Real von Trapps competing with modern Vermont hotels

November 15, 2017


When he wants a break from the family business, Sam von Trapp grabs his mountain bike and rides into the woods near the lodge that bears his last name. Those are the same woods that his father Johannes, the youngest child of Georg and Maria von Trapp, spent time exploring when he wanted to get away from a house filled with children.

There were seven from his father's first marriage to Agatha and three with Maria, including Johannes, who is now 78.

And it's where Sam and his sister Kristina explored as children and connected with nature.

"My family settled in Vermont because it reminded them of Austria," says Sam, who was born in Vermont and moved back to help run the family business.

"They initially were living outside of Philadelphia and the hot, humid summers there weren't what they were used to (coming) from Austria."
A concert tour took them to Vermont, and someone let them stay in a house there for the summer. They fell in love with Stowe, "and that was it," says Sam, 45.

'The Sound of Music' fills the lodge

Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont
Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont
Channon Hodge/CNN

These days, tourist buses filled with fans of "The Sound of Music," the 1965 movie loosely based on Maria von Trapp's autobiography, pull up almost nonstop to visit the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont.
Both guests and day trippers who come because of the movie, a fictionalized version of the family's escape from Nazi-occupied Austria, are the lodge's bread and butter.

They pay to take the family history and maple sugarhouse tours, buy shot glasses and other souvenirs at the gift shop and tour the photo-filled lodge.

Many also dine on Austrian cuisine in the dining room, get treatments at the modern spa and hike or rent skis at the cross-country ski center to explore the 2,500-acre property.

Sam, now an executive vice president of the Trapp Family Lodge, and other family members often appear personally after those family history tours to answer questions, sign books and hear stories about how much the movie or the family has meant to people.

"A lot of people come because they like the movie, they're interested in the family story," says Sam, who is now married with two children of his own. "Then they realize we have 2,500 acres here."

But Sam and his father Johannes, president and CEO of the lodge, know the family can't count on the movie to bring in guests forever, especially amid increasing competition among Stowe resorts during the fall foliage, ski and summer vacation seasons.

Trapp Family Lodge goes modern

Von Trapp Brewing Bierhall
Von Trapp Brewing Bierhall
Channon Hodge/CNN

That's why they're expanding their offerings, such as Sam's work designing and building sustainable mountain bike trails eight years ago -- and adding mountain bike rentals to the outdoor center.

A year ago, they opened the von Trapp Brewing Bierhall, a casual eatery that serves lagers and kombucha on tap, and have started making a bigger deal of the literal farm-to-table food, grown and raised on the property, on menus.

The lagers come from the 8-year-old brewery, which was inspired by Johannes von Trapp's many visits to Austria. Located in the same building as the bierhall, Von Trapp Brewing is already a player in the trendy brewery scene sweeping the state.

The bierhall and brewery on site don't just give guests more choices beyond the formal dining room in the main lodge. They also attract locals via mountain bike or car, sometimes coming to visit longtime Stowe restaurateur Paul "Archie" Archdeacon, who runs the front of the house at the bierhall.

Which von Trapp story to tell?

They inspired 'The Sound of Music:' The von Trapp family started singing professionally in the 1930s, after most of the family fortune was lost in the Great Depression. They left Austria in 1938, when this picture was taken, to avoid working for or singing for Nazi leader Adolph Hitler.
Courtesy Trapp Family Lodge
The old Austria and the new Vermont -- and the very American movie that made this lodge famous -- compete for attention on the land that felt like Austria to Maria von Trapp when she moved her family to Vermont in 1942.

The outlines of the story are true.

"My family really did stand up for what they believed in, took significant risks, made significant sacrifices in order to escape Austria and in order for my grandfather to escape having to serve under Hitler in his Navy," says Sam.

Before there was a movie or an American musical performed on stage, there was a young nun named Maria, who was sent to tutor one sickly child of a widower, the retired navy captain Georg von Trapp, in Salzburg, eventually becoming close to all of the children and marrying their father.

That's where the real story actually gets more interesting than the movie.

The movie's timeline was off: The couple married in 1927 and didn't immediately escape Austria. They lived there for 11 years and had two more children. Along the way, they lost most of their money when the bank they used failed as part of an economic depression.

They started touring in 1936 as the Trapp Family Singers, trained by Catholic Monsignor Franz Wasner, who helped them become a professional group.

They left Austria in 1938, after Georg refused a commission in the German Navy; Rupert, the eldest son and a doctor, refused to accept a position at a Vienna hospital; and the entire family refused to sing at Nazi leader Adolph Hitler's birthday party.

"Let's get out of here soon," Georg told the family after they decided to refuse the birthday offer, according to Maria's book. "You can't say no to Hitler three times -- it's getting dangerous."

When they left, Maria was pregnant with Johannes.
Their path to the United States was a rocky one, with the US government not immediately allowing them to stay permanently, according to Maria's book, "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers: The Story That Inspired the Sound of Music."

In 1939, they came through New York's Ellis Island and were allowed to stay. The family continued to tour until Johannes was 17, making their off-tour home outside Philadelphia before making Stowe, Vermont, their home base.

"We would leave on concert tours, be gone for a month to six months, and I would really look forward to coming back," says Johannes. "Once I got here, I could run around in the woods and play in the fields and not be stuck in a city or a bus or a plane and not have to perform in the evenings.

"It represented a refuge for me, but (it's also) an incredibly lovely spot with really broad, extensive views going 30 miles south and the same distance north."

They weren't always so famous. After 20 years on the road, the Trapp Family Singers stopped touring in 1956 and lived in Stowe year-round. But it wasn't until "The Sound of Music" movie was released in 1965 that the von Trapp name became famous throughout the world.

"I remember one time someone came up to me and said, 'Is it true that the nuns really stole the spark plugs?'" says Sam. "I looked at him and said, 'What are you talking about?' I didn't even know what they were referring to."

That's the famous scene in the movie where the nuns at Maria's abbey remove the spark plugs from a car used by the Nazis, buying precious time for the von Trapps to escape.

They didn't escape over the Alps. There was a local train stop behind their home in Salzburg, which they often boarded to go on tour. None of the neighbors batted an eye when they boarded that train to escape the country to Italy.

It's a good thing they didn't attempt to cross the Alps, as the movie portrayed, since that route would have taken them into Germany.
The family didn't get any movie profits. Maria wrote the story of her life, and a German publisher purchased the rights for $9,000 in the 1950s.

The family never made any money directly from the English Rodgers and Hammerstein musical or the 20th Century Fox movie starring Julie Andrews, although the lodge is packed with memorabilia from both.
Georg von Trapp was an involved father. Although he could be strict, as both Johannes and Sam say was typical for an Austrian family, the von Trapps were most hurt by the portrayal of their father as distant and hands-off. That just wasn't true, they say, and it's probably the most painful misconception of the movie.

"My grandmother sort of felt it was her fault because the movie was based upon her book," says Sam. "She hadn't portrayed him that way in the book, but it's understandable that it made for a more dramatic musical if he goes through this transformation driven by my grandmother."

Georg von Trapp was 25 years older than Maria, and he passed away in 1947 when his youngest son, Johannes, was just 8.

The movie children were not real. The two eldest children were Rupert and Werner, not Liesl and Friedrich. After arriving in the United States, the boys were drafted and joined the 10th Mountain Division, the US Army's ski unit. Both young men used their native German while fighting in Germany, Werner once barking out orders to advancing Nazi troops and protecting their division.

Like many US veterans, they didn't talk much about their wartime experiences with family or friends, Johannes says.

The oldest seven children have all passed away, and many are buried along with Maria and Georg in the family cemetery at the lodge. Johannes' older sisters, Rosmarie von Trapp and Eleonore von Trapp Campbell, are both still living.

Did Maria sew play clothes out of curtains? That is a subject of some debate. "In the same way that in the musical when she makes the play clothes from the curtains, they actually did have play clothes made from curtains," says Sam.

"But then my dad told me that she wasn't much of a seamstress. I think she had the curtains made into play clothes."

Not every von Trapp sings. Summer guests can enjoy concerts held in the meadow on the property, but the next generation of von Trapps aren't one of the acts that will be performing.

"I would say we sing better maybe than the average person, but my father and mother both sang professionally," says Sam. "When we sing with our guests here on Christmas Eve at the hotel, we always stress we're singing with them. It's not a performance."

Maria von Trapp becomes an innkeeper

Although Maria thought the land could be farmed to support the family when they stopped touring, Vermont's long winters didn't allow for it and an informal guesthouse with friends of the 10 children eventually became a paying lodge in 1950.

The family kept driving out professional managers, preferring to run things in a haphazard way, Johannes says, remembering the family's supposed indifference to making money except when they wanted it.
"My mother was always busy, always going 100 miles an hour, leaving a trail of confusion behind her as people said, 'Now, what did she want us to do?' " Johannes says.

"She had tremendous energy, great vision," he says. "My mother was not a good day-to-day manager, and she was probably not very good at taking advice from people either, but a remarkable person in so many ways."

Johannes launched a cross country ski center in 1958, calling on his Norwegian roommate from Dartmouth College to help him hire a charismatic and talented ski instructor from Norway to launch the program. The lodge will celebrates its 50th year in operation in January.
Sam and Johannes von Trapp
Sam and Johannes von Trapp
Channon Hodge/CNN

Although he went to Yale for graduate school and planned to earn a PhD in forest ecology, he stopped after earning his master's degree, somewhat resigned to running the lodge. One of the joys of his life was helping to create the Stowe Land Trust in 1987, to which he donated 1,500 acres on Trapp Family Lodge property to protect from development.

A key decision in his succession plan was training his children to follow in his footsteps.

He first hired his children in elementary school to keep the cocoa stocked up in winter, Sam remembers, giving them a raise from 25 to 50 cents an hour after the first day, eventually training them in different aspects of the business.

At age 14, Sam was working four days per week as a bellman and switched to dishwasher after hearing how hard it was to find employees to stay in that job.

"It was good to grow up in the family business," says Sam, who studied geography and economics in college in preparation to come back into the business. "You have an extra incentive when it comes to work ethic when it's your business."

A new hotel rises from the ashes

Waitstaff still wear traditional Austrian costumes in the main dining room.
Waitstaff still wear traditional Austrian costumes in the main dining room.
Channon Hodge/CNN

After the original lodge burnt down in December 1980, Johannes led the rebuilding effort, professionalizing the lodge with his mother's blessing.
The new hotel included a suite for his mother, Maria, who lived another four years with a lovely view of the morning fog rising over the nearby hills.

"In the old lodge, which was our family home, my mother had an apartment at the back with a balcony, and it looked over at the family cemetery," says Johannes. "She loved to sit out there in the afternoon. I wanted to recreate that place for her in the new lodge, and so this is the apartment and the balcony and the view of the cemetery."

In the mid-1990s Johannes bought out most of his relatives, and now Johannes, Sam and Kristina are the primary shareholders.

Johannes also gave Sam 10 years to have adventures in the rest of the world before insisting he return home.

"I went off and worked in the ski industry, taught skiing in Portillo, Chile, during our summers in the Southern Hemisphere, and taught skiing here in Stowe and in Colorado during our winters."

"I grew up always just expecting that I would eventually come back here. It was what I saw my dad doing, and it was our home. I always just expected that I would be back here."

Sam's sister, Kristina von Trapp Frame, lives nearby, serving as a director of the company, overseeing the history tours and helping out with guest relations and other projects. Her husband, Walter Frame, also serves as a director and executive vice president of the company.
Since the new lodge was built, decorated with real family pictures and movie posters in different languages, guests can now stay among the memorabilia -- even renting Maria's renovated suite. Or they can rent or buy timeshares in guest houses a short distance from the main lodge.

A bit of Austria, a lot of Vermont

Sunset at the Trapp Family Lodge.
Sunset at the Trapp Family Lodge.
Joshua Sarlo/CNN

There is still a lot of authentic Austria scattered throughout the property, from the decor in the main lodge to the carefully approved entrees of bratwurst, knackwurst and bauernwurst and other menu items in the bierhall and the Trapp Family Lodge-raised pork loin (wiener schnitzel schwein) in the main dining room.

Those cross-country skis are a bit fancier and more expensive than the ones Johannes and his siblings and friends used during the snowy winters of his childhood, or even than the ones that he first stocked in the lodge's ski center.

But those skis still allow guests to crisscross the land in winter where Maria and Georg von Trapp and their 10 children once lived and skied, and where their first guests explored the Trapp Family Lodge's grounds.
And they can have a beer looking out onto the hills, where Georg and Maria must have longed a little for Austria.

These are the Vermont hills that really were alive for the couple and their children -- all immigrants except for Johannes -- and where their descendants feel right at home.
The Trapp Family Lodge: This hotel steeped in history is set in the hills of Stowe, Vermont, which reminded Maria and Georg von Trapp of their Austrian homeland. Maria had hoped to farm there with their 10 children, but the short growing season led her to start welcoming guests.

Joshua Sarlo/CNN

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