Family Ties

Guests who loved The Tyler Place as children keep returning to the Highgate Springs resort decade after decade

by Pip Vaughn Hughes

A family resort run by a family. That, in a nutshell, sums up The Tyler Place, which has been welcoming holiday-makers for the past 65 years. "You come to a place called The Tyler Place, and there are Tylers there. When you stay at a Sheraton, is there an actual Sheraton pouring you a drink?" jokes Ted Tyler, who owns the resort with his sister, Pixley Tyler Hill.

The award-winning family resort in Highgate Springs covers 165 choice acres of Vermont countryside, with open meadows, mature woods, and tree-lined country roads dotted with picturesque cottages and a large country inn. Recreational buildings, playing fields, hiking trails, a small petting farm, tennis courts, swimming pools and a fitness center are all a pleasant walk from any of the cottages. All this is edged by more than a mile of private lakeshore, with a dock well-equipped with small sailing and rowing boats, canoes and kayaks.

According to Pixley, the uniqueness of the resort grew from the programming concepts developed decades ago. The key is allowing families to be separate if they need to.

There's something special about a place that doesn't have to think where the horseshoe pit should be it's been there for a half-century, and you can stop and pitch a few horseshoes on your way to the inn. Tyler Place is the sort of place where you take a walk and end up skipping stones on a calm Lake Champlain bay where no boats are moored. It's very much how it "must have been" only now you're on the American Plan. And, if it rains, you can always work off breakfast with a spin on an exercycle in the fitness center while the kids swim in the indoor pool. It's a perfect place for a little boy or girl to catch a first fish, paddle a canoe or learn to play cut-throat Monopoly. Tyler Place is a time machine that lets you go back to a simpler summer vacation and take the whole family along. As Eileen Ognitz wrote in a Child magazine review of the resort, Tyler Place "combines old-time flavor with up-to-date services and amenities."

"The accommodation is very, very eclectic," says Pixley. "It grew up over the years – a true cottage community."

For more than 150 years the land now called The Tyler Place has been a summer destination for families. In the 1830s a hotel was built there to accommodate visitors to the Highgate Spring, which had a reputation for curing liver problems and rheumatism. Later, the property became a popular camping destination. "My grandparents met there at a picnic," says Pixley, "and my aunt, Hildreth Tyler Wriston, who lived in Enosburg Falls and became a children's writer, used to come here on a train, with a wagon following behind that carried all the camping stuff. My father commuted to Highgate Springs every week from New York City. In 1933 he and my mother bought the property with my aunt and her husband, and until 1944 it was called the Tyler Wriston Place."

Ted and Pixley grew up on the resort. "We always worked there during the summer, as dishwashers, night clerks," says Pixley. "I've spent almost every summer there since."

Pixley, who lived abroad for a number of years in places as far-flung as southeast Asia and Venezuela, eventually returned to Vermont. "I worked at the Place for a while, then in 1974 I worked for the Community College of Vermont before coming back full-time in 1987," she explains. "You're bound to a place like this. I would have been so surprised to know that I would end up here, but now, actually, I'm not surprised at all."

Ted remembers spending summers working at The Tyler Place during high school, college and law school, "and during my first couple of years as a lawyer, to supplement my meager income," he laughs. For many years he has maintained a trial practice in St. Albans, while gradually becoming more and more involved with the resort. "My involvement picked up about 15 years ago, and became substantial five years after that," he says. Although he still practices as a trial lawyer, he says that "I would be completely retired from it by now if it weren't for the nature of the work."

According to Pixley, the uniqueness of the resort grew from the programming concepts developed decades ago. "We have separate programs for children in age-staggered groups," she says. "Kids have their own rooms. They can eat breakfast separately if they want. Parents can be with their children in the afternoon, and then split up again in the evening. For better or for worse, my mother thought the key to a good marriage was to be able to have a martini without your kids. But there's plenty of opportunity for families to be together." The key is allowing families to be separate if they need to, says Ted.

"The initial concepts of the programming came from our mother," says Pixley. "She came from Missouri and had a master's from Cornell. She put the emphasis on being irreverent, unexpected, and allowing for counselors to be creative."

The Tyler Place expanded in 1945, a time when other resorts had little interest in catering to families, says Ted. "I'd say that, apart from the major Catskill resorts, we've been unique in the U.S. in that respect," he says. "There aren't a great many places where people have been coming for 40 years."

The emphasis is still very much on the family, and on creating the most relaxed atmosphere possible. "Our mother insisted on a Saturday-to-Saturday basis for everyone," Pixley says. "That way, everybody's new, and no one has to break into established groups. We do everything we can to encourage warmth." An important part of the resort's philosophy is accommodating families of all ages. "In midsummer, the average age of children is 10," she says. "Earlier and later in the summer that goes down to 4 or 5."

Everyone, whatever age, is encouraged to join the fun. "We have a traditional game of Capture the Flag here, but all age groups play," Pixley explains. "The key is that the 6- and 7-year-olds the ones that usually don't get picked for the team have a very special role, a kind of wild-card role that makes them indispensable."

The Tylers hold what they call Family Learning Retreats early in June and after Labor Day. "We take all our best programming for kids and gear it down for infants and preschoolers," says Pixley. "We have a naturalist who specializes in working with children, and we chase frogs, visit animals. And we do other things like family yoga."

The Tyler Place is continually seeking to combine the innovative ideas of its founders with a hearty embrace of tradition. "People are hungry for tradition, nostalgia, the outdoors." Pixley states. "In 50 years we've only made one addition to the lakefront, so it looks just like it did when my father bought the place. And we attempt to stay away from hospitality-industry language, which is very canned, in our publicity. We try to be more spontaneous."

Expansion is always tempting, says Ted. "It's easy to put up a building that pays for itself in one summer," he says, "but we've probably only grown by 10 percent in the last 15 years." One of the major investments that the present generation of Tylers has made is in weatherizing the resort. "It's really been a key to our success," says Pixley. "We have a covered swimming pool, a huge indoor sports center. So we didn't lose any guests last summer when it was so wet."

The Tylers believe another key to the resort's success is the staff. The Tyler Place has a payroll "well in excess of 200," says Ted, "and at a wild guess, two-thirds of the staff are college or high school kids. That has a tremendous effect."

The young staff creates a special atmosphere, says Pixley. "We've invested a huge amount in staffing," she says. "There has to be lots of supervision. With babies and toddlers, the staff-child ratio is 1-to-2, which becomes 1-to-6 with teen-agers.

"We do a fair amount of steering with people," Pixley continues, "but there are no social directors saying 'chop chop!' Our guests tend to be an active bunch. This is very good biking country, for instance, and so you'll see 200 bicycles lined up, from tiny to adult."

As a summer resort, things are quieter in Highgate Springs over the winter. "People think of a summer resort as summer only," says Pixley, "but a lot of work goes on for the whole year. We have a winter reservation staff headed by Louise Dumas, and Bernadette Whitcomb. All our accommodations are different – not fancy, but comfortable – so reservation calls are long! We have up to 75 to 80 percent repeat visitors, and people who have been here before have first dibs on their choice of accommodation next time. Fortunately, we have a long waiting list. The economy has been good to us, and so has the Internet.

"The state assumes that no one comes to Vermont until after the Fourth of July. But Vermont is beautiful in June!" — Pixley Tyler Hill

"We've had to single-handedly find ways to fill The Tyler Place in late May and June," she continues. "The state assumes that no one comes to Vermont until after the Fourth of July. But Vermont is beautiful in June! And we're not in a black-fly area. We've tried hard to find states with early school release dates, like Florida, and that has worked. The greater part of our families come from cities and suburbs, especially from the New York and Boston areas, but now our seventh-greatest state is California. And we always have one or two families every week from overseas, particularly from England and Germany, where we've been lucky to have very good press."

So have the Tylers ever been tempted to open their doors year-round? Not really. "I feel it's like pasture management," says Pixley, jokingly, "where, instead of spending money on fertilizer and corn so you can milk all winter, you make hay while the sun shines and only milk in the summer. We think, 'What's the sense in trying to get a few people in over the winter?'" That being the case, on opening day the Tyler Place undergoes a startling transformation. "It goes from 10 to 12 people into 500 or more – suddenly you've got a village!" Pixley says.

Fittingly for a resort that places such emphasis on family, "it's impossible to spend a week at The Tyler Place and not meet a Tyler," says Ted. "On Saturday night there's a welcoming cocktail party, and I make a point of meeting everyone."

Ted's son Chad is in charge of the waterfront, and daughter Tasney Tyler Otis is responsible for the children's programs. Another son, Quint, has been in charge of entertainment and sports. Pixley's stepdaughter, Louise Gaskill Hill, works in administration; and another relative, Kyrie Bove, was instrumental in putting together the resort's massage program. (Pixley's son Hector is in the film business, and daughter Pixita is in the teaching program at New York State University at Buffalo). "Others stick their oar in from time to time," adds Ted happily, "but it's a big part of what makes the Tyler Place special. It's personal, in an era when nothing's personal."

Pixley is bringing the spirit of The Tyler Place to another project dolls. "We're trying to create and manufacture a doll in the U.S. specifically in Vermont, and it isn't easy," she explains. "They're playful, feisty – we see them as little Davids up against the Goliaths of the offshore toy manufacturers." The doll project "grew out of an interest in kids I gained with the Tyler Place," she says. Her two lines Pixli and TylerKids dolls sell locally through outlets such as Frog Hollow, and on the Web at

So what changes does the future hold for The Tyler Place? "A lot of our guests are concerned that we don't change," says Ted. "We don't want to get bigger – we're just about the right size. This has always been a hobby, not a business. Father was in publishing, I'm a lawyer. It's never had to be a source of funds. We want it to be fun for us and for other people. We like to keep improving, as that's fun for the guests."

Originally published in February 2001 Business People-Vermont