Trivia 2015 Week 4

What ski area had the Mushroom bar?

Posted in Trivia | 2 Comments

Mount Snow

Tom Watson Jr.'s House on Little Spruce

Tom Watson Jr.'s House

I’ve always said that my motto is “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story!” However I would like to go back and set some facts straight about which Watson owned which house on Spruce. It turns out that the house that I always thought was Tom Watson Jr.’s was his brother’s, Arthur “Dick” Watson! That’s the house located between Easy Street and Big Spruce Road with the sculpted white chimney. Tom Watson Jr.’s house was the one on the other side of Little Spruce located near the Home & Garden Dream House.

Arthur Watson House on Spruce Peak

Arthur Watson's House

Thanks to Peter Van Raalte for setting the record straight. Peter moved to Stowe in 1975 and “took pride in knowing every house on Spruce and who it belonged to.” He went on to add “Their sister [Jeannette Watson] Irwin owned the last house on Big Spruce Road above the club. It’s still owned by her son John. Kids of all three Watsons still use those 3 homes.”

I also need to apologize to Tish Vredenburgh who correctly answered the trivia question that it was Arthur Watson who owned the house I described. Tish and her family now live in Connecticut, but she grew up skiing at Madonna. The family now skis at Stowe and gets the Reporter by mail.

So on to this week’s column: Last Friday you could buy an all-day lift ticket at Mount Snow for $12 as the area marked its 60th year! The area first opened on December 12, 1954, with two rope tows, two chair lifts, and seven trails.

Walt SchoenknechtMount Snow was the dream of Walter Schoenknecht who I’ll refer to as Walt since it’s much easier to type. You may remember his name from earlier RetroSki columns as he founded Mohawk Mountain, Connecticut and oversaw the installation of the first commercial snowmaking system in 1951. Walt dreamed of creating a larger ski area north of the snow line (so that he wouldn’t need snowmaking), but still as close as possible to the major population centers. He found what he was looking for with Mount Pisgah in southern Vermont. Farmer Reuben Snow who owned the land at the base of Mount Pisgah died in 1953 and Walt purchased the Snow farm. Walt would rename Mount Pisgah to Mount Snow both in honor of Reuben Snow and because it is a much more marketable name.

Right from the start at Mount Snow Walt proved himself an innovator and inventor. The first chairlifts were chain-driven mono-rails run by conveyor belts on the towers. They had a capacity of 1200 skiers per hour while most other chairs of that era only achieved a maximum of 600 skiers per hour. He cut the trails wider than other areas and made them concave so they would hold snow better. Both of these innovations would be adopted by other areas. Later Walt would add other lift “firsts” to Mount Snow:  Plexiglas bubbles on chairs to protect you from the elements (not good on windy days), and a two person gondola where you could leave your skis on (a good idea)!

Mount Snow Air CarWalt became “the Walt Disney of Vermont” with some of his other innovations. Walt realized that it was the entire experience that would bring guests back and not just the skiing. He built a skating rink inside the base lodge and the first outdoor swimming pool at an eastern ski area. In 1962 Walt built a hotel, the Snow Lake Lodge, with, of course, a man-made lake. So how do you get guests over the lake to the lifts? With the strangest UFO-looking gondola anyone had seen! The gondolas were called “Air Cars” and I think that they inspired the Jetson’s vehicles or vice versa.

Mount Snow Fountain MountainIn 1965 Walt visited Lake Geneva in Switzerland and saw a large fountain. He came back and added a fountain to Snow Lake – a fountain that sent water 350 feet in the air! The fountain ran year round so in the winter the ice would build up and form a mountain – a Fountain Mountain!

Bob Parrish and John Rose both named Mount Snow as the home of the Fountain Mountain. John says “they would open it up for fun climbing, skiing, horsing around later in the winter!” And indeed they even held ski races on it in the spring. Some years the ice “mountain” lasted until June.

John also talked about the demise of the fountain:

“That fountain also became famous for one day spewing up sewage. That was the year that the Deer River “ran red” and that resulted in Vermont shutting down that fountain and also introducing some of the strictest restrictions for building above certain elevations.”

So not all of Walt’s ideas worked out. That includes his idea about using an atomic bomb to create a crater at the base of Mount Snow to increase its vertical. It’s still not clear whether Walt was serious about that one or not!

Starting in 1970, financial problems from the rapid development would force Walt into a series of mergers. By 1973-74 Walt would return to his Mohawk Mountain ski area and no longer be a part of his dream resort. Walt Schoenknecht died in 1987, but not before he left his mark on skiing and particularly Vermont skiing!

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 3

What ski area is known for its Fountain Mountain?

Posted in Trivia | 2 Comments

Smugglers Notch Ski Ways

Smugglers Notch Ski WaysWhat was the original name of the Smugglers Notch Resort? No, it wasn’t Madonna as a couple of readers answered. The original name was Smugglers Notch Ski Ways. Glen Findholt was the first correct responder. Glen is a Smugglers Notch ski instructor and retired IBMer.  Regular contributor Greg Dirmaier also had the right answer.

Tim Treadwell who had a Madonna season pass when he was three thought it had been the Jeffersonville Ski Ways. One of the sources I found mentioned that locally it was referred to as the Jeffersonville or “Jeff” Ski Ways, but the official name was Smugglers Notch Ski Ways.

The Smugglers Notch Recreational Area Association was formed in 1954 with the goal of helping stimulate the local economy through the emerging recreation industry. One of its first priorities was to establish a ski area on the Jeffersonville side of the notch. A local group headed by Dr. Roger Mann with the help of the State of Vermont and also the Mt Mansfield Company built a ski area on Sterling mountain. It consisted of two poma lifts, one serving the lower part of the mountain and the other the upper. The area opened in December 1956 as Smugglers Notch Ski Ways.

As mentioned last week, in 1962 Tom Watson Jr. and his brother Arthur arrived on the scene and bought Smugglers Notch Ski Ways. They saw an opportunity to create a European style village, but first they enhanced the skiing. The pomas were replaced by a chairlift on Sterling. Rumor had it that Tom’s wife Olive found the pomas “obscene” so they had to go. A bigger change was the development of Madonna mountain which opened in 1964 and resulted in the name change for the entire resort to Madonna.

Madonna Trail Map 1967Morse mountain and the initial village that the Watsons had envisioned would come online in 1967. So in five years a small-time ski area had become a major resort. Times were different then, but the magnitude of that development rivals what has been happening at Stowe Mountain Resort for over ten years!

Tom Watson Jr. would have a heart attack in 1970 which would cause a change in his priorities. He stepped down as CEO of IBM in 1971 and in 1972 sold Madonna to Stanley Snider. Snider was head of the Stanmar company which had built the Morse village. Subsequently Madonna was renamed to Smugglers Notch.

The size of Tom Watson Jr.’s investment is an indication of his love of skiing and his willingness to invest in Vermont. Between IBM Burlington and Madonna, Watson’s impact on the Vermont economy is immeasurable.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 2

What was the original name of what is now the Smugglers Notch Ski Area?

Posted in Trivia | 6 Comments

Thomas J. Watson Jr.

AIG founder C.V. Starr was a successful business executive who got hooked on skiing and hooked on Stowe! But he wasn’t the only successful executive to get hooked on skiing and Stowe.

Thomas J. Watson Jr. was the son of IBM founder Thomas Watson. After serving in World War II, Tom Jr. returned to take a management position at IBM. In 1952 he became President of the company and after the death of his father in 1956, Tom Watson Jr. took over as the CEO of IBM.

Tom Jr. was an avid skier and sailor. He, his wife, and their six kids became regular visitors to Stowe during ski seasons. He was a pilot so he would fly the family up from New York to Burlington for ski weekends in Stowe. It was during these trips that he visited a spec manufacturing site built by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation (GBIC). In 1957 that site would become IBM Burlington and legend has it that Watson chose it so he could write-off his ski trips! Whether that was true or not, IBM Burlington was the most visited site by the CEO for quite a few years.

In Stowe, Tom Watson Jr. would purchase land on Little Spruce and build a “ski lodge.” Watson had the lodge designed by Larry Hess, the architect/innkeeper of the Stowehof. Hess’ design for Watson’s lodge was considered contemporary and even today its look is unique.

Tom Watson Jr.'s House on Little Spruce

Sports Illustrated Cover December 14, 1959The Watson family and their ski lodge were featured in the cover story of Sports Illustrated’s December 14, 1959 issue. The article entitled “Wintertime and the Watsons” is mostly photos taken inside the house. In one of those strange coincidences, a couple of the photos include the Watson’s neighbors on Spruce, the Harry Larsen family. I’m betting that one of the boys in those photos was Per Larsen whose obituary appeared in the Reporter last week!

IBMer Jim Sundquist was the first to correctly identify Tom Watson Jr. and his wife Olive as the original owners of the ski lodge. Stowe Host Willie White was the first non-IBMer to provide the correct answer. Other correct responders included local Lyndall Heyer and Ralph Hilbert of Port Jefferson, New York. Ralph has skied Stowe since the 1960s and says he always admired that house.

In his book “The AIG Story”, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg identifies two times that Tom Watson Jr. tried to buy the Mt Mansfield Company. The first was sometime in the 1950s when Watson approached C.V. Starr directly. Starr wasn’t willing to part with the ski area he loved; however he did sell Watson a 20% interest in the Mount Mansfield Company. The second time was after Starr’s death in 1968 when Watson contacted Greenberg offering to buy the other 80%. Greenberg indicated he’d be willing to entertain an offer and said “I want it to be the same price at which you’d be willing to sell.” Watson made his offer and Greenberg repurchased Watson’s 20%!

Of course Tom Watson Jr. did acquire a ski area. In 1962 he and his brother Arthur bought what is now the Smugglers Notch ski area just over the notch from Stowe. However even after that, Tom Watson Jr. and his family stayed with their Stowe house and skied Stowe. Since his dream for Smugglers Notch had been to build a European style village, I’ve got to believe that Watson would really like what has happened to his Little Spruce neighborhood.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Trivia 2015 Week 1

A Stowe-related trivia question to start this season off: Long before the new Spruce development began, there was a house located in the woods between the Easy Street slope and the Big Spruce access road. By the way, the house is still there. Who was the original owner of that house?

Posted in Trivia | 5 Comments

IBM Burlington

A little over a month ago IBM announced that it was selling its Semiconductor division to Global Foundries – well actually IBM is paying Global Foundries to take the semiconductor division. This includes the IBM Burlington facility which as we know is actually in Essex Junction. Wait a minute, I hear some of you saying, what does this have to do with skiing nostalgia? Well, for me personally there is a direct tie-in.

As I have chronicled in this blog, it was during college that I got hooked on skiing. And indeed, many of my college friends thought I majored in skiing. I was a senior during the winter of 1967-68. Most of us seniors were busy looking for jobs. Times were different then: there were plenty of jobs so it wasn’t a matter of “if you got a job”, but “which job do I want”. Oh there were plenty of rejections and many of us papered our walls with them. But there were also many offers and when one of us got one, we’d compare it with the guys down the hall.

IBM Advertisement from January 1968 SKI MagazineEarly in that winter I was reading a Ski magazine and found an ad that said “Come to IBM, Burlington, Vt and enjoy the fringe benefits!”. The fringe benefits included Killington, Stowe, Sugarbush, and Jay Peak! I had already signed up for an on-campus interview with IBM, but now I knew where in IBM I wanted to be. As fortune would have it, the team of interviewers IBM sent to our campus was from IBM Burlington. They were excited that I was excited about IBM Burlington – apparently in those days not everyone wanted to work in Vermont! I was invited to visit Burlington for further interviews.

The interviews in Burlington went well so I returned to campus and waited for IBM’s offer – and waited – and waited! It was the one offer I really cared about and the suspense was getting to me. I had other offers, but didn’t want to reject them until I heard from IBM. Finally it came. It wasn’t the highest salary offer I received, but it was far from the lowest. The same day the offer arrived in the mail I called IBM to accept.

I began work at IBM Burlington on July 8, 1968. The promised fringe benefits began in November of that year. As many Retro-skiers may recall, the winter of 1968-69 was a record breaker in terms of snowfall. The Vermont ski season began in early November and lasted into May. Even with very limited vacation days available, I skied over 50 days that first season. I worked my way around the northern Vermont ski areas: Sugarbush, Glen Ellen, Mad River, Madonna, Jay, and Bolton for night skiing. I didn’t get around to Stowe until spring skiing. That was mainly because Stowe charged a whopping $10 a day – $2 a day higher than any of the other areas. Those were the days, eh?

IBM Burlington gave me a good career and allowed me to continue my love affair with skiing. When I retired in 1999 I was surprised that I didn’t feel more emotion when I was leaving. But the IBM I retired from was not the IBM that hired me in 1968. Why then did the announcement of IBM divesting itself of the Burlington facility cause me to have a more emotional, nostalgic reaction? Well, would I have moved to Vermont to take a job if it had been with an XYZ company instead of IBM? Probably not. Would I be skiing in Stowe and writing this column? Probably not.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Welcome to The 2014-15 RetroSki Season!

Cold weather has arrived and the snow has begun to fall! Skiing can’t be too far off. And neither can RetroSki. I plan to start columns Thanksgiving week in concert with when most Eastern (and some Western) resorts will be open.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment

Easter Sunrise on Mount Mansfield

It’s 4:30 in the morning as I load my skis and get in the gondola. I join a group of non-skiers already in the car. I ask them where they’re from and they tell me they’re from Fairfax, Vermont. That means they had to get up at 2:30AM to get ready and make the more-than-an-hour drive to the mountain. We ride up to the Cliff House in the dark – an interesting experience in itself. Along the way you can hear voices from below of people hiking or skinning up. Looking back toward the village of Stowe you can see a growing line of headlights coming up the Mountain Road. We get out of the gondola in the bright lights of the top building where the coffee, donuts, and other pastries are already available for consumption. Someone says “Happy Easter!” and yes, it’s the annual Easter Sunrise Service atop Mount Mansfield.

The annual Sunrise Service brings together an interesting mix of people from those primarily there for the free skiing to those who are actually there for the Easter service. For some it is an annual social celebration that includes the service and skiing followed by brunch. The attendance varies with the weather from a few hundred to well over a thousand. Good weather last year saw about 1500 in attendance.

Rev. Douglas Brayton presiding on Easter 1965

Easter 1965 - Rev. Douglas Brayton and his wife Elinor - Stowe Reporter Photo

The tradition started on April 10, 1955. Reverend Douglas Brayton, who was in his first year as pastor of the Stowe Community Church, arranged the first Easter Sunrise Service with the Mountain Company. It was held atop the single chair near the Octagon. As of writing this, I received no answers to last week’s trivia.

However Douglas’ son Ben Brayton remembers the early days well. He was fourteen when that first service was held. He says his father was given 150 free tickets for people to use the single chair. The service was at 7:00AM, not synchronized with the actual sunrise as the service is now.

For the first three years the service was held using the single chair. Then the service moved over to Spruce using the Big Spruce double chair. In 1961 the service returned to the Mansfield side with the addition of the Mansfield double chair. When the Easter weather was inclement, riding those old, slow chairlifts required dedication – and a few of the famous blankets. So as soon as the first Mansfield gondola became available in 1969, the service moved to the Cliff House and has been held there ever since.

For the first few years the Stowe High School Band provided musical accompaniment and Ben remembers that cold Easters caused valves and reeds to freeze. Eventually an accordion played by either Jed Prouty or Bernie Stasiak took the place of the band.

Rev. Bruce Comiskey presides over Easter 2013

Easter 2013 - Rev. Bruce Comiskey

Bruce Comiskey is the fourth minister to preside over the service and his 27 year tenure is the longest. In those 27 years he only remembers a half dozen times with spectacular weather like last year’s service. Bad weather such as rain, snow or clouds can obscure the sunrise, but Bruce believes that makes attendance more meaningful – that you braved the weather to be there. There’s only been one year when the service had to be held in the base area due to wind and ice.

It is a special experience when you are lucky enough to have a clear Easter dawn that bathes the whole top of the mountain in a pink and purple glow. Then the sun starts to break over the eastern horizon – first as just a bright beam of light and then eventually the entire sun appears. Whether you came for the skiing or to celebrate Easter, whether you consider yourself religious or not, the experience can best be described as spiritual.

This Sunday will be the 60th Annual Easter Sunrise Service. The gondola will start at 4:30AM and the last car will load at 5:30AM. The service will be held outside the Cliff House starting at 5:56AM, sunrise! Following the service the gondola will be available for downloading. Weather permitting, it appears that there will be adequate snow to support skiing or riding after the service.

The end of the Stowe ski season also marks the end of the RetroSki season. A big thank you to all my readers for supporting this column. I really appreciate those who have answered trivia questions, suggested topics, or introduced yourselves to me. I look forward to returning next ski season.

Posted in Columns | Leave a comment