House For Sale: Sunderland, Vermont
(Read more about Ira and Ethan Allen in a Yankee Classic from 1981.)
Vermont is different from the other five New England states. For one thing, as true Vermonters are very quick to point out, it was never one of the original 13 states.
In fact, in 1777, a couple of years after the Revolution began, Vermont declared itself an independent country. It had its own government, its own army, its own diplomatic corps, even its own money. It wasn’t until 1791 that it finally joined the Union as our 14th state.
So who do you suppose was the man credited with playing the leading role in the creation of this country called Vermont? Hint: A prominent furniture company uses his name. That’s right — Ethan Allen (1738-1789). As noted writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher put it, Ethan Allen “was the voice of Vermont [and] he still is.”
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Ethan Allen, along with his five brothers and various cousins and in-laws, moved to Vermont, then called the New Hampshire Grants, in 1769. Not long thereafter, he organized an army of volunteers who called themselves the “Green Mountain Boys” to maintain the region’s independence from the “Yorkers” (New York colonists who had their eye on the land to their east). On May 10, 1775, he struck a huge blow against the British by capturing Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, reportedly yelling to the British commander that he and his Green Mountain Boys were taking over the fort “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”
Today those stirring words are an integral part of Vermont history. But what did he really yell to the British commander? Well, according to folklorist and historian B. A. Botkin, his exact words were: “Come out of there, you goddamn old rat!” Indeed, Ethan Allen was a profane, larger-than-life, complex man who, it was said, could tear a pack of cards into eighths and, when deep in thought, was known to twist ten-penny nails in two with his teeth — which he also sometimes used as he flipped hundred-pound sacks of salt over his shoulder. One didn’t mess with Ethan Allen.
A few months after he turned Fort Ticonderoga over to the Colonies, Allen was captured and imprisoned by the British during an unsuccessful invasion of Montreal. By 1778 he was free and back in “the Republic of Vermont,” where he and his brother Ira built a house in Sunderland (just south of Manchester) on the shores of the river known as the Batten Kill. So now we’re getting to the point of all this history, because … that eight-bedroom, five-bathroom house, now a B&B known as the Ira Allen House, with around 10 lovely acres and 850 feet of river frontage, can be all yours for $1,150,000.
So why isn’t it called the Ethan Allen House? Well, both Ira and Ethan built the place and lived there with their families for some eight years, and at one time it was called the Ethan Allen Inn. But when it was declared a state historic site in 1958, it was named for Ira instead of Ethan — something about the furniture company’s having first dibs on the Ethan Allen name for commercial use.
Anyway, although not as famous as Ethan (and apparently a lot shorter — his nickname was “Stub”), Ira was Vermont’s surveyor-general and quite the historical figure himself. Among other things, he founded the city of Burlington — and the University of Vermont.
Not long ago, we spent a lovely morning at the Ira Allen House with innkeeper Maria Jones. Originally from the Philippines, she and her husband, Ed, a high school teacher from New Jersey, and their three girls (ages 6, 11, and 14) have been living in a large 1775 house next door for the past few years. With her family in school weekdays, it’s up to Maria to walk over to the Allen house early every morning and begin the daily tasks of operating a B&B. For the first hour of our visit, for instance, she was busy serving delicious-looking omelets to the half-dozen guests scattered about the dining room (which can seat up to 30). Cinnamon buns, toast, fruit, and such were on hand for them as well.
During this time we sat in the adjoining living room next to a cheerful fire, drinking coffee, sampling several of those buns, and admiring the huge overhead beams. Original? We’re not sure, nor was Maria. There was no doubt, however, that the two silhouette portraits hanging on the far wall were of Ethan and Ira Allen.
Once everyone was happy, Maria showed us the kitchen, fully equipped with all the basics. Half of the space serves as her office, and the adjoining two rooms house the washer and dryer — a busy place in a B&B — and a modern furnace. Also off the kitchen is a sunroom, with a hot tub just outside. “On weekends the girls eat breakfast out here,” Maria told us, “and they just love the Jacuzzi.”
Eventually, after hugs for each of her departing guests (all of whom reacted to her as though she were practically their mother), Maria relaxed with us for a few minutes back in the living room. Ahead for her, of course, were the breakfast clean-up, changing the beds and washing the sheets, working out the grocery needs, dusting and vacuuming, and so on. Running a B&B, we realized, is sort of an endless series of tasks.
“You have to love meeting people,” Maria noted. It was obvious that she fulfilled that requirement in spades. The current problem for her and Ed, she explained, was operating two homes — one as a business — and, at the same time, maintaining a family life for their three girls: “When we bought the Allen house three years ago, thinking it was a dream come true, we found we’d underestimated the difficulties in juggling those priorities.” Thus their decision to sell.