Retro-Ski: the Book!
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When did the original Mount Mansfield T-Bar begin operation?
Mike Leach provided the correct answer as the T-Bar went into operation for the 1946-47 season. So this season is the 70th anniversary for that lift. Actually there is more significance to that anniversary than just celebrating a now-defunct lift.
By the mid-1940s Stowe had a single chair owned by Roland Palmedo’s Mount Mansfield Lift Company plus a collection of rope tows owned by Sepp Ruschp’s Mount Mansfield Hotel Company. Sepp had a strategy to replace the rope tows that were on Mount Mansfield above the Toll House, but needed financial backing to afford a more modern lift – a T-Bar.
Enter Corneilius Vander Starr, founder of American International Group (AIG). Starr had been introduced to skiing in New Hampshire via Hannes Schneider and had also visited Sun Valley to take ski lessons there. Starr came to Stowe to take private lessons from Sepp and was appalled to find out that as instructor and student, they could not cut the lift line on the single chair. That was because the chair lift was owned by a separate corporation from Sepp’s Ski School.
Starr expressed an interest in investing in Sepp’s plans for a new lift. First, to extend the T-Bar beyond the existing rope tows meant obtaining 400 acres of land owned by Craig Burt. Burt also owned 3000 acres on the Spruce side and he was only willing to sell “everything or nothing.” Starr purchased the land while reserving the timber rights for the Burts’ lumber business.
A new corporation was formed for the T-Bar with Starr as the majority investor. The T-Bar was built and opened for the 1946-47 season.
This would be the beginning of Starr’s and AIG’s involvement with the Stowe ski area. By the 1950s Starr was able to obtain majority ownerships of the various corporations: the Mount Mansfield Lift Company, the Mount Mansfield Hotel Company, Sepp’s Ski School, the Lodge, and the T-Bar. These were consolidated into the Mount Mansfield Company with Sepp as General Manager.
Of course today the Mount Mansfield Company is one of the many corporations that comprise Stowe Mountain Resort. These still operate under the ownership of AIG.
In effect this season we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of Stowe and its relationship with AIG! So the next time you ski Starr or T-Line, remember they mark a relationship that has benefited Stowe and skiing on Mount Mansfield for the past 70 years.
When did the original Mount Mansfield T-Bar begin operation?
“Keeping Skiing Real Since 1936” That’s the slogan on the ski area’s website. No, it’s not Stowe, but another Vermont ski area celebrating 80 years of continuous lift-served skiing this season. Northeast Slopes in East Corinth, Vermont, installed not just one, but two rope tows for the 1936-37 season.
By keeping it “real”, Northeast Slopes means that those two rope tows are still there! I’m sure they’ve gone through various upgrades over the years, but they still provide a substantial portion of the area’s uphill capacity. Northeast did “modernize” in 2009 with the addition of a T-Bar.
Sue and Greg Dirmaier were quick to identify Northeast Slopes as the longest continuously operating area with rope tows in the United States.
Greg also provided a great picture of that first Mansfield rope tow when it was operating on the Glenn Skiff farm in Jeffersonville. The picture clearly shows someone riding it, so despite Wesley Pope’s claim of not making a nickel in the 1935-36 season, the rope tow did operate in the Jeffersonville location.
I also received an interesting piece of trivia on top of my trivia from Parker Riehle, President of Ski Vermont. The structure now housing the base of the beginner rope tow at Northeast Slopes was originally built as the covered bridge for the movie Beetlejuice!
You may remember that much of the 1988 movie was shot in the East Corinth area. The movie crew constructed a building to turn a very conventional bridge into a covered bridge. (The bridge plays an integral part in the plot as the young couple swerve to avoid a dog, destroying the bridge and turning them into ghosts!) Apparently after filming, the building was recycled into the lift shack for the rope tow at Northeast Slopes.
Northeast Slopes originated with the Bradford Winter Sports Club which had decided to build a rope tow in 1936. They had targeted a location close to Bradford, but club president George Eaton was driving up Route 25 to Montpelier when he noticed a field in East Corinth that had a lot more snow than the planned location. The field was part of the Eastman Farm and the club was able to strike a deal with the Eastmans for the location of the rope tow.
The Bradford Winter Sports Club actually built two rope tows for that first season: a 1300 foot long main tow plus a shorter beginner tow. The area opened in December 1936. It initially was known as Wes Blake’s Ski Tow since he was the person hired to operate the area.
Starting with the 1961-62 season, operation of the area would change to a corporation, Northeast Ski Slopes Inc., with the corresponding change in the area’s name.
In the 1980s Northeast Slopes, Inc, was formed as a non-profit organization. They purchased the Eastman Farm land and the ski area. They took over operation of Northeast Slopes for the 1986-87 season and have run it ever since as a volunteer-based operation. Today the area is funded from skiing revenues, donations, and some tax dollars from surrounding towns.
In 2004 Northeast Slopes began fundraising to fulfill a dream that had begun in 1972 – to add a T-Bar to the slope. On December 26, 2009, the John A. Pierson, Jr., T-Bar began operation. Pierson had volunteered at Northeast Slopes for 50 years and he had been a driving force behind the T-Bar. Sadly, he did not live to see its completion.
By the way, that T-Bar had Vermont roots. Northeast Slopes obtained it from Ski Bradford in Massachusetts, but Ski Bradford had originally obtained it from Stratton Mountain!
Northeast Slopes opened this past Monday for its 80th season of skiing and riding. It holds true to its slogan of “keeping skiing real” with a $15 day ticket. A family season pass is $315. They offer ski lessons for all levels and the website says “Please check in with the kitchen staff to sign up!” Oh, and they remind potential visitors that if you plan to ride the rope tows, leather work-gloves are recommended. They have leather gloves available for $8 a pair in case you forget yours or you wear out that $80 pair of modern ski gloves!
Other than Stowe, what Vermont ski area is celebrating its 80th anniversary of lift-served skiing this season and claims the oldest continuously operating rope tow in the United States?
The first ski lift in the United States was a rope tow in Woodstock, Vermont. That rope tow began operation in January 1934. Over the following few years, rope tows would spring up on hills throughout Vermont.
For the 1935-36 season, Wesley Pope of Jeffersonville decided to get in on the action. He built a rope tow on the Glenn Skiff farm which was located between Cambridge and Jeffersonville, just off what is now Route 15.
The hill Pope chose was low elevation and south-facing and the winter of 1935-36 did not cooperate with much snow. In the end it’s not clear that the rope tow ever operated that season. In the book “Mansfield: The Story of Vermont’s Loftiest Mountain”, Pope is quoted as saying:
“It was a slope where there wasn’t any snow and I didn’t take in a nickel! The following spring I rolled up the rope up on a big reel and stored everything away.”
The rope tow would not stay stored for too long. Craig Burt came over from Stowe and offered to buy the tow and associated equipment. They settled on a price of $900.
Pope with help from Craig Burt installed the 1000-foot tow on the Toll House slopes during the autumn of 1936. Pope recalls that they finished the installation in December just before Sepp Ruschp’s arrival in Stowe.
Mike Leach had the correct answer that Stowe’s first rope tow actually came over the mountain from Jeffersonville. Mike, who is the historian for the Mount Mansfield Ski Club, referenced Pat Haslam’s “Ski Pioneers of Stowe, Vermont” which provided the details on that first lift on Mount Mansfield.
The tow was powered by a 1927 Cadillac engine as John Thurgood indicated last week.
Craig Burt had been instrumental in getting Stowe on the map for skiing prior to lifts. For the 1935-36 season, the Toll House opened for the first time in winter with a guest house, snack bar, and sports shop. For the following season, Burt and the Mount Mansfield Ski Club arranged for Sepp Ruschp to come to Stowe from Austria and teach skiing. Burt obviously saw that adding a lift would make the economic opportunities even greater, so he arranged with Wesley Pope to build that first tow.
Snow was still a problem during that winter of 1936-37 since the tow did not actually begin operation until February 7, 1937. That date marks the beginning of lift-served skiing on Mount Mansfield.
One ride on the rope tow would cost you ten cents. A full day ticket was a dollar and a season’s pass was five dollars! To put that in perspective, a quick math exercise says the season pass would be equivalent to about $150 today. OK, so you get more lifts, longer lifts, and faster lifts for your pass today.
Next time you’re riding up the Quad or Gondola, remember it all began 80 years ago with a basic rope tow. By the way, Stowe Mountain Resort Vice President of Marketing, Mike Colburn, actually has a length of rope from that first tow in his office.
If all this talk of rope tows has some of you RetroSkiers nostalgic for the “rope tow experience”, there are definitely still some areas with rope tows. Granted, most of them are small areas, but the rope tow is still a part of lift-served skiing.
At Ascutney you can even ride the tow for free! As you may remember, the full-blown Ascutney ski area closed in 2010. When the resort land went on the market, the town of West Windsor voted in 2014 to purchase the land and add it to their town forest. A non-profit, Mount Ascutney Outdoors, formed to promote and protect the recreational opportunities of the Mount Ascutney land.
Last season Ascutney Outdoors constructed an 800-foot rope tow and lift-served skiing returned to Mount Ascutney! The rope tow reopened a week ago and again this season, tickets are free! They do require tickets for liability reasons, but there is no charge. By the way, backcountry skiing on the rest of the former ski area is also encouraged.
If you’re reading this, chances are that you have one or more RetroSkiers on your Christmas list. What do you plan to get them? Well, here are some suggestions.
Number one on my list is “Freedom Found: My Life Story” by Warren Miller. The book just came out this summer. Warren uses his own inimitable style to tell his progression from ski bum to one of the most respected names in skiing. I’m not sure if this is available locally, but it is online.
Another new book with 5-star reviews is “Tracking the Wild Coomba”, the story of extreme skier Doug Coombs, written by Robert Cocuzzo. RetroSkiers can appreciate a skier that pushed the limits. That book is available at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug my own book, “Retro-Ski: A Nostalgic Look Back at Skiing”! Definitely a good gift for any RetroSkier.
Some other ideas from the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum include DVDs such as “Legends of American Skiing”, “Fire on the Mountain”, or “Passion for Snow.” There are also old issues of skiing magazines that are available for sale. Every now and then you find an issue that triggers great memories from the past – the skis you loved, the ski trip you took, or that one-piece, fluorescent ski-suit you wore!
I received a nice note from Rebecca Armstrong, Marketing Manager for Ski Portillo. She mentioned the special video that Portillo produced for the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Championships.
I heard from Ruben Macaya who competed in those 1966 World Championships. He was the youngest member of the Argentinian ski team and Portillo was his first international competition. He recalls sitting next to then Erika Schinegger at the pool. Ruben mentioned that the book written later by Erik Schinegger (My Victory over Myself: The Man Who Became a Female World Champion) was a good read. Ruben now resides in the Sun Valley, Idaho area.
I also heard from fellow Stowe Host Willie White who visited Portillo in 1968, which was a bad snow year there. Willie’s wife Tanya went to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration graduating in 1959 and then went on to work for the Hilton hotel chain. Somewhere along the line she met and got to know Henry Purcell. Sometimes the skiing world is amazingly small and connected.
As for who was pictured in that U.S. Ski Team poster for Portillo, David Smith says it is Dennis “Poncho” McCoy. So that makes at least two of us who think it’s McCoy. David Smith was a ski racer who trained summers in Portillo starting in 1968.
The first ski lift on Mount Mansfield was a rope tow located in what is now the Toll House area. It began operation in December of 1936 making this season the 80th anniversary of lift-served skiing on Mount Mansfield! However that specific rope tow had been in operation somewhere else the year before. So this week’s trivia question is:
Where did the first rope tow on Mount Mansfield come from?
Where were you during the summer of 1966? I was looking forward to my junior year in college and was in the early stages of my obsession with alpine skiing. Even though it was summer, I was looking forward to winter.
In early August I was surprised to turn on the TV and see coverage of a ski race. It was not just any ski race either, but part of the FIS World Championships. How could that be?
That “could be” because the World Championships of 1966 were held in Portillo, Chile. Chile is in the southern hemisphere where summer is winter and winter is summer. Or actually, their winter is our summer hence skiing in August. Those 1966 World Championships were the first, and remain the only, international-level ski races held in the southern hemisphere.
The first correct answer for last week’s trivia question came all the way from Saint Augustine, Florida. Long-time friend Pat Ostrowski identified Portillo as the site of the 1966 World Championships. Pat didn’t start skiing until after 1966 when he moved to Vermont, but he associated the Portillo races with the emergence of Jean Claude Killy and the French ski team.
Parker Riehle, President of Ski Vermont, also had the right answer. He has a U.S. Ski Team Poster from Portillo 1966 hanging in his office and sent along a picture of that poster. A great trivia question would be who is featured in that poster, but I’m not sure I know the correct answer.
Portillo is the oldest ski area in South America tracing its roots way back to the late 1800s. Much like the United States, skiing’s popularity grew in Chile during the 1930s. World War II interrupted that growth, but it resumed after the war as skiing entered the lift-served era.
By 1960 the Chilean government was running Portillo and it was losing money. Chile offered the hotel and ski area to the highest bidder. The story goes that American financier Bob Purcell put in a bid on sort of a whim. His bid turned out to be the only bid so he was suddenly in the skiing business.
Bob Purcell would recruit his 26-year-old nephew Henry Purcell to run Portillo. Henry was a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and had been working for the Hilton hotel chain. He took over the reins of the Portillo hotel and skiing operation in 1961.
Early in his tenure at Portillo, Henry Purcell realized he needed to host an international event to bring attention and business to his part of the skiing world. He lobbied the FIS heavily and eventually landed the 1966 World Championships. However the FIS wanted Portillo to host a pre-event in 1965 to demonstrate their ability to handle a World Championship.
That event was a disaster in the truest sense of the word. A Pacific typhoon hit, dumping tons of snow. Avalanches literally wiped out whole ski lifts and stranded would-be competitors for days. Despite that less-than-successful test, Purcell convinced the FIS to stick with Portillo for the following year. During that year they would redesign and rebuild the Portillo lift structure.
The 1966 World Championships had excellent weather and snow conditions rewarding Purcell’s persistence. The event was a coming-out party for the French ski team! They would win 16 of the 24 medals awarded, including all the golds except the men’s slalom. Jean Claude Killy won the Downhill and Combined, Guy Perillat won the GS, Annie Famose won the women’s slalom, Marielle Goitschel won the GS, Combined, and eventually the Downhill. The French obviously enjoyed racing in the southern hemisphere while Karl Schranz perhaps best summed up the other nations opinion: “Summer is no time for downhill racing.”
You may notice that I said Marielle Goitschel “eventually” won the Downhill. I think it wasn’t until the 1980s that the victory was given to Goitschel. If you found a results sheet from 1966, it would say that Austrian Erika Schinegger won the women’s downhill. So what happened to Erika?
The 1968 Olympics required gender testing for eligibility. That testing discovered that Erika medically was a man not a woman! Erika would undergo hormone treatments and surgery to become Erik Schinegger. Erik would go on to race as a man, but without the same level of success. He became a father of two and is a successful restauranteur in his hometown of Agsdorf, Austria.