By Karen Lorentz
“Women don’t get enough credit in the ski industry,” noted Justin Lindholm in a presentation on the early ski history of Pico and Killington.
That comment drew some appreciative female murmurs among the attendees at the Chittenden Historical Society’s first program of 2021 on Sept. 14 at the handsome, renovated Grange Hall in North Chittenden.
Lindholm, who is known to many from his years working at Lindholm Sport Center in Rutland, opened with a brief slide show and ended with a home movie his mother, Shirley, shot of the 1958 opening day at Killington Ski Area. It included: an opening ceremony at the end of the [Killington Road] Access Road with dignitaries; Governor Stafford greeting the first person to ride the Snowdon Poma; views of the slopes; and a young Justin and his brother on skis.
Chief among the interesting observations Lindholm shared was information about Janet and Brad Mead. An artist and visionary, Brad designed North Tower in Mendon, where the family lived in a 24-room castle-like home. It was a place Lindholm was very familiar with because he, like their daughter, Andrea Mead, would grow up there after his parents purchased it in 1952.
Showing several slides, he described North Tower and surrounding cliffs as “an enchanted place,” but added that the 24 rooms were very small with the exception of a large and beautiful chapel featuring a 30-foot ceiling and an organ up on a balcony.
Lindholm noted that Andrea and brother Peter often skied the (private) half-mile road to the school bus stop. Like Andrea, Lindholm learned to ski on the hills at North Tower at age 3, but unlike Mead, he never raced, he said.
Andrea Mead Lawrence’s parents were passionate skiers who founded Pico Ski Area. The Meads had honeymooned on Chittenden Reservoir and, having skied in Europe, had searched the Rutland area for a place to build a ski area, Lindholm noted.
They first put in a rope tow for the 1936-37 season at Framar Farms on Cream Hill Road, and then opened Pico on Thanksgiving Day 1937 with a rope tow on Little Pico, which they leased from Mortimer Proctor.
They also had searched for someone to teach skiing, which was in its infancy for recreational skiers at that time, and brought over Swiss racer Karl Acker who operated the Karl Acker Ski School at Pico.
It was Acker, whom Lindholm described as a one of the “best skiers in the world,” who taught the young Andrea to race. She raced in the 1948, 1952, and 1956 Olympics (she eventually married racer David Lawrence) and is famous as the two-time Olympic gold medal winner at the 1952 Olympics.
Acker also started the Pico Derby as part of Pico’s racing events. It was Acker who found Brad Mead’s body when he died in a boating accident on Chittenden Reservoir in 1942. Mead is buried up on Sunset Schuss, Lindholm noted.
After his death, Janet Mead carried on with Acker managing operations for her until he left for the 10th Mountain Division to fight in World War II. Janet then ran Pico with assistance from paid personnel and volunteers from the Otter Ski Patrol and Pico Ski Club. Pico was one of the first 30 ski areas in the U.S. and was one of the few to remain open during the war.
Acker returned after the war. He built chairs and attached them to the T-Bar cable in 1950 for summer and foliage rides to bring in extra money, which saved the area during the snow droughts in the early 1950s. Janet Mead, who had purchased the mountain in 1947, sold the area to Acker and his wife, June, in 1954.
Acker expanded Pico with a T-Bar on Gnome’s Knoll (now the Triple Slope area) and had difficulties with installing a J-Bar to replace two rope tows. He was working long days when he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 42 in 1958.
June Acker then carried on, pursuing his plans for the area, and put in Pico’s first chairlift on Lower Pike. But unable to get financing for a chair to the summit, she sold to the Belden group in 1964.
That chair was desperately needed as the younger Killington Ski Area boasted several chairlifts to the summits of three mountains and proved serious competition as skiers and racers still had to hike up to the summit of Pico.
Lindholm stressed the extreme challenges that Preston “Pres” Smith faced in opening Killington. He had to raise funds by selling stock in a not-yet existing ski area. Lindholm has several artifacts from that era, including stock certificates and an annual report before there was a ski area at Killington. He also noted the active role Susanne Smith played in Killington’s founding, noting her role in communications and investor relations.
The display of old boots and skis, including the 10th Mountain Division white skis made by Northland and the bamboo poles the troops used, was eye opening for many. He had invited Karl T. Acker, Ackers’ son, to bring items for the display and introduced him to the audience, who chatted with Acker after the presentation.
As an only child, Karl T. grew up at Pico, living in the second floor apartment atop the Troll Top base lodge opposite the T-Bar Brad had installed to the top of Little Pico in 1940. With a view of the A and B slopes from his bedroom, Acker literally had the mountain for his backyard. His dad taught him to ski around age 3, he recalls, and he was soon participating in Mid-Vermont Council races and even won the Pico Derby as a teenager.
Among his many memories is one of his mother telling him that one season (before snowmaking) Pico was only open for 22 days. That was most likely in the early 1950s when there were several very poor natural snow seasons.
Knowing firsthand the many challenges that his mother faced in operating Pico, he agrees with Lindholm’s observation that women do not get enough credit for their contributions to the ski industry.
One of the reasons for that is that the ski industry was really a “man’s world” until the later part of the 20th Century, and Vermont was truly ahead of the industry in that women played key roles as owner/operators.