Rockefeller Buys Mt. Tom, Suicide Six, Ushering In Resort Era
By JONATHAN ROBINSON
Special To The Standard
By late 1950s and early 1960s, the ski industry was in a rapid ascent throughout the country, with new ski areas opening every year. Many of the older, smaller ski centers which had been around since the earliest days, found themselves increasingly one-upped by larger areas with more lifts, longer trails and more snow-making capability. It was during this peak period that New England had more ski areas than at any other time in history.
With that great expansion, however, came inevitable dangers, namely, unsustainable growth. A great number of smaller rope-tow type areas found it impossible to compete, eclipsed by the ever-increasing tide of bigger and better mountains.
Despite its rich and celebrated history, Pomfret’s Suicide Six could very well have been one of those destined for the scrap heap of forgotten areas. Even though the first ski lift in the U.S. got its start only a ridge away, by 1961, ski pioneer Bunny Bertram was realizing how difficult it was to “play with the big boys”. It only took a span of five years to change the ski area calculus in the immediate region, with the addition of Ludlow’s Okemo in 1956 and Killington Basin in 1958, right in Woodstock’s backyard. With increased local competition for skier dollars, not to mention all of the other places in New England (and beyond) that folks could go to ski at that time, small areas like Suicide Six felt the squeeze.
When asked if he (Bunny) thought he might like to get back into the ski business again in a January, 1979 interview in Skiing Magazine, Bunny told Paul Robbins: “No sir. I thought I was damn lucky to get out of the business, and I still do. I wasn’t exactly working on a shoestring, but it was close to it. Where would I be with the jumps in insurance, fuel, energy and labor? No sir, it was fun and the memories are pleasantâ€¦but I don’t have the slightest desire to be back in the middle of it.” In retrospect, and with that quote in mind, 1961 proved to be the perfect time for Laurance S. Rockefeller to come along.
Third of the four grandsons of industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Laurance Spelman Rockefeller had a long and storied connection to Woodstock. It was here that, in 1934, he married Mary Billings French, granddaughter of Frederick Billings, at the Woodstock Congregational Church. Over the following years he would develop a native’s devotion to the area. Throughout the rest of his life he was continually involved with preservation and civic improvement projects in the pursuit of keeping Woodstock the pristine, storybook New England town it had always been.
Whatever it was that Rockefeller was doing to help preserve the town, he always felt that he was doing it to protect “Mary’s hometown” as they’d come to think of it.
Much has been written about Rockefeller’s conservation and beautification efforts in Woodstock over the last 70 years, from the burying of electric and phone lines in town, to his building renovations, as well as his continual work at Billings Farm & Museum and the creation of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park. He certainly spared no expense in securing for the town a future whereby any new developments would gracefully coexist with those already established.
Within the first two to three winters (1960-63) under Rockefeller’s new ownership at the Mt. Tom Ski Area, the two old rope tows were replaced by two Poma lifts, snowmaking was installed along with a new “snow packer” (groomer). A new warming hut was built with a cafeteria, first aid room and sun deck. Mt. Tom had opened with its first rope tow in 1936 as Jim Parker’s Ski School and Tow, later as the (Johnny) Pulsifer Tow in the 1940s, and then owned and operated by Maurice Wood throughout the 1950s. It was during that last period that Spencer Field, a local skier since the early 1940s, taught skiing at Mt. Tom, before becoming Bunny Bertram’s first paid ski patroller at Suicide Six in 1955.
During the Rockefeller years, Mt. Tom continued as a place for family skiing, as well as being a “feeder” hill for Suicide Six for the next 20 years, where newer skiers would cut their teeth on the gentler slopes of Mt. Tom before heading up the road to the far greater challenges that Six offered.
By 1979, skier visits were down to where it was deemed necessary to scale back the operation and only offer skiing on weekends and holidays for the following winter of 1979-80. Unfortunately, Mother Nature failed the northeast miserably that winter. That season’s two six-inch snowfalls in March only hastened the decision to close Mt. Tom altogether.
In 1961, the year after the purchase of Mt. Tom, Rockefeller bought Suicide Six from Bunny Bertram, who, after 27 years and three ski areas later, was ready to get out of the business for good. Of course, the thought of an outsider coming in to take over two small, local family ski areas did not sit well with many of the regulars. Waves of local resentment reverberated. Rockefeller had purchased the two ski areas, the Woodstock Country Club, the White Cupboard Inn and other properties, reminding many of Laurance’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his similar efforts to restore Colonial Williamsburg (VA) earlier in the century. Locals saw no reason to “restore” Woodstock– they thought it was fine just the way it was–although the creeping gentrification, both in town and at the ski areas, was hard to ignore.
One of the first changes in this new era was the installation of a snowmaking system, only four years after Vermont’s first man-made snow success at nearby Mt. Ascutney in 1957. The system was put together by three employees of the Woodstock-based Poma company: Paul “Reds” Ostrowsky, Clarence “Red” Mills and Bob Pearsons, who would later go on to work at Suicide Six for 40 years. These gentlemen were also responsible for much of the trail clearing and lift installations at many other ski areas, including Stowe, Sugarbush and Okemo, among others.
Claude Gaudin was the manager of both Six and Tom from the 1950s until the early 1970s, when he died unexpectedly during a trip to Australia. He was succeeded by Bob Pearsons, who had been working under him at Mt. Tom in 1960 and at Suicide Six starting the following year. Bob finally retired in 2001 after 40 years of remarkable service, handing the reins over to long-time mountain employee Bruce Maxham, who continues as mountain manager to this day.
In January, 1964, on the 30th anniversary of the first American ski tow on Gilbert’s Hill, then-Governor Phillip H. Hoff dedicated an historic marker by the roadside at the site. Many in attendance at the ceremony included those who were there on the day it started, regaling the crowds with colorful tales of their early visits. That roadside monument still stands today as a testament to the dedication of those skiing pioneers.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Suicide Six and Mt. Tom served as sister areas, with a lift ticket that was good at both areas. To reduce the confusion caused by another Mt. Tom ski area of the same name in Holyoke, Mass., Suicide Six and Mt. Tom were marketed as Woodstock’s Six and Tom through much of the 1970s. With that title, it also connected the two areas in skiers’ minds with the town of Woodstock. These efforts to lure skiers to Woodstock had varying degrees of success, but the two areas always were seen as havens for the locals. This created an atmosphere of community and togetherness that could be seen in the face of every youngster that skied there. It may have been owned by Rockefeller, but you wouldn’t have known it by talking to any of those young skiers. They always thought of it as “their” mountain! It was with that realization that the future of local skiing, and skiing in general, resided in the hopes of the young skiers eager to take up this great American pastime.
With that in mind, Spencer Field and Jimmy Mills, under the aegis of the Woodstock Ski Runners Club, instituted a program in the late 1960s and early 70s to distribute 100 pairs of skis each year to local kids who were without equipment. This, along with the club’s Friday afternoon free skiing program, aimed to foster their interest and love of the sport, thereby helping to create the next generation of local skiers. Unfortunately, after a few years, the free ski distribution was deemed an unacceptable insurance risk and the program was stopped. The Friday afternoon ski program continues to this day,
Around 1970, the year after the new Woodstock Inn opened, the Inn debuted its ski touring center for the cross-country devotees that were growing in number at that time. The Nordic Center, based in the winter at Woodstock Resort’s Country Club, grew over the years to nearly 75 km of trails and meadow runs through the golf course and on Mt. Tom as well. It continues to this day as one of the premier touring facilities in New England.
For 20 years after its rope tows were replaced by Poma lifts in 1954, Suicide Six had soldiered on as a smaller, yet quite potent ski area, as well as a fertile breeding ground for hopeful ski racers. It had become widely believed since its inception in 1937, that if you were good enough to ski down the Face, it was only because you were equally tough enough to ride the rope tow (and later the Poma lift) all the way to the top. By the mid- 70s though, things were about to change again.
To further the progress of the ski area, the summit Poma lift was replaced by a new, 2,000-foot double chairlift in 1976, a move which was roundly applauded. However, that same summer also saw a change that was not as well-received as the new lift. After years of seeing the monstrous mogul fields that sprouted on the Face winter after winter, it was deemed a good idea to try and tame the slope, or at least, a good portion of it. That was done by reshaping the contour of the Face with a bulldozer, creating a shelf of sorts, which now acts as a boulevard across the middle of the steep, open slope. This move was seen as an improvement by some, but many local old-timers saw it as something akin to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Though slightly de-fanged, much of the Face will still drain the blood from many a tyro’s countenance.
Two years later, in the summer of 1978, the new $400,000 base lodge was built, with gorgeous high-beamed ceilings and towering windows facing the slopes. It was a fantastic upgrade from the old warming hut, which, over the years had been cobbled together like a house-that-Jack-built chicken coop. That summer also saw the 1,200-foot Poma lift replaced by a new 1650-foot double chairlift and increased snowmaking coverage to two-thirds of the mountain.
In 1979, Paul Graves, now of Reading, went insane on a snurfer – a precursor to a snowboard – at the Annual Snurfer Contest in Michigan. He did flips, bent down on the board halfway through, and did four sliding 360s. Also in 1979, Graves appeared riding a Snurfer in a LaBatt’s beer commercial. The history of snowboarding has finally begun to include more than just a handful of people. People all over Canada and the northern U.S. saw Graves in the commercial and wanted to try it out for themselves.
In 1982, a very important part of the history of snowboarding took place. Paul Graves organized the very first National Snowboarding Championships at Suicide Six Ski Area in Woodstock. Sports Illustrated, Good Morning America, and The Today Show all covered some aspect of the contest.
Throughout Suicide Six’s history, ski racing has always played an integral part, dating back to 1937 and the annual races that were put on by the Woodstock Ski Runners. That year, which was the sixth annual event, the race was renamed The Fisk Trophy Race, after Mrs. Harvey (Elizabeth) Fisk who donated the silver bowl which bears her name. First won by U.S. Olympic Ski Team member Alexander Bright, the Fisk Trophy Race is the longest running individual ski race in the country. Suicide Six has also played host to countless other races, from the local interscholastic and collegiate races to the Junior Class III and IV Championships, as well as hosting the New England Masters’ Bunny Bertram Memorial Race.
Such an emphasis helped spawn many accomplished ski racers, including Lindley “Butch” Sutherland, 1984 Olympic downhiller Peter Field (son of Spencer), and many more.
In 1999, the Bob Bourdon Memorial Race was inaugurated by a group of local ski historians, The Friends of Woodstock Winters. The Bourdon Race was a four-event relay race created to benefit the Bob Bourdon Memorial Scholarship Fund, which was awarded to an aspiring winter sports athlete from the Woodstock area. The “Bourdon Man” award that year went to Charlie Kimbell, the all-event winner. Unfortunately, for organizational reasons, the race was only run in 1999, but the work of The Friends of Woodstock Winters continues.
The Friends group was incorporated on August 11, 1994. Founders included Sherman Howe, his wife Anne F. (Petie) Howe (daughter of Elizabeth Fisk), their daughter Margaretta Howe, Coleman Hoyt and John Wiggin. The group’s mission, as stated in its 2003 newsletter, was to collect, preserve and display items of Woodstock ski history for the education and enlightenment of the local population, to serve as a resource for local winter historical research and to encourage the continuation and expansion of winter sports in the area. The year after it began, the Friends staged their first race at Six, The Bob Bourdon Inferno Race, down Six’s Back Scratcher trail, on March 3, 1996. The group was also instrumental in organizing this year’s festivities celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the inauguration of the country’s first rope tow on Gilbert’s Hill.
Today, the core group of the Friends consists of Sherm and Grettie Howe, Paul Bousquet, whose family started Bousquet’s Ski Area in Pittsfield, Mass., back in 1935 and Phil Camp, publisher of the Vermont Standard. Phil was also the first director of the New England Ski Areas Council (NESAC), which was first organized in 1968 (and headquartered in Woodstock) to collect and disseminate the snow and ski reports of the day. Snow reporting until that time was a very loose arrangement, without any firm guidelines or rules to be of any serious use to the skiing public. NESAC was the first clearinghouse of its kind for gathering snow condition information from the ski areas and then sending it out to the news services for the public’s use in deciding which area had the best conditions and snowfall. They were considered to be the fi rst independent service of its kind. By the early 1970s, the demand for the service expanded beyond New England and the name was changed to NESAC/Snocountry Worldwide. In 1997, after 30 years of service, Phil passed the reins to Tom Cottrill, who continues as director today.
Since its creation in 1892, the Woodstock Inn has been the focal point in town for visitors from around the world. During its first heyday in the late-1800s through the fi rst third of the next century, under the management of Arthur Wilder, the Inn offered its guests all manner of activities and amusements, none more popular than those enjoyed during the winter months. There was skiing, tobogganing, ice skating, snowshoeing, sleighrides and much more to keep the guests coming back year after year.
Except for a few years during the Depression when the Inn was closed during the winter months due to financial constraints and poor snow, the Inn has had a long tradition of treating its guests with the utmost in service, quality and great dining. When Laurance Rockefeller bought the old Inn in 1968 and built the current one behind it as its replacement, a new chapter was born in Woodstock history. As it has done for more than 100 years, the Woodstock Inn continues to provide an unequaled experience for its guests, with year-round activities for all interests.
I am very grateful for the help of the those without whose help this article could not have been written: Sherm Howe, Spencer Field, Grettie Howe, David Donath, Stu Repp, John Wiggin, Phil Camp, Jimmy Mills, Bob Pearsons and Tom Cottrill.