This article was originally published in the Chester Telegraph on Feb. 21, 2018.
By Cherise Madigan
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC
After years of decay, the original Johnny Seesaw’s restaurant is gone, but in its place will rise a new restaurant that owners hope will reflect the personality of the previous owners and love that the surrounding community had for it.
The revival is the result of efforts made by the property’s new owner, Ryan Prins of Arlington-based JS LLC, who purchased the former ski lodge in 2015 with business partners John Eastman and Dave DiDomenico.
The property consists of 7 acres on Route 11 just east of Bromley Mountain and includes a number of cabins and other outbuildings. There had also been a swimming pool and a clay tennis court.
At first unaware of Seesaw’s long history, Prins says that he quickly learned just how deeply the Peru community cared for the property.
When it came up for auction, he bought it “just based on value,” and not “realizing what I was getting.” But, Prins added, “Over time, I ended up learning about the history, and what this place meant to everybody here.”
Prins said that from the initial Act 250 hearing to those unanticipated visitors to the property, residents have not been shy to share their thoughts and stories.
While the original restaurant had to be demolished, the developer says that he used the Johnny Seesaw’s building as a living blueprint for its reincarnation with a number of important architectural elements in the new place.
A storied past
Johnny Seesaw’s was well known in the Peru community, and in 2008, the National Park Service added it to the National Register of Historic Places for the “important role it played in the early development of the ski industry in southern Vermont.” Described as an important player in the Peru economy, the history of Johnny Seesaw’s is interwoven with that of its home.
Peru had long struggled to prosper agriculturally due to its steep, rocky terrain and dense forests, but logging and milling eventually thrived in the region. Both suffered a collapse in 1924 which had a “disastrous impact on the town,” according to the National Register nomination form.
At least one family that was felled along with it was that of John Sesow — born Kryill Sessof near Minsk, Russia, in 1887 and had arrived at Ellis Island in 1913. Sesow eventually came to settle near Somerset, south of Stratton, where the “climate and landscape were reminiscent of his former home” according to his son Peter.
Sesow worked for the Deerfield Lumber Co. until he was laid off in 1924. Buying the Peru site, he and his family began construction of a dance hall and speakeasy called the Wonderview Log Pavilion to capitalize on demand brought on by Prohibition. The Sesows featured dancing and music along with homemade wine and bootlegged liquor. Spirits were also available “to-go,” concealed in maple syrup cans and colored with burnt sugar.
Though the speakeasy did well for a time, business declined as the Great Depression deepened. The Sesow family moved from Peru in 1932, defaulting on loans that they had taken out on the property. It was earlier in 1932 that Charles Lindbergh is said to have visited the property to withdraw from the public attention brought on by the kidnapping and murder of his son.
While the buildings lay abandoned after the Sesow departure, Vermont was beginning to market itself for its beauty, its outdoor recreation and affordable real estate for vacation homes.
In the mid-1930s one of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ projects was to cut the “Bromley Run” on what shortly thereafter became the Bromley Mountain Ski Resort.
As visitors from New York City, Boston and Albany began to pour in, locals saw an opportunity to capitalize on the new skiing craze. Lew DeSchweinitz – a skier who saw the property’s potential – bought the Sesow site – known locally as Johnny Seesaw’s. It was run by DeSchweinitz’s sister Mary and her husband Bill Parrish until 1974.
Kelen LaPan of South Londonderry recalls that at that time, “My grandfather was the maintenance man and, grandmother and mother were the housekeepers … My grandmother and mother used to carry me around in a basket while they were cleaning until I could walk around and help them.”
The lodge featured rooms for 60 guests in the log house and the nearby cabins. The new establishment quickly gained popularity, and its needs drove the introduction of electricity to the area in 1939.
Throughout World War II Johnny Seesaw’s and Bromley Mountain Ski Resort were able to remain open due to the development – in 1941 – of High Mountain Farm which produced milk, eggs, meat and produce on the property. Though gas rationing went into effect soon after, “ski trains” continued to bring tourists – and their spending – into Manchester and the surrounding mountains.
The growing popularity of skiing filled an economic void. Seesaw’s, less than a mile from Bromley Mountain, grew right alongside that ski economy. Popular for its round fire pit and a former bandstand known as the “seducerie” where legend has it that many proposals of marriage were offered, Johnny Seesaw’s was initially opened to the general public.
That policy changed during World War II, however, when Chinese philosopher and author Lin Yutang was mistaken by a fellow guest to be Japanese. The innkeepers were so shocked by the rudeness shown toward Lin that they instituted a policy that all patrons must be recommended by a known guest, “to ensure equal access for those … who were tolerant of all races and creeds,” according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form.
Though the farm was disbanded at war’s end, the ski industry boomed in the 1950s. Seesaw’s soon became a haven for the rich and famous.
While many notables frequented the establishment, locals like LaPan also forged deep connections with Johnny Seesaw’s.
“I was a waitress there in the ‘80s when I met my husband, and in May of 1981 I had my wedding reception at Seesaw’s,” she said. “My husband would help get Christmas trees for the building and the cabins, and each year I would make an ornament to put on the main tree in the restaurant.”
The inn provided much needed jobs in the region, including those held by LaPan, her mother, and her grandparents. The establishment changed hands in 1975 and again in 1980, with the restaurant closing permanently in 2014.
An ongoing effort
Prins expressed his hope to harken back to the property’s history, but, much of the wood in the original restaurant had rotted, and the building was out of code. Following the demolition on Jan. 29, Prins’ crew salvaged historic logs for use in the new building, along with the round fireplace and “seducerie” mural.
“The only unfortunate thing is that we couldn’t keep the historical designation, because we needed to deconstruct the old building,” Prins said.
Delayed permits have slowed the project, but Prins hopes to be open by July 1, 2018.
“We’re still waiting on some permits that have been out for over two years,” Prins said. “We also want to take the time to do this right — salvaging something takes much more effort than just running down to r.k. Miles and buying lumber.”
A living blueprint
Prins’ says the establishment will bear the iconic name. Seesaw’s Lodge will feature a three-unit residential building, artisan shops, an event space and a 60-seat restaurant. In a shed on the southeast side of the property, coffee will be both roasted and brewed.
“We’re integrating what became Johnny Seesaw’s in the 1930s, and what it was before that time,” Prins explained. “What we’ll have below the restaurant is a distillery, which used to be on this site in the 1920s when it was a speakeasy.”
The developer describes the guest spaces, in the main house and three adjacent cabins, as “AirBnB meets hotel” with a homey feel featuring modern amenities. The facility will have a Tesla charging station, according to Prins, and luxurious bathrooms for a “spa-like experience.”
A number of accents from the historic site have been salvaged, including furniture and the wood floors from many buildings. With plans for a greenhouse on the property, Prins also hopes to reinvigorate the World War II era “High Mountain Farm.” In keeping Seesaw’s history intact, Prins says that he hopes to do right by the community.
“It’s bittersweet, but I wish them all the best,” said LaPan, who now works at the nearby Bromley Market. “I have met the new owner and some of his workers, and they are working hard and with great pride.”
“We’ve been listening to everybody, and listening to what they want,” Prins said. “They don’t want to see the old restaurant go away, so we’re going to do our best.”