A look back as Killington Ski Resort turns 50

12/10/08 7:30AM By Nina Keck
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(Host) The Killington ski resort turns 50 this weekend.

The largest ski area east of the Mississippi, Killington is an economic powerhouse for central Vermont.

But despite its many successes, the ski area has faced its share of challenges over the last five decades.

Today, however, VPR's Nina Keck takes us back to the beginning - when Preston Smith and a handful of twentysomethings turned a remote mountain wilderness into a mecca for winter sports.

Click here to see the Killington photo gallery

(Keck) Preston Smith lives in Florida now. But even after 50 years, the founder of Killington vividly remembers the first day the ski area opened for business.

(Smith) "If we go back to the opening day of December 13, 1958, we sold a whopping 14 tickets that day. And even then I never thought that we wouldn't' make it - even though we were selling tickets out of an old chicken coop and in fact we had an eight-holer outhouse as our sanitary facilities."

(Keck) Despite their humble beginnings, selling any tickets at all was a major accomplishment.

(Bousquet) "Not many of us have the opportunity to start a ski resort from scratch."

(Keck) That's Paul Bousquet, Killington's first general manager.

(Bousquet) "I think you could liken our start up of Killington to the high tech business of today. It was crude, it bordered on primitive. And we were just a bunch of young entrepreneurs who had a vision, guided by Pres."

(Keck) Preston Smith was born in 1930 and grew up mostly in Connecticut. He loved sports of any kind, and by his early 20s, decided a regular desk job didn't hold much appeal.

(Smith) "Business really was not my primary goal. I just thought that everyone must love winter sports - then I said why not a ski resort?

(Keck) Back in Connecticut, his wife Sue became the breadwinner. That enabled Smith to check out potential ski sites throughout northern New England. It was a chance meeting with Vermont's Parks and Recreation Commissioner, Perry Merrill that proved pivotal.

(Smith) And he said, well have you ever checked out Killington? And I said, well I didn't know about that. And low and behold I found a northeast facing basin with a beautiful mountain top draped with conifers and I was literally overwhelmed by what I came across."

(Keck) He spent the next year pouring over topographical maps, hiking the land and measuring snow depths.

(Smith) "One of my next visits was May 5, 1955 and there was an amazing 6 to 8 feet of natural snow pack on the ground at that time. And that of course solidified my thinking that this was the place."

(Keck) Still, there were major obstacles to overcome. The basin was far from the highway and there was no access road. A lease needed to be orchestrated with the state since it owned the land, and then there was that nagging question of money.

(Smith) "Nobody in the family had any money. (laughing) No, I had to go out and search for backers."

(Keck) Smith went door to door - armed with a skeletal business plan and plenty of chutzpa. That's when he met Joe Sargent - a 20-something Yale educated investor analyst who became Smith's de facto partner. Wally Morrison was another key figure in those early days. But to raise money, they needed the state to sign a lease on the land and build an access road. Smith and Perry Merrill spent almost two years lobbying lawmakers in Montpelier to do it.

(Smith) "Perry Merrill was a strategist and he knew the legislature. And he had a vision that Vermont could indeed be a significant skiing region. So I put my faith in him and interestingly enough he put his faith in me."

(Keck) But not everyone was sure of Smith's success. Some locals worried that a 28-year-old with no background in the ski industry and little money would fall flat and take local investors with him. Many in Rutland had also been skiing for years at neighboring Pico and there was concern that developing Killington would hurt that area's business. Longtime skier Joe Jones says when rumors about Killington first began in the mid-50s he and several other local skiers hiked up to check out conditions.

(Joe Jones) "We went up the back side of Pico and came into the top of Killington and we skied right down to where the gondola is - right down to the main lodge. And of course that's when we found out there was a lot of water in there - water falls and the ledges. It was tough going. We just couldn't' see how it would be a ski area."

(Keck) Jones laughs about it now since he and Smith became good friends. But at the time, Killington's young board of directors had to work that much harder to win over the skeptics. While they had a lease with the state and enough capital to move forward by 1957, there was still no road. Smith says that made clearing ski trails a monumental challenge.

(Smith) "It was so far in and such difficult muddy, rocky terrain that it was virtually impossible to go in and out every day. So I got about four other guys out of the logging community and we set out to build a lean to halfway up the mountain and we lived there 4 days a week. We got five days of work and four nights in the lean to and we did the entire year of 1957."

(Keck) Conditions back home weren't much better. When they moved to Killington in 1956, Pres and Sue Smith bought an old abandoned farmhouse with no central heat and no electricity. That house belonged to Orin Bates - a local farmer and state legislator, who many say played a crucial role in Killington's development. Burnie Martin ran Killington's first real estate office in the early 1960s.

(Martin) "The ski area started with not a whole lot of capital. They didn't have to go out and try and buy the whole valley like some ski areas did for millions of dollars. Orin Bates was there with land ready to sell and the area could grow. So, Orin certainly deserves credit along with Pres and Perry Merrill to get the thing off the ground."

(Keck) Paul Bousquet says their first season back in 1958, was the only year Killington lost money while Preston Smith was in charge.

(Bousquet) "The momentum was there ... the businesses increased in multiples every year. The timing of Killington was wonderful in that we hit the curve on the upside.

(Keck) Bousquet says Smith not only had a vision but the tenaciousness to see it through.

(Bousquet) "One of my first conversations with Pres was that, one, he wanted the area to be the largest east of the Mississippi, two, he wanted the ski area to be listed on the stock exchange, and three, he wanted to be the richest man in Vermont. And he accomplished all that in his career. And he told me that before - this was like in 1958."

(Keck) Preston Smith stepped down from running Killington in 1996. Now living in Florida, he says his only regret is that Killington still has no central village -- something he says he first proposed back in 1968. And while he occasionally gets out skiing with grandchildren, the 78 year old says these days you're more likely to see him on roller blades. For VPR news, I'm Nina Keck

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