With Tradition

Two generations of innkeepers and a crew of longtime staff keep The Golden Eagle flying high

by Liz Schick

Herb and Ann Hillman, and Carol and Neil Van Dyke photoIn 1963, Herb Hillman (right) and his wife, Ann, sold their family ice cream business in New Jersey and bought The Golden Eagle Resort in Stowe. These days, their daughter Carol Van Dyke and her husband, Neil, are the innkeepers, although the Hillmans stay involved.

On the Mountain Road in Stowe a sign directs visitors to The Golden Eagle Resort, but nothing prepares them for the sight at the end of the driveway: a 94-room property in 12 buildings scattered about a 15-acre campus that is surrounded by another 65 acres of wildlife refuge and hiking trails. 

Who knew there could be such peace and privacy amid the bustle of activity that is Stowe? The thousands of guests who have stayed with Herb and Ann Hillman and Neil and Carol Van Dyke, two generations of family innkeepers who have been welcoming guests for more than 40 years, that’s who.

In 1963, the Hillmans sold their family ice cream business in New Jersey and searched for a new venture in the New England they’d grown to love while attending college, he at Dartmouth and she at Mount Holyoke. 

They found a 12-unit motel with a grand name, The Golden Eagle, and envisioned a future for themselves and their three young daughters, Carol, Barbara, and Mary. Their son, James, would be a native Vermonter. 

Ann laughs, remembering how they opened the place three days before Christmas with not a single reservation, because the former owner had moved away and nobody had answered the telephone. “We willed cars to come in off the road and they did, so we were full for the holiday.”

It immediately became a true family business when Carol, who was 7 at the time, helped to make up the guest rooms right after Santa Claus departed and the gifts were opened. The staff had been given Christmas Day off. 

That describes the kind of people the Hillmans are. It’s a rare resort owner who gives his staff a day off during the busiest holiday week of the year. The staff appreciate it.

Suzanne Kempe and Julie Blake photoThe Golden Eagle sits on 15 acres surrounded by 65 acres of wildlife refuge and hiking trails. Suzanne Kempe (left) is reservations manager, and Julie Blake is the senior reservationist.

Mark McNamara started working for the Hillmans 24 years ago. “It’s a pretty easygoing place,” he says. “Once they know you can do your job, they let you run with it, which is why I really enjoy the work. In fact, I probably do more because nobody is looking over my shoulder.” 

McNamara says he does whatever is needed: in the office or laundry, lawn-mowing and grounds maintenance with Herb. “I’m kind of a nit-picky guy, so I go around and do other things I think should have been done, like wiping fingerprints off the glass doors.”

Herb and Ann officially retired nine years ago, although they remain active in the business. Neil Van Dyke, Carol’s husband of 27 years, is the current innkeeper. He proudly points to other long-term employees. “Just as we are now a second-generation family business, it’s a family business for some of our 65 employees, too.” 

Cliff Randall, who heads the maintenance department, has been at the resort for 20-plus years. His wife, Susan, heads the laundry department, which she took over when her mother, Barbara, retired. Their son, Jeremy, is still in high school, but works at the resort part time. 

Neil also makes sure to mention that Suzanne Kempe, reservations manager, and Julie Blake, senior reservationist, have been at the Golden Eagle for more than 20 years. Holly Rossignol, the dining room manager, who can name every guest, their children, and even their dogs, is a 10-year employee. “She is key to our hospitality,” says Neil, “because she greets everybody as they come in for breakfast and every guest knows her.”

Many of the guests not only are second-generation Golden Eaglers, but also feel such a part of the family that they’ve volunteered to work at the resort as needed. 

For example, Bill and Mary Jakes of Andover, Mass., began coming to the Golden Eagle even before the Hillmans bought it. Bitten by the ski bug back in the ’50s, they never bought a place of their own because, Mary says, “Bill always said that once you buy a place, it isn’t a vacation anymore.” 

Cliff Randall photoCliff Randall, who heads the maintenance department, has been with the resort for more than 20 years. His wife, Susan, heads the laundry department, and their son, Jeremy, works there part time.

Almost every weekend they would drive up with their children, arrive at the Golden Eagle between 10 and midnight, get up early, ski all day Saturday and Sunday until 3 in the afternoon, and then drive back. “When I think of doing that now,” she says, laughing, “it gives me a headache. But, oh, the memories! We have spent many wonderful years there.”

The Jakeses continue to stay at The Golden Eagle when they come to visit their daughter, who married and lives in Stowe. Early on, Bill brought up his guitar to accompany Herb on the accordion, and Mary joined Ann and the girls as they played piano and sang for guests during the resort’s justly famous wine and cheese gatherings. The musical entertainments continue, with the Van Dykes’ older daughter, Sarah, playing the violin along with her grandparents when she is home from college. 

“The Golden Eagle has grown so graciously,” Mary Jakes says, “and that really says it all about Herb and Ann and Carol and Neil. To run such a lovely establishment and raise a family as they have done and are doing, and to be so involved in their community is really quite an accomplishment. I don’t know how they do it.”

Neil came to the resort not long after he and Carol graduated from Dartmouth and married. His job as night clerk was to have tided him over until he found something better. Twenty-four years later, they own it, have helped to grow it, and are completely invested in the community of Stowe.

The Holly Rossignol photoColonial Café at the Golden Eagle serves breakfast every morning. Holly Rossignol is the dining room manager.

Community involvement is definitely a Hillman and Van Dyke trademark. Neil was named 2006 Business Person of the Year by the Stowe Area Association, where he serves on the board. He is the  organization’s vice president, and Herb is a past president. Herb serves on the board of the American Automobile Association of New England. 

Each was named Innkeeper of the Year by the statewide Vermont Lodging and Restaurant Association. Herb received it in 1991, and Neil carried on the family tradition in 2000. 

Neil also serves on the Vermont board for TD Banknorth, the resort’s long-standing financial partner. He is Stowe’s emergency management director and heads the Stowe Mountain Rescue Team, which he helped found 25 years ago. 

As Mountain Rescue Team leader, he has participated in any number of rescues and retrievals. Mary Jakes tells about the time in 1993 when Neil was scaling a ledge to rescue a father and son. The rock cliff face broke away and sent him hurtling down some 60 feet to the rock field below, where he tumbled another 20 feet. With a punctured lung, broken ribs and fractured wrist, he was able to rappel down the final 300 feet where the rest of the rescue team could reach him and take him to the hospital. 

Over the years Carol has been active in running the resort, but in 1992, she became a full-time parent when their younger daughter, Lia, was born. Their son, Forrest, and older daughter, Sarah, started working at the resort as toddlers, just as their mother had done. 

“They would get on the buses of the motor coach tours and pass out candies on departure People loved them, and they loved doing it,” Carol says proudly.

Carol is a key person in the Stowe Nordic Outing Club and headed up the Bill Koch Youth Program. She’s also cross-country ski coach at Stowe High School.

When it comes to running the business, Herb keeps his hand in by handling the landscaping and decoration, and he and Ann still welcome guests at the wine and cheese parties. 

Neil does all the rest, and has brought to it a sophisticated marketing program driven by technology and research along with the old-fashioned people skills that make him such a perfect second-generation innkeeper. 

Herb says he hopes his legacy will be that he has “provided some respite, relaxation and rejuvenation to the thousands of people over the years who have stayed with us. We have tried to accomplish that in our hospitality and facilities approach by providing as much privacy as they can find anywhere, because privacy is such a precious commodity.” 

Whatever else, Herb says, ”I’ve enjoyed every day I’ve come to work, and at age 74 I still look forward to it.”

Carol acknowledges feeling blessed that being in this business continues to provide the flexibility that has allowed her to volunteer in the community. “I know it’s a 24/7 business, but it’s been a good family lifestyle and I wouldn’t change it.”

It’s an attitude that keeps The Golden Eagle flying high. •