued his work in the literary sphere by opening a publishing company called The Countryman Press in 1936. That same year, he married his wife, Mildred Wilcox, who preferred to be addressed by her middle name, “Ellen.”
During World War II, Vrest left the Green Mountain State once again to work as a publicist for the Pentagon. It was there that the initial seeds for the idea that would eventually become The Vermont Country Store began to sprout in his mind. Although the trajectory of his career had taken him far away from his original roots as the son of a second-generation Vermont storekeeper, deep-seated pangs of nostalgia began to reverberate in the depths of his subconscious. He then made the decision to create a catalog and store inspired by his father’s general store in North Calais, Vermont. By doing so, Vrest was able to build on his lifelong passion for publishing and literature while still carrying on the family tradition.
In the fall of 1945, Vrest and Ellen made their initial entry into the retail business with a mail-order catalog entitled, “The Voice of The Mountains.” Vrest printed the catalog on an in-house press in his garage, drawing on the skill set that he had honed during his years in the fast-paced and high-demand world of New York City publishing. As a young child, Lyman Orton watched his father Vrest operate the printing press with awe and fascination. He also helped his mother, Ellen, with the bookkeeping. She taught him how to use an adding machine to crunch numbers for the incoming mail-order checks.
The original “Voice of The Mountains” catalog was 12 pages long and featured 36 items. Ellen sent the catalog out to a “Christmas card list” of close family members and friends, who were eager to support their fledgling business. As word continued to spread, the mail-order operation expanded to the point that it could no longer be housed in the Orton garage. Vrest and Mildred also began to receive an immense number of inquiries from tourists who were eager to visit the fabled “Vermont Country Store.” Due to the fact that no such in-person store existed yet, Vrest and Ellen were unable to capitalize on the interests of potential visiting tourists. It was then that Vrest and Ellen made the decision to acquire a two-story building in Weston where they could open a store for people to come visit. Before it was purchased by the Ortons, the building served as a locally-owned country inn. When Vrest and Mildred opened The Vermont Country Store there in 1946, young Lyman helped out behind the counter, adding up the cost of customers’ purchases on a 19th century school slate board. Vrest’s father, Gardner Lyman Orton, moved down to Weston to be closer to his son and his family, and worked as a miller in the local gristmill. At the time, Southern Vermont was experiencing a vibrant artistic renaissance. Famed artists, composers and luminaries such as Norman Rockwell, Rockwell Kent, Carl Ruggles and Dorothy Canfield Fisher were living in the picturesque nearby valley town of Arlington to the south, and the Weston Playhouse (which had opened a decade earlier in 1935 as Vermont’s first fully-fledged professional theatre) was bringing a new wave of thespian talent and creative notoriety to the region. In 1943, Norman Rockwell inspired millions of Americans and brought international fame to Vermont through his iconic Four Freedoms illustrations, which were published in The Saturday Evening Post. The Four Freedoms series was a watershed moment in his career, which cemented his place as one of the most celebrated artists in American history.
Nine years after Rockwell’s magnificent illustrations secured his spot in the American artistic pantheon, The Saturday Evening Post also played a crucial role in the continual expansion of The Vermont Country Store. When The Saturday Evening Post published an article by Edward Shenton entitled “The Happy Shopkeeper of the Green Mountains” in 1952, The Vermont Country Store began to receive more attention than ever before. Tens of thousands of eager customers from all around the country placed orders and made pilgrimages to Weston to experience The Vermont Country Store firsthand. Vrest and Ellen quickly seized the opportunity to take their business to new levels. In 1959, exponential increases in demand led to the opening of a second store in nearby Rockingham, which is now the home of a beautiful restored covered bridge known affectionately as the “Kissing Bridge.” A picturesque mill pond and gristmill further accentuate the countrified ambience, offering patrons a glimpse back into a bygone era of Arcadian mystique.
As the business continued to grow and blossom, Vrest and Ellen passed the leadership duties down to their son, Lyman, in 1972. Lyman grabbed the reins with vigorous enthusiasm and took the opportunity to grow the business even further by diversifying their product range and expanding their phone-ordering and mail-ordering capacities. In the process, Lyman also began to broaden The Vermont Country Store’s inventory by forging exclusive merchandising agreements with specialty companies that made hard-to-find products. Today, shoppers who come to both locations of The Vermont Country Store will find a plethora of fun and quirky games, household goods, candies, and rare classic products such as Lemon Up Shampoo, Regal Hard Candy, Charles Pretzels, and Clubman Aftershave. The Vermont Country Store’s Retail Director Jim Szabo finds great fulfillment in his work, and goes above and beyond to ensure that customers who come to The Vermont Country Store are treated to a world-class experience.
According to Szabo, one of his favorite things about working at The Vermont Country Store is watching multiple generations of visiting families delight in their unique product offerings. “There’s nothing quite like watching a grandparent and grandchild’s eyes light up with the same curious wonder while walking through the store and browsing through our selection,” says Szabo. “We have games, toys and products that have been around for decades. When a parent or grandparent brings their kids to The Vermont Country Store, they get to experience the same feeling of childlike excitement together. It really helps families grow closer and bond over a shared activity. It’s a real joy to see those kinds of moments still happening today at The Vermont Country Store.”
Szabo adds that just as the mail-order catalog business model played a pivotal part in the foundation and expansion of The Vermont Country Store, the addition of their online platform helped to bolster sales even further in the internet age. “The Vermont Country Store is certainly a
business that is rooted in wholesome Vermont family values, but it is by no means static. After Lyman Orton had worked as the Proprietor of The Vermont Country Store for several decades, he was confronted with an important decision. He knew that the market had shifted online, and he had to decide whether or not to go with the industry trends and follow suit. He’s a very savvy and intelligent man, and he knew that it was a valuable market. Today, we have a large online presence, a large team of phone operators, and we still see heavy foot traffic in both stores. The Vermont Country Store has managed to maintain a good balance between in-person, over-the-phone and online commerce, and it’s all thanks to the tireless efforts of all of our team members and the insightful leadership of the Orton Family.” Over the past decade-and-a-half, a new generation of the Orton family has stepped up to the plate and assumed proprietary duties. Gardner, Eliot and Cabot Orton have all played various roles behind-the-scenes in the operation of The Vermont Country Store over the course of their careers, but Gardner Orton makes it clear that they are all equal in their roles as Proprietors of the family business. “We like the term, ‘Proprietor’, because it keeps us grounded in our roots as a family-run general store,” says Gardner. “Above all else, we want to create a phenomenal experience for every customer who comes here. We want them to leave with the same feelings of warmth and happiness that we get whenever we walk through the doors.”
In addition to his passion for providing exemplary service to The Vermont Country Store’s customers, Gardner is also an ardent believer in the power of well-balanced nutrition. Throughout the front of the Weston store, a series of exclusive, natural, health products such as “Strength of the Hills Apple Cider Vinegar” and “Dr. Carleton’s Ginger and Turmeric Tonic” serve as a testament to his health-conscious personal values. Gardner adds that every member of the Orton family is also steadfastly committed to creating a healthy and considerate environment for every employee who works for The Vermont Country Store. “We couldn’t do anything without our team of dedicated employees,” says Gardner. “The Vermont Country Store has always been a family tradition, and we see everyone who works for The Vermont Country Store as part of our extended family”
According to The Vermont Country Store’s Communication Manager, Ann Warrell, that same philosophy of unity and compassionate awareness is also manifested through The Vermont Country Store’s various philanthropic initiatives. “The Vermont Country Store gives back to the community in many ways. We provide bedding and curtains to organizations that support and house victims of domestic violence, and clothing to hospital patients that don’t have suitable clothes to go home in. We also provided new technology to the Northshire Day School, as well, which is an early-childhood daycare and education center that is located next door to our offices in Manchester. They didn’t have a complete technology package for their school, so we were happy to donate computer equipment to them. At the peak of the pandemic when The Vermont Country Store was closed, we donated a lot of our unused food goods to local food banks, as well.”
Warrell says that The Vermont Country Store has also recently implemented philanthropic initiatives which offer employees incentivized opportunities to give back to their local communities. “The Orton family has always been philanthropically-minded,” notes Warrell. “Around 15 years ago, they decided that they wanted to put the power of giving back in their employees hands. We have some philanthropic programs that are designed specifically for individual employees. We have a gift matching program where if an employee donates a certain amount of money to a charitable organization and provides a receipt, we will donate a matching amount of money to the same organization. We also understand that not all employees are able to give out financial gifts on a regular basis, so we also encourage community involvement through our employee volunteerism program. If an employee works as a volunteer for a certain amount of time at a local nonprofit organization, we pay that nonprofit organization $10 an hour for every hour that they volunteer. We want to encourage our employees to actively participate in the betterment of their communities. Giving back has always been a core part of The Vermont Country Store’s value system. By supporting our neighbors and local organizations, we’re making the world a better place for the people who live nearby and come shop at our store. We like to think that the good work that we do in the local community gets paid back tenfold. We aim to keep growing and thriving for the next 75 years and build on the success of our first 75 years in every way – and we want our surrounding community to thrive and prosper, as well!”