By Karen D. Lorent
The Killington Grand Hotel will be the scene of a New England Ski Museum annual meeting and award ceremony on November 1 to honor Preston Leete Smith, 84, with the Spirit of Skiing Award.
Smith, the pioneering founder of Killington who also became the CEO of S-K-I Ltd., the largest ski company in America in its day, will be recognized for his dedication to skiing and many contributions to the snow-sports industry.
“The award is meant to celebrate a personality from the sport of skiing who represents the memorable saying by Otto Schniebs that ‘skiing is not just a sport, it is a way of life.’ Preston Smith’s life work at Killington, particularly his emphasis on early openings, late closings and provision for terrain for all abilities, shows a commitment to the sport that makes him a most suitable person to receive the Spirit of Skiing Award,” noted Museum President Bo Adams.
Previous honorees include Tyler Palmer, Bernie Weichsel, Tom Corcoran, Stein Eriksen, Penny Pitou, Georg Capaul, SE Group, and Herbert Schneider.
A passion for skiing
Smith’s interest in skiing began when an uncle introduced him to backyard runs in Guilford, Conn., where he grew up herding cows on his cousin’s farm. After graduating from Earlham College in 1952 with a degree in agricultural science, he ski patrolled at Mohawk Mt. (Conn.) and joined two ski clubs to help afford skiing, driving himself when a club trip wasn’t offered.
“I had a terrible time skiing every weekend because I didn’t earn very much money. I used to drive 12 hours in a snowstorm in an old convertible, wearing a moth-eaten raccoon coat, and eating peanut butter and crackers just to get to Stowe. I was always looking for deals on skis and forever putting edges on them; they were the metal screw-on sections in those days. You were forever damaging them, and it just made it that much harder to afford the sport,” Smith said in a interview back in the 1980s.
In the fall of 1954 with his fiancee Susanne Hahn supporting his interest in operating a ski area, he went to see Perry Merrill, Vermont’s State Forester (who became the Commissioner of Forests and Parks,) about buying Mount Ascutney, a small, operating ski area that was for sale.
But Merrill, sensing Smith’s appreciation for the sport of skiing, told him about Vermont’s second highest mountain, saying, “Come back and see me after you’ve seen Killington.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Smith started Killington on a shoestring. After four years of struggles, not the least of which were getting an access road built and fundraising for capital to begin, the ski area debuted Dec. 13, 1958, with two Pomalifts on Snowdon Mountain, a CCC hut for a base lodge, a renovated chicken coop for a ticket booth, and an eight-seat outhouse!
Soon after, the beginner area Poma and Glades Poma were completed to make it a total of four lifts Killington’s first season, then a record for a new area.
Expansion and pioneering
What happened next was a round of constant expansion with more lifts and mountain areas developed on six contiguous peaks.
But what truly distinguished the area was Smith’s desire to create “a better ski experience.” This led to many innovations and made Killington one of the country’s most successful ski resorts.
When Smith ordered a three-quarter-mile-long double chairlift for a new beginner area in 1961, he received an incredulous call suggesting he had made a mistake. The manufacturer had never built a chairlift for such a flat hill before!
No error. Smith just wanted to make it easier for people to learn the sport. Snowshed proved so popular that it was expanded to a wide slope with three chairlifts and additional trails.
Thinking snowmaking would guarantee a better experience, Smith contracted for Killington’s first system to be installed in 1963. But when turned on, it blew up!
Smith dismissed the engineer and hired his own engineers. They went on to design and install snowmaking all over the expanding area, developed and patented snowguns, and later designed snowmaking systems through a subsidiary for resorts nationwide.
By Smith embracing research and development, Killington became a true ski industry leader. Other notable improvements attributed to Smith and/or Killington staff include the ticket wicket, factual snow reports, the long ski season, and the Graduated Length Method (GLM) of teaching skiing (in conjunction with SKI Magazine). Smith developed the specs for the world’s first and (then) longest 3.5 mile, three-stage, four-passenger gondola with doors opening on both sides. But when the manufacturer failed to install it properly, his own team rebuilt and got the lift working. Killington also participated in the testing of the first winch cats and used advanced snowmaking and grooming technology to develop Bear Mountain, which debuted in 1979-80 with the famous, ultra steep Outer Limits. In 1994, Killington debuted the world’s first heated, eight-passenger gondola.
A better experience
All these and many other advances were due to Smith’s insatiable desire to create a better experience so the resort’s guests could enjoy the beautiful mountain environment and the sport as much as he did.
In combining a love of skiing with his life’s work, Smith not only advanced skiing and the ski business at Killington, but in the process also made Killington a willing partner for others’ experimentation — lift and grooming manufacturers in particular — thus contributing to the betterment of the U.S. ski industry.
Killington’s success led to the formation of S-K-I Ltd. in 1985. Acquiring several other ski areas, S-K-I became the nation’s largest ski-area only company that was publicly traded.
Smith’s willingness to share his expertise, innovations, experiences, and top management team with others, both in Vermont and nationally, was recognized by industry leaders in their support of his nomination to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame (inducted 2000) and his induction into the Vermont Ski Hall of Fame in 2011.
The New England Ski Museum annual meeting and award ceremony, Saturday, Nov. 1, is open to the public. In addition to honoring Smith, the event gives snow aficionados a chance to connect with each other as well as hear from the honoree and other ski industry professionals.
Tickets are available from the ski museum (603-823-7177) at $70 prior to Oct. 1 and $80 thereafter. All proceeds go to support the museum’s mission to preserve the history of skiing.
Lodging for event attendees is available at the Killington Grand Resort Hotel (800-282-9955) at special rates prior to Oct. 2.