by Harriet Fisher
Elmer Darling, a man from Burke who had become wealthy as proprietor of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City, owned two cottages at the bend of the road near the south end of Willoughby Lake. In 1914, Darling, a public-spirited man, turned the cottage now known as Sunset View over to the Lyndonville Village Improvement Society (VIS), rent free. It was to be used as a tearoom to raise funds for maintenance of the several parks in Lyndonville. Darling retained one cottage, Cragmere, for his own use. Later he improved the Tea Room by adding paneling and a fireplace.
In 1921 Mr. Darling built The Boulders dance casino which he also turned over to the VIS rent free for fund-raising. A group from Orleans played there once a week for a few seasons. Harold Domina played trumpet; Philip Moulton, violin; Sadie Lothrop (later married to Domina) played piano; and Frank Clifford played drums. Sometimes Red Shepard joined with his trombone. The VIS opening dance on Tuesday, August 3, 1921, in the new Casino was a huge success, with 475 people attending. The gaily-lighted buildings, and the moonlight shining through the trees and on the water, helped make the evening memorable. Dr. F.H. Davis, on behalf of the Society, expressed appreciation to Mr. Darling for his “kind act.” Mr. Darling told about building the Casino and said he was pleased to see the opening event so successful. The grand march was led by Mr. Darling with Mrs. F.H. Davis, the president of the VIS. “Henault’s [seven piece] orchestra was the motive power for a good program of popular waltzes, fox trots, and one-steps, which lasted till one-o’clock. Old, young, and middle-aged were present,” reported the VIS.
In those days there was no generation gap at dances. During intermission ice cream, soft drinks, and other foods were served from The Boulders Tea Room, which was connected to the Casino by a covered boardwalk. Car parking at the end of the lake was “excellently handled,” said the VIS report, by John Stafford, Willis Blake, and James Shiletto. The floor manager was F.J. Willey, “always efficient and equal to the occasion.” Two VIS couples took charge of the dance each week, under a schedule that covered the whole season, June 1 to August 31. The VIS ran dances twice a week; Henault’s orchestra played on Tuesday evenings, and the New Harmony orchestra on Fridays. Some of the other musical groups that swung the dancers through their paces over the years were The Black and White Orchestra, Toole’s Orchestra, H. Guy Dunbar’s Band, and the Royal Ambassadors.
During one of its earlier years the Casino earned a profit of $1,223.28; the Tea Room earned $132.72. One year the two enterprises netted the VIS $5,892. After 1926 when both facilities lost money, Mr. Darling recommended that the Casino and The Boulders Tea Room be leased to one person. A 1929 VIS report tells of hiring Frank Scribner of Miami, Florida, “one of the popular young men who was at The Boulders last year and who is familiar with the work.” Also mentioned for a couple of years was an Earl Davis, also of Miami. When Mr. Darling died in 1931, the VIS involvement at Willoughby Lake ended.
David I. (“D.I.”) Grapes of Lyndonville bought The Boulders Tea Room and Casino in 1935 and started developing the property. He acquired or built cottages across the road until there were 14 in all. He built a restaurant under the dance hall. To do this, the builders had to blast rock out from under the dance hall—a delicate procedure. Mr. Grapes died in 1943 and ownership passed to his son Clarence. Clarence was no stranger to furnishing amusement for people. He had, among other things, operated the Sunset miniature golf course, the Sunset bowling alley, and the Sunset ballroom, all in Lyndonville. In addition to renting out the cottages, he offered a dining room, a gift shop, a tennis court, a dairy bar on the beach, and a croquet ground. Guests could play shuffleboard, pool, ping-pong, and other games. They could fish, hike, take a boat ride, attend The Boulders Theater, or just lounge around and read or rest. Swings were added for children’s amusement. Clarence was also head chef. Elmer Darling had designed a boat, the Burklyn, named for his mansion on the Burke-Lyndon town line near East Burke. This motor launch was built for him in 1910 in Canton, Ohio, and shipped to a local station by rail and then by horses to Willoughby Lake. This 35-foot Mathews Day Cruiser was made of oak and mahogany, with brass fittings, and cupboards with etched glass doors. It was one of the first motor launches on the lake. D.I. Grapes’ 1935 purchase of the Darling property included this launch. It was refitted with a fine Chrysler marine engine, and renamed Mountain Maid. It was operated as a passenger boat for the enjoyment of the public. For a time, a young attractive girl called the “Mountain Maid” pointed out the rock “pictures” on Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor, and such places as Smugglers’ Cave and Devil’s Rock. Who was this Mountain Maid? No identification for the young woman is available.Later Clarence Grapes operated the boat himself, and for the enjoyment of his passengers, pointed out the “pictures” and related the history of how the lake was formed.
Clarence died in 1969 and the property was eventually purchased by Ernest Robie of Bristol, New Hampshire. In 1975 two college students purchased the Mountain Maid, then in a somewhat dilapidated condition. The young men moved it to the Shelburne Shipyard where they hoped to restore it for use on Lake Champlain. In 1979 a courageous couple attempted to bring The Boulders back to life. Bruce and Mary Jo Scott of East Ryegate leased The Boulders and its furnishings with an option to buy from Ernest Robie. The Scotts and their three children, Christopher, Tonya, and Gregory, moved into the former Tea Room cottage now called Sunset View.
The Scotts spruced up the cottages in anticipation of receiving guests. Mary Jo “found all the charm and idiosyncrasies of the place,” and it was like “embarking on a veritable treasure hunt each morning,” she said. The Scotts wanted to restore the dance hall and offer dances two or three times a week. Despite its deteriorated state, they had confidence in the hall’s superior construction. They also hoped to show movies, open a coffee shop, a gift shop, and perhaps the game room for rainy days. They even hoped to reopen the restaurant, which was finished in wood similar to that in the dance hall above it. The gigantic mirror with its light fixtures shaded by stained-glass globes was still there. The large painting of Willoughby Lake by W.E. Snay still hung on the wall. Mary Jo was intrigued with the restaurant kitchen floor, which had been built at various levels to accommodate the ledges beneath. However, even courage, hard work, and faith proved to be unequal to the task.
The place had been allowed to go downhill for too long; the buildings had severely deteriorated. The Scotts were defeated by insurmountable governmental regulations, expensive repairs, and unexpected negative discoveries, such as the hole in the wall of the dance hall where a boulder had hurtled down from Mt. Pisgah, probably during a heavy rainstorm. The place was called The Boulders, to be sure, but the Scotts preferred that the boulders stay outside. The Scotts had been drawn to Willoughby Lake by childhood memories and the magnetic beauty of the lake and mountains. They had honeymooned at the lake, and in later years had brought their children there for vacations. Perhaps these factors contributed to their case of “owneritis”—dreams of what a place could be and memories of what it once was. The Scotts did not pick up their option, and The Boulders property went back to Robie. The Scotts were disappointed but were not sorry they had tried. The venture had gained them new friends; they also had learned a lot about property management. They concluded the “adventure” had been “a unique and extraordinary vacation.” Now all the buildings have been sold off except two: the former Boulders Tea Room (Sunset View) and the Casino. The Casino is a reminder to those who can still remember dancing at The Boulders.
The Mountain Maid remains in dry dock at Shelburne Shipyard.Publisher’s note: The author first published the previous piece in 1988 in her book, Willoughby Lake: Legends and Legacies. The book is available at the Old Stone House Museum gift shop in Brownington and in some local stores. The Boulders was a popular destination for locals and visitors to the region. Located on the shores of Willoughby Lake, the establishment had a dance hall that measured 75 feet by 32 feet with an alcove for the orchestra and seats for the dancers. The finish was planed spruce and the polished floor was excellent for dancing. Electricity was furnished by The Boulders’ plant. A promenade about 10 feet wide skirted three sides of the building. A ladies’ dressing room and checking accommodations were located downstairs.