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Farm Fields to Ski Runs

Locals remember skiing the rope-tow slopes

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  • 10 min to read
Locals remember skiing the rope-tow slopes

Vermont’s ski season traditionally begins in December. New restrictions will be in place to slow the spread of Covid-19.

When Shawn Heivly talks about skiing at the rope-tow slope on a Peacham hill, he remembers the “big fat rope” pulling him uphill and you had to hold tight or else fall.

“And you needed to get out of the way so as not to get skied over by anyone behind you,” he said. “It was such a great way to spend Sunday afternoon.”

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Headed down the slope at the 13 Ski Club. Photo from David Grady.

Karen Moore, who now lives in North Kirby, recalls the 13 Ski Club in St. Johnsbury with the same kind of joy. Her father, Donald G. Moore, and uncle, Leslie F. Moore, were part of the 13 founders of the ski club on the Grady family farm across from today’s Comfort Inn. “I remember sliding on my uncle’s toboggan with my brother, sister, cousin, and many friends of that era, as we all crowded onto that long sled,” she remembers. “Such great times!”

Kyle Lewis-Pyuen, who still chuckles over falling off the rope tow, learned to ski at the Peacham slope. “Some of my best and happiest memories came from this place,” he said, “carefree and simple treasures—friendship, skiing, sun.”

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The 13 Ski Club held an annual Washington’s Birthday Ball at the Armory in St. Johnsbury.

There were at least nine small rope-tow ski slopes in the area, including Danville (Webster Hill), Lyndonville (three of them), and three or four others over time in St. Johnsbury. Craftsbury and Hardwick each had one, as did Barton, Island Pond, and Morgan Center. Gebbies’ Farm still has an active one in Greensboro. A Vermont-wide survey by the New England Lost Ski Areas Project shows many of these places starting in the 1930s and thriving, especially in the 1950s, before the big mountain lifts focused skiing onto higher slopes.

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Ski patches from St. Johnsbury’s 13 Ski Club. Photos from David Grady

The ski slopes also may have been affected when the Northeast Kingdom saw a flood of newcomers after the Great Depression, as land prices hit new lows. Looking back from 1983, Lorna Quimby of Peacham and Shepard B. Clough of East Peacham (in the Vermont History journal) saw the “in-migrants” as academic and “on vacation,” and named the 1930s the time when, “The two segments of the town’s society divided in many ways.”

But in Peacham, said these Peacham authors, the newcomers helped found the Stevens Valley Men’s Club, which in turn nurtured the small slope (700-foot rope line, maybe 150-foot elevation drop). Similarly, in St. Johnsbury, when 13 local men created the 13 Ski Club, both St. Johnsbury Academy and the Dartmouth Ski Club would hold meets at the site. Then, as now, outdoor fun gave a good way to share the space and the adventure with a mix of people.

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“Willy” (Mrs. John) Grady offers a drink of maple sap to her son John Jr. behind the warming cabin at the 13 Ski Club. Photo from David Grady

13 Ski Club

David Grady, a seventh-generation Vermonter whose grandparents and then parents owned Fairview Farm in St. Johnsbury, still has the list on which his mother, in her sunset years, wrote down the founders of the 13 Ski Club. John Grady, David’s dad, heads the list, which also includes Tegu Tegu (owner of Tegu’s Palace movie theater in town), Harlan Haskins, John and Larry O’Neil, David’s younger brother Alan, Gilford Mudgett, Leslie and Donald Moore, Wesley Calderwood, Alfred Sparrow (who owned the neighboring farm), and Earl Weeks. (One name is missing.)

Starting in 1936, the 13 Ski Club offered a steep slope for skiing, a “jump,” room for cross-country skiing, and even a log-style cabin as a warming shack. The men met regularly, sometimes at the Spanish Villa restaurant on Eastern Avenue, which even offered a “13 Ski Club Cocktail.” Richard Ide made notes (using E.T. & H.K Ide notepaper) for the January 11, 1936, meeting, which already included at least 14 more men.

That was just two years after the first Vermont “rope tow” had been set up in Woodstock, and, at first, the 13 Ski Club functioned without any way to pull skiers back to the top of the slope—you side-stepped your way back up, a considerable work-out. The Northeastern Vermont Ski Championship Meet was held here, and the club began an annual Washington’s Birthday Ball at the St. J. Armory.

In 1949, Doug Wood, Francis Donahue, and Frank Lawrence, under the name Ski-Morr, Inc., installed at the slope a 1,530-foot tow rope, powered by electricity. By then the slope included a parking lot and access road, lights for night skiing, and both beginner and advanced slopes.

David Grady, now 67, was the youngest of five siblings on the farm and grew up with the 13 Ski Club. The signs for it, made by his uncle Raymond Swasey in the 1930s, still decorate his home. He practiced on the home slopes, then went on to ski at Burke Mountain. He remembers a trip the 13 Ski Club members made to the much more challenging ski conditions at Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire, where they became briefly lost in a snowstorm.

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One of the lamp hoods that lit the slope at night using 750-watt bulbs.

Charlie Lawrence, of Waterford, whose father Frank had helped install the rope tow as part-owner of Caledonia Sand & Gravel, remembers being captain of the St. Johnsbury Academy ski team and walking to the slope after school, wearing ski boots and carrying his skis. The Grady and Lawrence farms bordered each other. Charlie also noted the fireplace in the snack shack, and walking up and down the hills, packing the snow by side-stepping. He guessed that the slope never made money, but it was ideal for ski meets and Winter Carnival.

Another story about the 13 Ski Club came from Dave Brown, of St. Johnsbury, who said he believed B.J. Murphy was the first to go off the ski jump there—and landed on a barbed-wire fence! He went on to become a major real estate developer and business leader in St. Johnsbury.

Using a color photo taken at the end of the slope’s time, David points out the cabin at the center, the rope tow to the left, and the slope and jump to the right; a second jump was never completed. When the slope closed in the mid-1950s, he was still quite young, but he recalls his cousin Richard Grady summing up the reason: “The downfall of the 13 Ski Area was, the war ended and the people had to go back to work.”

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The remaining top pulley from the Peacham Ski Area. Photo by Ron Craig

Peacham Ski Area

Peacham’s rope-tow ski area started and ended later, from about 1959 until 1976. That means more people are around today to share memories of the slope and the fun they had there.

“We all skied there every weekend in the early 70s,” Nance Shaw recalled. “We had ski races in which one of the Marcottes or an O’Brien usually placed first, and on sunny days in late winter there was no better place to be than up on top of the hill, under the white pine trees.” She and Ron Craig also mentioned Bobby Blanchard as a frequent ski race winner.

Unlike the 13 Ski Club, the Peacham Ski Area had a rope tow from the start. Although the slope on Philo Robinson’s farm only gave about 150 feet of elevation, the rope was 700 feet long. It ran at waist height up one side of a divider of trees, and down the other, on spinning car wheel rims. Gary Schoolcraft, of Peacham, said it was powered by a Ford flathead V8 engine that sat in a shack. The West Barnet Garage, owned by the Mackay family, helped maintain it. So did others, like Ron Craig’s father. The operation of the community ski slope came via the Stevens Valley Men’s Club, along with a crew of “ski patrol” youths who’d go to the top of the slope at the end of the day and work their way down, checking that nobody had been left behind.

“The hill was packed with skiers,” Gary remembered. Families and young children thronged there. Parents could drop off children for the day. Students from Peacham Academy used the slope, too. “It meant a lot to the boarding kids, who often came from far away.”

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The slope at the Peacham Ski Area, 1960s. Photo by Gary Schoolcraft

Gary worked in the warming shack with its oil stove during his junior year of high school, 1968-1969, where he ran the snack bar and sold tickets. “Every once in a while the building would give a big bang and shake as someone slammed into it,” he said.

Frank Miller grew up nearby at what is now called the George Kempton farm, and echoed Gary’s observation, “It was such a wonderful service for the town. Our parents would take us up and they would socialize at the warming hut or leave us for the day.”

As skiers became more skilled and stronger, they might participate in “packing the hill” by side-stepping along the slope. This packing, Frank explained, would help preserve the snow cover from melting, as well as cover up rocks. He also described “ski patrol” work as a responsibility of the older boys, and still recalls a time when a man fell and hurt his leg, so the “patrol” brought him down on a toboggan.

Also to preserve the skiing surface, people did not use runner sleds or toboggans on the “left side” of the slope, where the rope ascended and skiers came down. The far side, though, might see “flying saucers” and other flat-bottomed gear.

Sugar on Snow and Risks of the Rope

A photo taken at the 13 Ski Club shows Mrs. Grady giving her son John a drink of maple sap from a sugaring bucket. Similarly, at the Peacham slope, “Sugar on Snow” was an annual delight usually held in March, around Town Meeting time. Frank Miller described the occasion, which featured Bob Bean, a very active Peacham community member who served in the fire department as well as in the Men’s Club.

A collection of emptied “number 10” coffee cans was essential, he said, as well as the boiling maple syrup on the verge of candying. The cans were each filled with snow. “Bob Bean would ladle the hot syrup all over” the snow in a can, and pass it to an eager visitor, who’d then eat the chewy candied syrup. This was especially appreciated by the students from the Peacham Academy, who often had not experienced the treat before.

“There were also heaps of donuts and pickles,” Frank added. “The young guys competed on how many helpings they could eat.”

Skiing with a rope tow meant less fatigue since the rope pulled you up the hill. But it wasn’t easy to use, Gary Schoolcraft said, “You could always tell when a little kid was there, who would hold the rope in front and look like being towed up the hill.” Experienced skiers placed their right hand in front, with the rope against their back, he said.

“If you didn’t have a strong enough grip (on the rope), the rope tow would tear up your gloves and jacket,” said Frank Miller. When he began to ski there, the kids used simple wooden skis that each had a single leather strap to fasten around their snow boots.

For safety, a “gate” of twine at the top of the ascending rope was designed to shut off the tow in case of an accident. It was a simple device, and helpful, but it had its moments of trouble. One incident mentioned by several local skiers was when Sam Kempton got caught there, perhaps by his hat, and was brought up against the pulley in great danger. “There was much discussion in the Men’s Club about how it happened,” Frank recalled. It could have been a life-threatening accident.

At the end of each day, slope tenders would ski downhill along the rope and hang the rope on pegs to keep it from freezing onto the snow-covered ground overnight. With all these tasks, the slope was only open on weekends, but it was affordable and fun. By the 1970s, according to Frank, a pass for all-day use cost about $1.75, and a season pass about $15.

Ski meets and team activities also kept the slope lively. “We had a ski team through Peacham Academy,” said Frank. “George Kempton was coach.” He recalled slalom, giant slalom, downhill, ski jump, and cross-country events. “The gates for the slalom were small maple saplings set in the ground.”

George Kempton’s daughter, Jenny Harris, said she and her siblings skied every weekend. “It was a wonderful hill,” she explained. “It was one rope tow, [and] if you got off halfway up it was beginner terrain, three quarters was intermediate terrain and the top was expert terrain! Coming down the top face was awesome steep, usually with moguls!”

Peacham also held an annual winter carnival with organized ski races, with classes competing.

“It was a center for the town in terms of winter fun,” Frank said.

George Coppenrath of Barnet also mentioned the ski team, as well as the challenge of learning to grasp the rope tow and hang on. “It was the place to go on weekends in the winter,” George said. He learned to ski at the Peacham Ski Area in the late 1950s and continued into the 1960s. Although skis were a bit more sophisticated then, he recalls “sliding my boot into a metal bracket with guides on the side and then clamping a cable around the heel and pushing a spring-loaded lever on the front to tighten the cable. No quick release from those.” Indeed, he twisted his knee learning to “snowplow” (slowing and stopping by angling the skis), but he never broke a bone there.

Goodbye to the Local Slopes

Although the local slopes were modest in size, they drew skiers from some distance. Around 1969, Peacham Ski Area hosted a sanctioned race, said Frank Miller, a Women’s Junior National race. “I’d be surprised if three of them had ever seen a rope tow before,” he said.

Frank noticed the young women visitors, like those who came from “Stowe Prep,” were also not used to such a basic warming shack. He figured their lack of skill with gripping the rope made them less able to compete against the Peacham kids.

Skiing at your local slope could also make you curious about others nearby. Frank said the youths also skied at Webster’s Hill in Danville (to be described in a separate article). There were also bigger operations like the Lyndon Outing Club.

But the days of local ski slopes eventually came to an end. As already mentioned, the 13 Ski Club in St. Johnsbury folded when the demands of work grew, after the end of World War II. Peacham Ski Area came a bit later, but time brought changes.

At last, Philo Robinson, born in 1898, sold his farm to another family, reserving the right to live there for the rest of his life. The new owners from “away” mandated that the ski operation have insurance to continue the use of the property. Frank Miller said the insurance industry didn’t understand the little slope, and quoted rates appropriate for a major slope like Killington. Since no other options arose, and since snowmobiles were also drawing away the young people, along with the shift to lift-based ski areas, Peacham Ski Area closed in 1976.

“I’m so glad the town had this vision,” Frank reflects now. Gary Schoolcraft, who maintains a large collection of photos from the Peacham Ski Area years, found that cars drew him away from skiing, but can’t help enjoying the memory of family life out on the local slope.

What else remains, besides the photographs? David Grady has the 13 Ski Club signs and one of the lamp hoods that aimed the 750-watt bulbs for night skiing. The rope tow machinery went elsewhere, perhaps to another St. Johnsbury slope by Lincoln Street School.

And at the top of the old slope in Peacham, a wheel rim to guide the rope return still stands, trees growing up around it. Ron Craig shared a photo of this pulley. Others, like Alan Munkittrick and Jack Taggart, hold memories of packing the slope, and Pat Blake recalls her father Maurice Chandler as one of the last to operate the slope. And there’s still some teasing about who the “biggest hotdoggers” were.

As Frank Miller summed it up, “There were few strangers in the crowd and we just made up our own fun.” That, for everyone who contributed to the story of these slopes, seems to be the lasting gift from those good old days in the snow.