The Mountain Times

°F Sun, April 20, 2014

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Once upon a time in history: From local to “lost” ski areas

Photo by Karen D. Lorentz
Local to Lost author Jeremy Davis stands with William Deardorff of Santa Barbara, California. Deardorff came to hear Davis talk on the lost ski areas of southern Vermont to learn more for a school project.

One of the great things about skiing is its long and varied history. While the story of lift-served skiing dates back to 1934 in Vermont (and in the U.S.A.) there were a good number of adults and kids traipsing around on wooden skis on Vermont pastures, hills, and mountains in the 1920s.

In fact, the Rutland Exchange (Ski) Club joined in the winter craze by building the Mendon Winter Sports Center at the Barker Farm on Town Line Road. This area sported a toboggan chute, ski jump, canteen, and open slopes for skiers. A story in the January 3, 1927 Rutland Herald noted the tremendous popularity of the site, reporting that on Jan. 2 there were over 1,000 visitors, with hundreds trying out their new Christmas skis and another 500 using the toboggan chute.

With that kind of response to snow, it's not surprising that when the rope tow debuted at farmer Clinton Gilbert's pasture in Woodstock in January 1934, people embraced the new contraption which made it possible to take more than just a couple of runs in a day. Rope tows soon sprang up on hills and mountains throughout the country, and skiing hasn't been the same since.
That includes the good news of fast lifts, grooming, and snowmaking that have made skiing easier to learn and, for many, more fun with a larger variety of terrain.

But for all the steps forward, there have also been a few steps back. The biggest of those has been the loss of over 110 ski areas in Vermont alone, with every decade having seen areas close.

Jeremy Davis was in college when he became interested in "lost ski areas" and in 1998 started the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (NELSAP) through a website of the same name. Since then Davis, has visited hundreds of former ski areas and written Lost Ski Areas of the White Mountains, Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vermont, and Lost Ski Areas of the Southern Adirondacks -all published by The History Press.

At a recent presentation, Davis shared photos of past ski areas - from those that served as community recreation hills to major ski areas that have now have mostly returned to forested lands. He noted that hidden among the hills and mountains of southern Vermont, there are the remnants of some 60 former ski areas. (He only counts those areas that had rope tows, surface lifts or chairlifts so the Mendon Sports Center didn't make his list.)

He showed slides of what areas looked like in their heyday as well as what they look like today, noting interesting facts like number of tows or lifts once offered and the vertical rise of the area. The updated photos showed mostly forests with an occasional rope, chair or T-bar hidden among the trees and brush.

One of the areas that had the smallest vertical was at Green Mountain College in Poultney. Rutlander and ski entrepreneur Bill Jenkins started a ski school for what was then a women's junior college by installing a rope tow on a nearby farmer's hill. With transporting students for their physical education classes a hassle, he then got earth-moving equipment and created a north-facing hill with three slopes behind the school. Each had a different gradient to accommodate beginners, intermediates, and advanced skiers. With three tows, three classes could be taught at the same time. There was a 31-foot vertical and the hill was 300 feet long by 300 feet wide. It operated from 1951 to 1975 and even offered night skiing!

Davis noted that Jenkins was also a founder and builder of the Birdseye Ski Area in Castleton where he installed a Stabil Disc lift (a gentler version of the Pomalift) that he and a partner designed. That area operated from 1962 till 1969. Jenkins had urged snowmaking for each lift area and resigned when the directors didn't heed his advice; a few poor snow seasons proved he had been right, Davis said.

Apple Hill was another small area that was located at the Mountain Top Inn and Resort in Chittenden. It had a T-bar purchased from Abercrombie and Fitch, Davis said.

Davis noted that a number of factors played into the closing of the various areas, from over-investment and competition to poor snow years and increasing expenses. Even the development of Disney World affected skier habits and the market for smaller areas, he said.

When Prospect Mountain in Woodford closed, it continued as a cross-country area. Another area that has survived to offer some recreation is the former Hogback Ski Area on Route 9 in Marlboro. This area, which was very popular from 1947 until closing in 1986 due to high insurance costs, was purchased by the town and still has trails that can be visited.

Davis noted that when areas are abandoned, valuable materials like lifts are often sold off. After Dutch Hill closed in 1985, the Readsboro Fire Department burned down the base lodge for a practice drill, and the area was sold to the Green Mountain Forest. Showing before and after photos, he illustrated just how grown in the area had become, noting it is tough to even see that trails were ever there.

Davis noted that there are two small ski areas in southern Vermont that still serve as local recreational outlets. Living Memorial Park in Brattleboro is operated by a non-profit group of volunteers and offers day and night skiing and a T-bar. Rockingham Recreation, a town operated hill with 200-foot vertical and 900-foot rope tow, costs $5 to ski there, Davis said, adding that includes cookies and cocoa in the base lodge.

Visit Davis' website for more information on lost ski areas in Vermont, including northern Vermont where another 50 areas have closed but five smaller community areas continue to operate.