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.
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.