Lift Blankets

Mt Mansfield Single Chair with Blankets and Coats

Single Chair base with blankets (photo courtesy G. Dirmaier)

The old lift blankets used on the Mansfield single and double chairs are the skiing nostalgia topic that I hear mentioned most often in the greater Stowe area.  You hear it mentioned in lift lines and in the bars; you see it in print and even the blogosphere.  So when I chose last week’s trivia question I expected a good response.

But I wasn’t prepared for the response I got from Bob Hark.  Bob is the lead operator on the Over Easy lift and he came out to greet me wearing one of the old lift blankets!  Bob rescued some of the blankets once they were discontinued when the original FourRunner quad began operation.

However the first correct answer I received came all the way from Fernie, British Columbia.  Gary Tomlinson correctly named the Johnson Woolen Mills as the maker of the blankets.  Gary is the son of Phil Tomlinson, former head of the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol.  He says that while the snow coverage at Fernie has been good, it’s “hard and thin!”

Johnson Woolen Mills is a family owned business and current owner Stacy Barrows Manosh represents the fourth generation of the Barrows family to run the company.  The blankets were made during her grandfather’s and father’s days in charge, but she does remember that Johnson Woolen Mills also provided the uniforms for the lift operators in those early days.

Stacy’s roots in this region are very deep – the Barrows family on her father’s side and the Morse family on her mother’s side.  The Morse family owned much of the land on the Jeffersonville side of Smuggler’s Notch and hence Morse Mountain at the Smuggler’s Notch ski area is named for them.

The lift blankets were actually more like a poncho you slipped over your head.  The outer layer was wind-and-water resistant while the lining was wool, usually hunter’s red-and-black check.  The outer layer was typically grey, but some of them started off black and weather dulled them to grey.

Single Chair with Blanketed Rider

Single Chair with Blanketed Rider (Photo courtesy of G. Dirmaier)

Early in the life of the original single chair, it became obvious that skiers needed something beyond their standard ski gear to withstand the long, often cold, and often windy ride to the top.  Based on old pictures it seems folks began to bring extra coats that they would wear up the lift and take off at the top.  Lift attendants would download them and unload them at the bottom to await the owners next run.  The Mountain Company eventually began to provide the Johnson Woolen Mills blankets so that all skiers had this option.

How many blankets you used depended on how cold the day was.  There were one, two, three, and even four blanket days!  I only went up to three blankets: two over my head in a conventional fashion and the third just wrapped around my head and shoulders.  The goal was to form sort of a tent that wind couldn’t get through.  When you got it right you had your own personal warm space for the entire ride.  Other times the ride was a long struggle to get the blankets adjusted to block the wind.

Former Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol member William Hays shared some of his memories of the old blankets:

“I guess ‘blanket runs’ are history — skiing down liftlines, picking up blankets that had blown off the down-going chairs. You could wear a dozen before becoming overloaded.  Sepp & Company had raccoon coats. Cool! We also had some hooded, quilted ones on Big Spruce for the really nasty days.”

Stowe was not the only area to use the lift blankets.  Mad River and Smugglers Notch (then called Madonna) used them also.  I remember that one blanket blew off the Madonna Chair at its highest point above ground and caught in the top of a tree.  It was too high to be retrieved and remained there for years gradually deteriorating from exposure to the weather.  Still it was a testimony to the durability of the blankets.  And obviously they are just as durable in people’s memories.

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2 Responses to Lift Blankets

  1. Kevin McMahon says:

    Hi Greg
    Great posting.
    I happen to have a lift blanket from I’m guessing Madonna or perhaps Stowe.
    Picked it up years ago at a rummage sale in Burlington and wore it on hard blowing winter days. Funnily enough there were still enough locals in late 70’s who would scowl at me for what they surely confirmed was evidence of theft.
    It’s in great shape and I would love to see it go to a museum setting.
    At 62, I’m no longer interested being seen as a fashion statement or a crook.
    Best regards.
    Kevin McMahon
    PS I remember distinctly the poncho hanging in the tree and rotting away over the years. The image still strikes me as hauntingly sad…

  2. Nancy Coyle Downs says:

    Hi!, my name is Nancy Coyle Downs. I lived in Stowe from the winter of 78-79 to the Winter of 81. I worked at a Time Magazine and had to take a vacation for 3 weeks. My mother, who had been ski bum after college in Stowe, and had worked at ten acres Lodge with Darby Chambers said that she didn’t think I ought to stay in Darien and go out late at night with my friends but that I ought to go up to Stowe and ski. Not only did I go up to Stowe to ski during my vacation, but I ended up quitting my job at time and getting a job at Top Notch at Stowe. I had worked at Time magazine for 4 years, and it was very stressful at times because we had deadlines as you do with a national news magazine. I thought that being a waitress up in Stowe Vermont would be much less stressful, but I was very very wrong! I had just come from a year of being a debutante in New York City and I always treated the people waiting on me very well. Believe me I was very shocked when I found out how waitresses and waiters were actually treated in the real world! Believe me when I tell you it wasn’t just the wait staff that was abused. We actually had Cooks in the kitchen who had I guess ulcers that used to actually throw up blood. Anyway, I think probably the worst thing that happened to me there was when there was a French Canadian couple and I was the only one who spoke French on the staff so I had to change a table that I had with a table that this other waiter had so that I could serve these people who spoke only French. This French Canadian couple ordered at least A5 course dinner. Part of the problem was that they ordered the rack of lamb aux Bleu, which is very very rare. The problem was they were not eating their other courses in any kind of reasonable time. The chef started screaming at me that the rack of lamb would be overdone, so I started asking them if they were going to eat the other courses. They told me that they wanted to only taste each thing,”nous veix seulement gouter”,Then I was able to clear the courses in a more reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, after they had their rack of lamb they asked if I could sit down and have a glass of wine with them and smoke some of their Canadian cigarettes. I did not want to, but the maitre d said that I just needed to do whatever they wanted. When I sat down with them the wife started to explain to me how she could no longer give her husband what she wanted, and wouldn’t I like to go back up to their hotel room with them!!!! Thankfully I had the advantage of language, and pretended that I didn’t understand what she was talking about! Her husband became very angry, and irate, after a little while, because he didn’t think I understood what they were talking about! I understood exactly what they were talking about, but there was no way in hell I was going back up to their room! I excuse myself from the table briefly and went to talk to the maitre d. I told him what they wanted and he told me that I ought to do whatever they wanted!!! Of course I was shocked and there was no way I was going to do that!!! That was the last time they came to the dining room, but they also tried to convince other members of the staff to stay in their room with them. I did end up quitting shortly thereafter. The Last Straw was when one of my tables ask me to run back and forth from the kitchen many multiple times, and then only gave me a 10% tip. I ended up finding them in the bar later and tossed the man’s tip in his lap, telling him that he could keep his 10% tip. After that, the vice president of the company told me I could take two weeks off unpaid, and the next day I went out and found another job. Anyway, I did love my time in Stowe and I remember very well the ponchos that we were to keep ourselves warm with on the way up the chairlift I was very young back then and was also a hardcore skier. There were many days that the temperature was well below below zero, and we had to wear lots of ponchos. I remember days when we used to wear at least three or four on our bodies and then had other ponchos that we would put over our heads to create a tent over our heads.
    As I said before, my mother had been a ski bum in Stowe Vermont after college. What I didn’t tell you is that my grandfather used to bring his children up to Stowe to ski before that. My mother was born in 1926 so I’m sure that the only lift that they had was probably the single chair. I’m not sure if they even that had that yet. Apparently, she was warned about snow snakes! I guess there was a taxidermy example of one of these snow snakes at one of the bars! It was a snake covered in white fur! My mother was told that these snow snakes would come up out of the snow, and wrap themselves around your skis. My mother was gullible enough to believe this! Another funny story my mother actually told me was that she was skiing with a friend one day, and when they got to the top the friend said that she really needed to go to the bathroom, but she thought she could make it to the bottom and go in the lodge down there. Unfortunately, she was not able to make it, and decided that if she just peed in her pants that no one would notice! The problem was that it was of course very cold, so when she peed and of course it was very warm she ended up skiing down in a cloud of Steam! The point is, that everybody knew what she had done! I should also tell you that my parents met at Time Magazine. My mother who was not a great skier, really just an intermediate skier brought my father who had never skied up to Stowe. The Story Goes, that my mother brought my dad up to the top of the mountain and her idea of teaching him how to ski was just to say okay, now turn! My dad had never skied before and was just wearing hunting clothes. Even so my dad did become an intermediate skier. When I was three he taught me how to ski by holding me between his legs and showing me what to do.
    The end of the story, is that when I lived in Stowe I became a racer! My first year of racing I got the award of being most improved, and the following year I end up ended up being part of the top 10 women. We would go and compete against other ski areas. Then I married a fighter pilot who was on the Air Force ski team. What a great time that was! We got to spend three weeks each year training at garmisch-partenkirchen. Then we got to go to all kinds of areas all over Europe and he got to compete against not only other American teams like the army, but also against other countries. I, on the other hand was allowed to for run a lot of the courses. What a great time we had!
    We did end up getting divorced, however I got remarried and had three beautiful sons. They all became ski racers, and are now extremely great skiers! As for me, I am still involved in ski racing, and involved in a master’s program at Mount Spokane. I have always loved skiing, and will never forget my days in Stowe Vermont!!!!!

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