The Early Days of Skiing, 1934
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Telling the story of the development of the sport of skiing in Vermont often begins in 1934, when the first rope tow, a contraption powered by a Model-T Ford truck, was set up on a slope at Clint Gilbert’s farm in Woodstock. This mechanized apparatus did, indeed, launch a new era as well as a new technology in the history of skiing. But the story begins with the coming of skis to the north country that involved two Vermonters not often enough mentioned in today’s skiing memoirs: Fred Garey of Thetford and Fred H. Harris of Brattleboro.
Skis were not new to New England at the turn of the twentieth century, but they were rare. By all accounts, before 1900 the few skis used by Appalachian Mountain Club members and other came from Sweden or Norway, and were mostly found on the feet of Swedish or Norwegian immigrants. But the arrival of a Swedish student who turned up at Dartmouth College in 1900 carrying an eight-foot-long pair of skis rapidly changed all this.
Since no one in New England yet made skis, the student enthusiasm created by the Swedish skis at Dartmouth challenged Fred Garey of Thetford, the college carpenter, who devised a way to create a pair of skis from seasoned ash wood stored in a neighbor’s barn. To curl the tips, Garey stood the tall skis in the hot water reservoir of his family’s kitchen wood cooking stove, tying the back end of the ski to the clothes-drying pole up by the kitchen ceiling. When the wood was sufficiently softened, he eased the tip end into a curved wooden block he formed for this purpose. In less than a week, Garey made two pairs of skis. He said he could have sold fifty pairs in as many minutes when he took them over to Dartmouth to show to the students.
Meanwhile, Fred Harris, who was about to enter Dartmouth, was learning to ski from a Dr. Lawton in Brattleboro, who had somehow obtained a pair of skis, perhaps from the Midwest, where Norwegian immigrants had taken their skis more than fifty years earlier. Skis at the time were eight to twelve feet long, four or five inches wide, without bottom grooves or wax, held to the feet with notoriously unreliable leather straps, affording the user little control or ability to steer. What steering the skier accomplished was with a long pole dragged along one side, rather like a rudder.
During the few years before the beginning of the First World War, skiing as a sport in New England gained great popularity and organization, due in great measure to the impact of the Dartmouth Outing Club. At the same time, James Taylor, who in 1910 founded the Green Mountain Club in Vermont, was organizing boys’ skiing and a boys’ winter carnival at the Vermont Academy in Saxtons River.
Following the Great War, skiing enthusiasts abounded. In 1922 Fred Harris founded the Brattleboro Outing Club, the same year he served as the first president of the U.S. Eastern Amateur Ski Association. Ski racing, ski jumping, and cross-country skiing were all aspects of this influential skier’s passion. Harris Hill, the Brattleboro ski-jumping hill that Fred Harris laid out prior to the 1924 first U.S. National Ski Jumping Championship, was named for him in February 1951.
Although snowshoeing—a recreation adapted from Native American modes of snow traveling by white settlers, trappers, wood cutters, and farmers—continued to be Vermonters’ main winter sport into the 1920s, ski meets and winter carnivals spread to the state’s college campuses. The Winter Olympic Games, held at nearby Lake Placid, New York, in 1932 brought unprecedented new attraction to the skiing, and soon after a downhill skiing craze took the mountains of New England by storm. Annual visits to Stowe in the early 1930s by the Amateur Ski Club of New York City led Vermonters to begin plowing mountain roads and insulating mountain lodges to accommodate the growing winter clientele.
In 1934 a group of ski enthusiasts constructed the now-famous ski tow at Clint Gilbert’s farm north of Woodstock, thus eliminating the necessity of having first to climb the hill before skiing down it. Although various lift machines were already being used in California to service snowshoers and tobaggonists as well as skiers, the jury-rigged lift at Woodstock (built with junked tires, discarded cedar posts, scrap wood, and wire, in addition to the Model T truck and engine—for a total cost of $500) is credited with inaugurating the rope-tow era in the United States. Similar to a rig established at Shawbridge, Québec, a year earlier, the Woodstock machine utilized a 1,800-foot “continuous rope” that ran over pulley wheels tied to a tree at the top of the hill. The Model-T engine that powered the system, pulled four or five skiers up the 900-foot slope at a speed of five to ten miles per hour. One early user claimed to have gotten “almost as much of a thrill going up as coming down.” A year later, the “Sky Way,” as it was called, was improved to be capable of transporting 300 skiers per hour up the low hill.
In the years that followed, slopes on private and publicly-owned land outfitted with tows grew rapidly in popularity, with ski areas at East Corinth, at Hogback Mountain in Marlboro, Shrewsbury Peak, and at Mount Prospect near Bennington. In Stowe, Vermont’s State Forester Perry Merrill, who learned skiing as child and perfected it when a student at the Royal College of Forestry in Stockholm, Sweden, in the early 1920s, used workers from a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps sub-camp to cut Vermont’s first trails specifically for skiing and to build a parking site and warming shelter at Mount Mansfield’s Smuggler’s Notch area. In 1939 Governor George Aiken authorized at Mount Mansfield the first lease of state-owned land to private developers for ski area use. By the winter of 1940-1941, the leaseholders had constructed on the mountain the longest (one mile) and highest aerial chair lift in the world. Aiken justified this commercial development of public land by asserting the state’s need to maintain a balance between environmental preservation and economic growth. Under a system devised by Merrill, income from the leases funded a large part of each year’s annual state parks’ budget.
John B. Allen, “The Making of a Skier: Fred H. Harris, 1904-1911, Vermont History 53 (Winter 1985): 5-16.
Fred H. Harris, “Skiing and Winter Sports in Vermont,” The Vermonter 17 (1912): 677-681.
Perry H. Merrill, The Making of a Forester: An Autobiographical History (Montpelier, Vt.: Perry H. Merrill, 1984), 55, 76, 130-131.
Citation for this page
Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “The Early Days of Skiing,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89. https://vermonthistory.org/early-days-of-skiing-1934