A Hill Called â€˜Six’ Ushers Local Skiing Into Modern Times
By HEIDI WHITE
Special To The Standard
The next hill to succumb to Bunny’s entrepreneurial energy would be Suicide Six. He would have his eye on the hill for a few years before he could buy it, due to some difficulties in clearing the title for sale, but in 1937, the hill was his. He paid three dollars an acre for 30 acres, then bought the remaining land for $500. The hill was known as Seth Perry’s pasture at the time. It was also referred to as Hill number six on a topographical map that an expert had created for Bob Royce, when the innkeeper was thinking about building a ski tow. All six of the possible ski hills in town were numbered.
After Bunny bought Hill number six, Dave Farrelly, a 1935 graduate from Woodstock Union High School remembers Bunny, Johnny Pulsifer, and himself winding down at the Village Tavern after a day of skiing the Gully. With the pitch of the hill in mind, they considered a number of treacherous sounding names. They would finally settle on Suicide Six, which had the alliterative sound that Bunny had hoped to achieve, having learned about alliteration in his high school English class.
With the hill already cleared from years of pasturing sheep, Bunny had little clearing to do to get the hill skier-ready. Near the bottom, a small plateau had a number of stumps that he would have to remove. From Bunny’s 1979 interview, it appears that he blasted the stumps out, disturbing the concentration of a number of school children in the schoolhouse at the bottom of the hill as he did so. He did not make many friends with the teachers that year.
On Christmas Day in 1937, Bunny brought in his first income from Suicide Six. By this time, there were many more skiers in the area from Boston and New York, so Suicide Six brought in a healthy crowd, keeping Bunny so busy with the ski tow that he rarely made it out to ski himself. He remembers standing at the vantage point of what was called the “military crest,” where he could observe the hill by looking up and down its slope.
Early on, the hill became a favorite place for races. In those days, Bunny would advertise on the back of the Ski Bulletin, using the entire back page for an entry coupon that skiers would cut out, affix with a dollar bill, and place in an envelope to mail off to him. It didn’t matter what level skier you were in that day, everyone was welcome to race. On race day, everyone assembled at the top of the hill and with one start, the race began.
One of the first races Bunny held were the NASTAR style races, in which skiers would speed down the steep Face with the hope of winning the gold, silver, or bronze stick pins Bunny offered.
Alex Bright had set the time record at Suicide Six before Bunny placed a rope tow on the hill, at just over 57 seconds. Later, Tom Corcoran, who would go on to develop Waterville Valley in New Hampshire, would break the record nearly in half, speeding down in 27 seconds. He was able to do this after much studying of the course and marking it for the perfect path. When conditions were perfect, Corcoran rushed to the hill to do the timed trials, according to Bunny’s recorded account.
Without the large grooming equipment of today, Bunny would groom the trails with the aid of three or four other men, hitting the trails with their snowshoes and skis, tamping down the snow until the end of the school day. Once the school kids were out for the day, he would have a bunch of them out on the hills to groom the rest.
While the ski industry experienced its initial boom and settled into a calmer holding pattern throughout the thirties, visitors to Woodstock could enjoy any number of winter sports throughout the town.
Undeveloped ski hills like Blake Hill on Route 4 and some on Dunham Hill and Mount Peg continued to attract skiers who were still willing to climb the hills unaided by newfangled tows. Snowshoeing enthusiasts could strike off on trail or in any direction they liked, and ice skating, which had historically been part of Woodstock winters found it’s way to The Green, though local memory differs on the exact time period of its arrival there.
Joan Wilder Pearsons (recently deceased) remembered the rink in the early forties. In a January 23, 1997 article in the Vermont Standard, she wrote that the Woodstock Rotary Club, the Woodstock Fire Department, and the Woodstock Electric Company were generous contributors to the small rink, giving freely of their time and money in its creation. She also credits an unnamed light company for providing light for night skating, of which she was a big fan.
Pearson’s father, a self-taught figure skater that enjoyed practicing his moves with figure skating book in hand, would create routines that the two would practice on The Green. They practiced their routines to background music produced by a 1920′s Victrola that they pulled out onto the ice in a sled. She describes how they would wind up the Victrola and skate for the two minutes allowed to them by player, then wind it again and return to their routine. The machine played Viennese Waltzes, Polkas, and Great American Marches. Later, the Woodstock Inn would use a set of loudspeakers to play music for the public.
Pearsons told of professional skaters from New York and Boston that would stay at the Woodstock Inn and skate at the rink, much to the joy of onlookers.
Farrelly places the rink further back in time, to the late twenties and thirties. In a 1997 article written by Kathie Wendling in her Vermont Standard column Historically Speaking, Wendling relays Farrelly’s memories of a rink where he practiced figure eights with his dad and played around with his hockey stick and puck. He remembers that Gillingham’s sold skates and eventually offered to sharpen skates with their patented skate grinder. Prior to their purchase of the grinder, skaters got their skates sharpened by Tink Day or maybe at George Charon’s blacksmith shop for 25 cents.
Farrelly remembered George Goodrow as the best figure skater in town and the only one to own skates with a “rocker bottom and the teeth on the toe end.” Farrelly started skating on double runners that strapped onto his winter boots and which made for unreliable bindings. The upgrade from those that strapped on were those that fastened with a clamp. Farrelly liked them better for hockey, but wasn’t truly happy with his skating equipment until he finally got a pair of shoe skates. Farrelly remembered the rink closing down in 1950.
During World War II, much of the ski industry shut down and the government sent many of the most talented service-aged skiers in the northeast to train just outside of Leadville, Colorado, to be part of the 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army. According to Jeff Leich, the Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, at the time, the War Department didn’t know anything about training troops for mountain warfare, so they outsourced the job to the National Ski Patrol, which was still young, having been formed in 1938.
In order to become a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division, applicants were required to present three letters of recommendation and to fill out an application that asked a number of questions about the physical abilities and experiences of the applicant. Not every soldier went through that process, but most did. Once they were accepted into the Division, soldiers were trained in a facility in Colorado in what Leich describes as “probably the longest training regimen.”
In 1945, the 10th Mountain Division arrived in Italy, where they engaged in mountain warfare in the Apennine Mountains in Italy. Over the course of World War II, they would lose 1,000 to death and 4,000 would leave wounded. According to Leich, the casualty rate ran near 25 percent of the troops sent into battle.
The ski-ready troops were possibly disappointed to find that they would not have much of an opportunity to use their Alpine skills in Europe. The Division did not end up using skis in Italy, except in a few minor incidences. Most of the warfare required climbing and maneuvering in mountainous terrain. Their physically arduous training in the Rockies paid off in their ability to form an elite combat unit.
Local historian and photographer Sherm Howe remembers John Jay, who joined the 10th Mountain Division in 1942. Jay was a well-known filmmaker who would spend his winters skiing and shooting film of his experiences, his summers splicing and developing the film into movies and his springs traveling from town to town showing his films. Howe remembers Jay bringing his films to Woodstock each month and laughing at the dry, humorous commentary that made Jay’s films a joy to watch. Jay would return from the 10th Mountain Division to continue film making and writing in 1945.
When the troops came home from the war, many of the vets were integral in founding and developing ski areas across the United States from the fifties through the seventies.
Skiers were no doubt thrilled when the Woodstock slopes opened up for business again. And so was Wallace “Bunny” Bertram, who had lost three years of income. A shortage of electricity after the war forced Bunny to run only one electric ski tow at a time, but nevertheless, he was back in business.
A shack at the bottom of Suicide Six served as a lodge for the skiers. The building had seven windows out of which one could gaze up at the hill and a huge fireplace that fit four-foot logs according to Bunny’s account. Any injured skiers were brought to the lodge on a toboggan, on which they would lay in front of the fireplace until the doctor arrived to help them. The lodge served food and non-alcoholic drink to skiers but served mainly as a warming hut.
Bunny never used a cash register during all of the years he ran the hill and, since he was constantly working the lifts and ensuring the safety of all aspects of the hill, he was lucky to have a friend he could trust with the money. Bill “Pearly” Wheeler had helped Bunny clear the trails of the Gully and continued to act as his head cashier at the hill, keeping careful watch on the money they brought in.
Pearly had his own unique way of attending to the safety of Bunny’s income. According to Bunny’s account, Pearly used homemade moneybags to hold the bills and when one bag would fill to capacity, he’d hide it in the sand pile Bunny used to sand his road. Bunny soon found out what Pearly had done and asked him what would happen if somebody got their car stuck and grabbed some sand to help themselves out. One other time, Pearly hid a moneybag between Bunny’s bed mattresses and it wasn’t until spring cleaning time that Bunny found the money.
If Pearly was peculiar in his habits, it did not seem to bother Bunny. Bunny trusted him completely and in his 1979 conversation with Emerson, said, “he made me feel ashamed of myself, he was so honest.”
As ski lift technology advanced across the country, a man named Ernie Constam patented many of the lifts. In a move that would ultimately prevent him from keeping up with the competition and therefore would mean the loss of revenue, Bunny refused to pay the patent holder for his rights. It was not until 1954 that Bunny would purchase a Poma lift for $40,000.
As with the rope tow, things were bound to go wrong and it was just before Washington’s birthday when all 90 of the hangers on the Poma lift stretched, according to Bunny’s account. Bunny had to remove all of the hangers and their springs and haul them to Worcester, Mass., where the springs were replaced just in time for the president’s birthday. The Poma lift increased Bunny’s capacity exponentially, making it possible to lift 950 skiers in one hour. It placed the hill in an entirely different league
By 1961, Bunny was ready to pass the responsibility of the hill to new ownership, selling it to Laurance Rockefeller. In his 1979 taped interview, Bunny admitted that he was relieved to “get rid of it.”
“Things were getting more expensive all the time,” said Bunny, who had enjoyed free electricity and free hill rental during the earliest days of his career in the ski industry. “The competition was so great, you know, with these other areas all around and all thatâ€¦And the work was getting pretty hard, too.”
Bunny would miss the work for a while, but would continue to enjoy the afterglow of nearly thirty years of memories of races, ski tow snafus and friends earned along the way. He would go on to work in Construction until November of 1978.