- by Ann Bennett
Living with Skiing's Ups and Downs
In creating an institution, Whitneys' Inn and Black Mountain Ski Area, Bill and Betty Whitney built a sort of legacy of their own. The couple purchased the old Moody farm at Black Mountain in Jackson in 1936, in the waning days of the Depression, and created a renowned country inn and ski resort that many others later attempted to emulate. For more than 30 years they ran the establishment, thriving on the work and life style.
Though rewarding, it was far from easy, Betty Whitney recalls, and looking out at a light snow in early January, the first in weeks, she pointed out that the weather hardly cooperated during those early years, either. "During the late forties and early fifties, literally five years in 10 were poor snow years," Mrs. Whitney recalled. "Local businesses simply had to suffer through it."
The Whitneys' route to their careers as North Country innkeepers was an indirect one. She grew up in Portsmouth, N.H., attended Smith College, and eventually settled in Boston to work at Filene's. Bill had lost his job during the early part of the Depression, and was working for his father's Boston insurance firm, a job, she noted, "that he hated." "Our first exposure to organized skiing was through the Appalachian Mountain Club, which started trips to the Laurentians in Canada during the winter of 1928-1929," Mrs. Whitney explained. 'We went and loved it, and participated for years afterwards."
Later, Bill inherited a small sum of money, and the pair considered the idea of starting a ski lodge. Eventually, they investigated Moody's farm, which, according to Mrs. Whitney, "had become quite popular with skiers as a guest house because of the excellent hill behind the farm." The Whitneys purchased the property in 1936.
The previous winter, Phil Robertson, head of the local electric company, and George Moreton, an ingenious engineer who later designed the Skimobile, had helped George Moody install a primitive cable lift behind the farm. "Bill was very skeptical of lifts in the beginning," Mrs. Whitney remembered, "but he soon discovered how practical they could be." During his first season in Jackson, he added his personal touch by attaching shovel handles from Sears and Roebucks to make it easier for skiers to negotiate the lift. Not only was the gimmick highly original, but very practical as well, since it meant that Whitney had created his own simplified T-bar without having to pay royalties to the patent holder, Constam T-bars.
The Whitneys remained satisfied with the arrangement until after World War II, when, in 1948, they were approached by Halsey Davis, Chairman of the Board of Shaw Markets, and his brother Stan, who was involved with Brockton Public Markets. The pair convinced the Whitneys that it was time for a new lift, and they entered a partnership to finance the installation of a T-bar. "Thus was Black Mountain Ski Area born," explained Mrs. Whitney. "A J-bar replaced the shovel handle, and a new T-bar was installed."
The new corporation had a less than auspicious beginning, however. "That first winter, 1948-49, was our worst ever," she stated. "There were only two days of skiing in December, and then there was no snow to speak of until January 23rd. The snow went out in early March, too, and all told, we operated only 43 days, having averaged 80 up until that point. And we only took in $10,000.
1949 brought improved snow conditions, but 1950-51 was another poor season, with 22 days of bare ground in January. "We did manage 77 days of operation that year," Mrs. Whitney said, "a definite improvement, but some of those were in late March when many skiers had given up. Compared to 1948-49, we only took in $15,000."
1951-52 was a better winter, although there wasn't any snow until after Christmas, and the following seasons improved, too. That is, until 1957-58, the year the Whitneys installed snowmaking equipment, and also the winter Wildcat opened for business. The ensuing winters erased all memories of bare ground, however. 1958-59 was a hallmark season, boasting 104 days of skiing at Black Mountain, and for many years afterwards, right up until the legendary snows of 1968-69, the Whitneys were able to operate their lifts well over 100 days.
After that, they retired to their home on Whitney Hill, nestled on the shoulder of Black Mountain where the couple enjoyed their many mutual interests until Bill died in 1976. "We even hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, all 2050 miles of it," pointed out Mrs. Whitney, who still remains an active gardener, hiker, as well as participating in a variety of local civic groups.
As the winter of 1980 evolves, it's hard not to draw some parallels between it with some of the years during the 1940s and '50s. Betty Whitney points out that back then, people were equally distraught, since their vested interest in the weather - and business - was the same. "I guess you couldn't really expect anything different, but we simply learned to accept it," she said. "And our guests adjusted just as they did this Christmas. They hiked, picnicked and skated instead of skiing."
"And of course, whenever you talked of the weather back then, someone would relate the tale of 1920, when, they said, there was no snow at all," she added. "The story has it that a farmer had his hay stacked up on Tyrol waiting to sled it down, and there it stayed through the winter."
"Some businesses left during those years," Mrs. Whitney continued, "but many others, those that had a solid base to work on, weathered it. Local people of local viewpoint survived, and later flourished."
"We've had many good years, and I suppose people just come to expect them," she related. "Then you have to consider the growth of business. I count over 90 major restaurants from Bill's Place to the south, up to the Dana Place in Pinkham Notch. And many of them in the past 10 years. When we arrived in 1936, there weren't more than three or four. The whole area is handling a far greater volume of business, so it multiplies the grief."
Betty Whitney accepts the present weather conditions with a native New Englander's typical stoicism. "We have to be happy with what we have, and for the diversification that has carried us through the early winter with less impact than other years," she related. "Snowmaking is a big help, and roller skating and racquetball give people other things to do. But as for the weather, what can you do about it?" she concluded. "If you're going to live in New England you have to be philosophical about it. It's a matter of taking it as it comes."