We’ve been here so long, we have post office box number 2.” John and Agnes O’Brien, Quechee residents of over 50 years, share this tidbit while reminiscing on the Quechee village of years past. The O’Brien’s holding post box 2 is truly a marker of how long they’ve been here. How the O’Briens talk about Quechee is a marker of how much they love it.
John O’Brien and his wife Agnes first came to Vermont in the 1960s after being invited by leaf-peeper friends. The two liked it so much, they returned the following year, and the year after that. Before settling on Quechee, they tried out different towns from the Northwest to the Southeast. When they first heard about Quechee from a friend, John said “I’m not interested.” But they found themselves down in Woodstock and noticed the Quechee sign. Their interest piqued, they checked out the area – which at the time was only the old bit of the base lodge (the original pro shop). John took one look at the golf course and said: “Where do I sign up?”
But the story of the O’Briens in Quechee starts long before their arrival here. John had a friend in college, Joe, who was crazy for a girl, Judy O’Neill, who needed a ride to Oyster Harbors for the summer; Joe wanted John to come along as Judy was bringing a friend named Agnes Sullivan. John laughed and said “I’m a poor boy from Charlestown; there’s no way I could get through the gate at Oyster Harbor!” but he went along just the same. He got on well with Agnes. They dated on and off, but lost touch when they two went to separate colleges. Four years later, John got a call from his buddy Joe. Judy had tragically been killed in an automobile accident, and Joe was hoping John would be able to pick up Agnes when she returned to Boston for the funeral. “I drove over to Copley Square,” John remembers, “We went down to the Back Bay train station. The train pulled in, the conductor placed the steps, and this woman stepped down, just stunning. She looked at me. I looked at her. And a year and a half later we were married.”
John and Agnes continued to stay in the Boston area after their marriage in 1962, John working for the IRS and Agnes as a special education teacher. It was during this time that John started a law practice of his own and the two found their way to a summer place in Quechee.
In the early 1970s, Quechee was still being built; there weren’t yet a lot of rentals, so the O’Brien family would stay at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. “I do remember the good old days staying at the Coolidge,” John recalls, “We had a golf pro here, Jim Hudson. Saturday night he’d have a cookout, right in front of the 10th tee (then the first tee).” John remembers 30 to 40 people attending and the four Quechee Corporation salesmen who lived at the Parker House (where the corporation was originally headquartered) doing a barbershop quartet for entertainment. After the BBQ, there was Western music and dance at the Coolidge. “For a boy from Charlestown, this was something!”
After a few years staying at the Coolidge, in 1974 the O’Briens bought a house on Main Street. “That was the original stagecoach stop,” John shares. “We basically raised our kids in that home.” The O’Brien kids include Judi, Timothy, Susan, David, and Joan. Both David and Joan were born while up here in Quechee, Agnes recalls.
Agnes and John both remember those early years in their Quechee second home fondly. One memory that stands out to them both is the Ski Hill Sleigh. “Back then they had a sleigh that was kept down on Marshland Farm. The gentlemen would drive it up Main Street and stop: ‘O’Brien kids get on here!’ They’d all be ready and have their skis, jump in the back of the sleigh, and it would take them right up to the ski hill. We didn’t even have to get out of bed!”
Unlike the kids, John stayed away from the ski hill. “I was happy to sit at the bottom of the hill and watch them come down.” Agnes was a little more adventurous, skiing for awhile but stopping after she felt it was too risky. “I think it was the day Susan’s ski came down without Susan!” Agnes remembers.
Agnes, John and their children all recall how much the kids loved being up here. In addition to skiing, the little pond now on the golf course was their swimming hole. “When we started going to Quechee, we went swimming at the pond at the first hole Lakeland,” eldest O’Brien daughter Judi says, “People are always surprised when they hear we used to swim at the Quechee pond!”
The O’Brien kids spent every summer in Quechee and many Thanksgivings alongside other Quechee families. “We were always busy with things to do as QLLA was starting to grow,” Judi says.
Agnes recalls how the family enjoyed the Balloon Festival from their backyard: “We could sit right there and walk right down. We just sat in our chairs and watched what was going on.” In the quiet community, the kids were able to walk up to the club: “It was a great place,” Agnes muses.
Their kids feel the same way. Two or three of her children were sitting around the table one winter and Agnes remembers her daughter saying, “’Aren’t we lucky?’”
The friendships made in that early Quechee community have endured. Two of Judi’s best friends today are people she met in Quechee, and the O’Brien kids still return with their families for the Fourth of July, often running into old friends and their kids enjoying Quechee.
The tight community made the O’Briens’ years in Quechee special. “Everybody knew everybody,” John says. He recalls a friend (and scratch golfer) Bill Purcell purchased the house that had belonged to the farmer who originally sold the land to the Quechee Lakes Corporation. The farmer had moved out – “He couldn’t take the flatlanders, too much noise” – and QLC had redone the home, but six months after Bill purchased it, he still hadn’t moved in. When John asked him why, Bill replied, “’John, you know the farmer in the winter used to bring the cows and the pigs into the kitchen and dining room, and I’m still trying to get rid of the smell!’”
John was also instrumental in shaping Quechee Club as we know it today. As president of the QLLA board, John was key in a number of events that took place, including the vote for QLLA to accept the deed of Lake Pinneo and the Lakeland Golf Course from the QLC, which he considers one of his proudest moments. “I put it on the agenda and it had a vote of 5-5.” John had to break the tie: “I looked out the window and said to myself ‘I’m not giving away $1,000,000.” He broke the vote. “So every time I go up to the starter’s shack, I always say, ‘I want to play on my golf course,’” John says with a laugh.
John was elected president of the QLLA board after some of the folks with whom he played golf suggested he’d be a good candidate. It was in 1978, about six months after John’s election, that QLLA began their fight with the QLC, from whom they ultimately separated. “We had a class action lawsuit,” John says. There were some contentious meetings as QLLA landowners, the QLLA board, and the QLC hashed things out. Ultimately, negotiations came to a standstill, and John, alongside Don Gannon, and Jim Lightburn, steered the Class Action lawsuit representing the landowners. In 1979, the QLC was sold to a new owner, and the lawsuit was settled. John was instrumental in helping the landowners succeed in the lawsuit, and he is most proud of the capitol improvement fund, established by the corporation and funded through a portion of real estate sales proceeds. With the fund, QLLA was able to build a number of amenities including a wading pool and cabana, facilities including a storm shelter on the course, and a tennis deck pavilion and pro shop.
John remembers his QLLA work with Don and Jim fondly: “Their work effort was immense and unreimbursed. They were a joy to work with; there was never a dull moment or a cross word.”
“It was a hell of a lot of fun,” John says, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Nowadays, while still working in his law practice with his son Tuesday through
Thursday down in Natick, John and Agnes have a more leisurely life up here in Quechee. While so many of the folks they were close with when they came here are gone, “We’re still puffing along,” Agnes says. The pair continue to golf. “Now we make up our own rules,” Agnes laughs, “You get to be 84, you make your own rules. You don’t like that shot? Well, do it again!”
Their children frequently visit, often joining them for golf: “They grew up on this golf course,” John says, “They all play.” Their grandkids come up as well, enjoying Quechee Kids Camp in the summers and skiing in the winters.
While John and Agnes spend time visiting the West Coast of Ireland – John holds Irish citizenship since his grandfather was born in Cork – and Sarasota, FL and have a home in Needham, MA, Quechee still is top in John and Agnes’ hearts. “We’ve pretty much covered all the counties in Vermont,” John says, “but I like to stay right here.”
“We’ve had time,” Agnes says of what Quechee means to her family, “That’s what I’ve loved.”
“We just enjoyed everything that happened. We’ve led a happy life.” Today John still looks forward to the drive up to Quechee: “I know I’m going to have a wonderful time.”