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Great thoughts: Vermont's first rope tow

12/23/02 12:00AM By Mary McKhann

Sometimes, great ideas emerge from collective inspiration. As VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Mary McKann tells the story of how Vermont got it's first ski tow.

My favorite uncle took me skiing for the first time when I was a teenager, and when he died a few years ago, he left a sort of memoir that included his early memories of skiing. As a boy, he and his family traveled from Boston to Vermont, where he and his brothers would hike up the Toll Road at Mt. Mansfield and ski down. Not too long after he took up the sport, though, things changed radically because of something that took place near Woodstock.

Documentation of Vermont's first ski tow can be found in a variety of sources, from newspaper articles to websites. The story goes that skiing had become quite popular by the early 1930s, and there were even ski trains bringing people from New York. Among them were three young men who came to spend the holidays at the White Cupboard Inn in Woodstock. A few days after New Year's, 1934, in a conversation with innkeepers Robert and Elizabeth Royce, they complained of spending $40 each for a skiing weekend where they had to climb the hills for a only few runs. They wanted something to carry skiers uphill and told the Royces they had heard of such a device in Shawbridge, Quebec.

The Royces obtained a diagram and called in David Dodd to supervise construction. Working from descriptions and the diagram, Dodd finished building the tow in less than two weeks for under $500 dollars. The Royces paid local farmer Clinton Gilbert $10 for the right to erect and operate the "White Cupboard Ski Way" on his hillside. On Jan. 18, three local boys rode up for the first time. Word spread and 70 members of a Boston Ski Club arrived the following weekend.

The tow, powered by a Model T Ford engine, hauled skiers up the 900-foot slope in about a minute. It broke down frequently, so Wallace "Bunny" Bertram was brought in to fix the problems. Bertram acquired the rights to operate the tow in Gilbert's pasture. He renamed the area Woodstock Ski Tow and opened on Christmas Day, 1934, charging $1 per day.

With the advent of uphill tows, skiing really took off, leading to a huge boom in the 50s and 60s. The Woodstock rope tow, and its predecessors, are credited with giving birth to the ski industry in this country -- an industry that generates as much as one and a half billion dollars a year in Vermont alone.

A three-month celebration that included ski races, a film festival, fashion shows and a reunion of the famed 10th Mountain Division was held from November 1983 to January 1984 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the rope tow.

Today, the hillside is populated with evergreens and hardwoods, not skiers, but a replica of the first tow still stands. The farmhouse and outbuildings are probably much as they were back then. The only indication that this is the spot that changed an entire sport is a plaque on the side of the road, commemorating the "ingenious contraption that launched a new era in winter sports."

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