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Ski History – Part 2

June 15, 2010 9:14 am Category: Pomfret, Woodstock 1 Comment A+ / A-

Gilbert’s Hill
Woodstock’s Ski Focus Moves To A Remote Slope At The Head Of The Gully


Special To The Standard
Prior to January of 1934, skiing in Vermont was not an undertaking for the quadricep-challenged. In order to get up the hills, one would have to walk, whether in boots alone or on skis with sealskins attached. The skis of that day were more like the telemark skis of today, with the boot clipped in only by the toe, allowing the heel to roam free for easier uphill walking.

In early January, three New York businessmen-who had spent most of the day climbing the slopes to enjoy a few brilliant moments skiing down-sat at the White Cupboard Inn, chatting with innkeepers Elizabeth and Robert Royce. The group consisted of a broker named Thomas Gammack, Douglas Burden, who would later develop Florida’s Marineland, and a man named Barklie Henry. Gammack is credited with saying to Mrs. Royce, “You ought to be able to think of something to get us up these hills. Each of us is spending $40 apiece to enjoy a weekend in Vermont, yet the most we can do in a day is to climb a hill half-a-dozen times. We want to get in all the skiing we can on these weekends. We want to be carried uphill.”

Wallace “Bunny” Bertram was the former captain of Dartmouth’s first ski team and a snowshoe coach at the college. He had given the three men lessons on Clint Gilbert’s Hill (formerly a sheep pasture) earlier in the day and talked to Burden about a rope tow he had seen in Canada that he had heard was powered by an old automobile. According to a transcribed conversation between Bunny and Ava Emerson in July of 1979, Bunny was in the room when the three businessmen were badgering Elizabeth about easing their uphill trek. As the conversation heated up, Bunny asked Mr. Royce if he had a Sears or a Montgomery Ward catalogue so that he could estimate the cost of the rope for such a pull. According to Bunny, Mr. Royce asked Bunny what he wanted the rope for, and when he deduced what Bunny was planning, made certain to rent the hill before Bunny got to hit, paying Gilbert ten dollars for the season.

The ski tow cost $500 altogether, $300 coming from the three New York businessmen who each invested $100. It ran a 900-foot incline, hoisting skiers up with 1800 feet of rope that circled through pulleys that were attached to a tree at the top and to the drivewheel of the Model T Ford at the bottom of the hill. The Royces brought in a man named David Dodd to engineer and run the tow. Bunny would stick around to instruct skiers, but he had his opinions about the power source the Royces had chosen. Instead of using an electrical system offered by the Electric Company, they chose to stay with their Model T Ford.

They called their hill the White Cupboard Skiway and gave it a stylish opening with a parade through town that included a band, the Woodstock Fire Department, and what a February 1, 1934 issue of the Vermont Standard called “the big red Maxim truck.” They also hosted the Ski Club Hochgebirge, a Boston club boasting nearly 70 members, transporting them to Woodstock by train and bus for a visit that lasted from Saturday afternoon to Sunday evening and during which members stayed at the White Cupboard Inn.

The first to ascend the lift on January 28, 1934, were local boys named Robert Bourdon, Lloyd Brownell, and Buster Johnson. In order to use the tow, they had to grab onto the tow and hold on for dear life as the rope pulled them to the top. According to the Commemorative Album of America’s First Ski Tow, skiers would learn to approach the rope carefully, grabbing with both hands, “one hand in front of the other, bending their knees and pitching their center of gravity back over their heels.”

As the rope pulled, it twisted, wringing and often stealing gloves from skiers as they reached the top. If a skier wasn’t careful, they could and in one case did get hung by their own scarf. The Commemorative Album of America’s First Ski Tow tells of a woman who was unlucky enough to have a thread of her heavy knit sweater catch in the twisting rope. It began to unravel as the rope hauled her to the top and, as it was spring and she had gone to the slopes with nothing but the sweater to cover her top, she arrived at the top of the hill completely bare-chested. Bobby Bourdon quickly presented her with his ski jacket.

Dodd found that the rope would loosen with use, creating enough slack to leave it dragging over the ground at times. To combat this issue, he had to pull the ropes taught by progressively moving the pulley setup at the bottom of the hill further down, and refastening it in place. Dodd would sit in the Ford and man the pulleys as the skiers went up and down the hill. When they wanted to tow to go faster they’d tell him to step on the gas and he’d do as they said.

Back then, the state of the art for ski gear was a flat, unedged plank of ash or hickory with “free heeled” bindings that may or may not release your foot in an emergency. Skiers would soon learn to tie down their heels with inner tubes that they wrapped around the ankles of a regular pair of boots. In his conversation with Emerson, Bunny remembered wearing what he called Bass boots “and you might just as well have…might just as well have bedroom slipper on, they were so limp…. Why I didn’t break my neck in them, I don’t know.” He later bought some handmade boots by Peter Limmer.

The men wore plus fours, which amounted to wool or corduroy knickers that they tucked into long wool socks that reached up just below their knees. They would often wear another pair of wool socks, which they would roll down over their boots. The Fisk ladies, Margaretta, Ursula, and Petie, who would soon prove their talent in the world of women’s skiing, challenged the men’s plus fours with plus eights of their own, thus named because their knickers bloused twice as much as the men’s knickers. So-called weekend skiers would wear whatever they had on, some wearing three-piece business suits and fur jackets.

The first ski tow tickets were one dollar during the day and 50 cents at night. Bunny placed a flood light at the bottom of the hill for night skiing, making the 50-cent price the greater value, since one could ski well into the night.

The first season was a roaring success by most accounts, but by Bunny’s account there were quite a few problems with the nascent rope tow. The Model T Ford ran at inconsistent speeds, was tipped uphill, and ran off of one rear wheel, an unstable setup that wore out the Model T before the season was out. It would be replaced by a Buick and Ford Ferguson tractor, owned by local farmer Rupert Lewis, before the end of the season.

After that first season, the Royces hoped to rent the hill for another year. They had offered Gilbert $100 dollars for the 1934-35 winter and Mrs. Royce commissioned a local cab driver to fetch a crisp $100 bill. The driver returned with a flimsy bill and Elizabeth, who was intent on handing Gilbert a crisp note for his trouble, went home to clean and iron it. While she was hard at work, Bunny slipped over to Gilbert’s and rented it out from under her. According to Woodstock historian and photographer Sherm Howe, Bunny rented the hill for $10. He then renamed it “The Woodstock Ski Hill.”

When he was visiting his home in Newport Rhode Island, Bunny saw a Ferris wheel “and that’s where I got my idea of the multiple groove with the idlers, you know, to get the extra wraps in,” he says during his 1979 interview. His observation solved the problem of the ever-loosening rope by adding an extra larger pulley to act as a tightening device. The other problem that Bunny would quickly fix would be the issue of the unreliable automobile engine.

The Woodstock Electric Company had offered the Royces during the previous winter the use of an electric motor, an offer the Royce’s had turned down. Bunny saw the benefit of using electricity and accepted the electric company’s offer. The company did not charge him for the motor, only for the electricity it used, which wasn’t much. Bunny coined his new motorized tow “the first continuously operating ski-tow.”

Bunny would work out a few of the kinks in his electric rope tow over the course of the next few years, adjusting the speed to get people up to the top before they fell off with fatigue and adjusting the rope so that it did not twist so severely as to rip their clothing. With the faster rope tow, people were learning to use their hands as a clutch, allowing the rope to slip through for a moment before they latched on. If they grabbed on too quickly, they’d find themselves on the ground. If they gripped the rope slowly, they could get up to the 10 mph rope speed with no undue harm.

After one year at the hill, Bunny had a falling out with Clint Gilbert. According to Bunny, he was supposed to pay Gilbert a certain percent of the income he made from the hill. Gilbert didn’t trust that Bunny was paying him the full percentage and attached his bank account in order to get what he believed was owed him. Bunny, who denied any wrongdoing, decided it was time to move on after that and left the hill for Gilbert to run. At this time, Prosper Ski Hill (just south of On the Edge Farm on route 12) and Mount Tom opened up and Bunny began looking elsewhere for a ski slope to purchase.

“Well, being a south slope and everything, it wasn’t the right place to be, anyway…I went up [what would later become] Suicide Six, and down the back side, and found what is called the Gully now. And I decided that was the place to be because it had higher elevation, better snow conditions and everything, and two exposures: a northeast one and a south slope. The south slope being the back side of Suicide Six…” said Bunny in 1979.

Oscar Harding, the Road Commissioner at the time, owned the Gully property. Bunny would have purchased the property from him, but Elizabeth Richmond “Muddy” Fisk said (per Bunny’s account) “If anybody knows that you want the land, they’re gonna put the price up, because they’ll know what it’s for.” Muddy therefore purchased the land and allowed Bunny to assemble the tow. Again, he used free hardware provided by the Woodstock Electric Company. Muddy paid for the poles that would bring the power from Route 12 up into the Gully and did not charge Bunny rent for his use of the Gully hill.

Creating the Gully was no easy feat. In his 1979 interview, Bunny describes cutting trails with his friend Bill “Pearly” Wheeler. According to Bunny, Pearly was relatively old at the time, but they’d both get down on “hands and knees with a two-man cross-cut saw, and cut trees down right flush with the ground.” They would rake away the leaves and debris to make sure they had leveled them off perfectly. They started all clearing at the bottom of the hill in case they were not done by the time winter came on, leaving a dead end course to confuse skiers. In one summer, the men could build two complete trails.

In 1935, the Fisks built the Gully House, the small lodge where Bunny lived during the winters and in which the Fisks enjoyed as their own living space over the summers. The design for the house was created by a local architect named Amory Williams (a descendent of Norman Williams after whom the Woodstock library is named). According to stories passed down through the Fisk family, the hand-hewed timbers that frame the building came from seven different barns.

With four ski areas in full operation, Woodstock entrepreneurs and winter enthusiasts threw their energies into marketing the burgeoning industry. That year, John H. McDill began a promotional campaign for winter sports in Woodstock. His marketing pitch boasted that Woodstock was the “Natural Skiing Center of New England.” Bob Royce used his own printing press to create postcards, which he sent all over the country, and Bunny used his telephone to talk to friends and customers, encouraging them to call their friends to pass along the news.

People came from miles around by car, bus and train to check out this “natural skiing center” for themselves. The Woodstock Inn was closed over the winters at this time, leaving little lodging for the huge influx of skiers that plowed into town seemingly overnight. The new winter population turned young local kids into busy taxi drivers and transformed at least one room in nearly every residence in town into rented space. The town was booming with this new business and with so little ready space for bodies, some resorted to staying in vacant jail cells and jury quarters to rest for the night.

Ski instructors were imported from Austria, like Sigi Buchmayr and Fritz Steuri, to impart skiing wisdom on the slopes, filling the airwaves with foreign sounding expressions like “bend ze kneeses.” Bunny and Bourdon would also offer instruction, but as Bunny became busier with the hill, he spent less and less time skiing and instructing.

In 1936, Bunny would correct another inefficiency he had noticed with Gilbert’s tow. Instead of powering the tow from the bottom of the hill, he moved all of the drive units for the three Gully tows to the top of the hill.

Mrs. Fisk’s daughters, Ursula and Margaretta, were talented enough at skiing to earn entry into the 1936 Olympics. According to an account of Joan Merrill, “they were our first women’s Olympic ski team.” With such a talented brood, Mrs. Fisk thought it would be great to start a ski race for her daughters and thus began the Fisk Trophy Race in 1937, which quickly became one of the premier ski races in the United States due to the talent of the Fisk family. In that same year, Sherm Howe, who was married to Petie Fisk until her death in 2001, remembers that Margaretta was on the second backup team for an FIS sponsored race in Switzerland. He believes that Margaretta and Ursula’s travel to Europe and their subsequent mingling with other skiers brought an influx of talented skiers to the Fisk Trophy Race.

One such racer was Alex Bright, another member of the United States 1936 Olympic Ski Team and the first winner of the Fisk Trophy Race for the Men’s Slalom in 1937. Bourdon, the first man on the original rope tow and the president of the Woodstock Ski Runners’ Club (founded in 1932 and active on the hills of Woodstock, Pomfret, and Prosper even before ski tows had graced their hills), awarded the trophy to Bright. According to Howe, the winner received a silver butter plate, onto which the winner could emblazon their own name and label.

Continue onto Part 3…

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