top of page
  • by Tom Eastman

Listening to Skiing's Past - Dr. John Allen Records Skiing's Early Years Through Oral Histor

Too often, the color and style of an era is lost with the passing away of its leading participants. Written accounts and passed down stories provide an inkling of the ambiance if one is fortunate in such instances, but sometimes no record is kept at all. Dr. E. John Allen, a history professor at Plymouth State College, has embarked on a project with his students to preserve not only the written accounts of skiing's early years in New England, but the voices of its legends as well. The oral history project has been underway since 1978 and will provide an invaluable insight to the history of the sport when completed.

Dr. Allen's project is being conducted in conjunction with the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, on whose board of directors he sits. A lifelong skier, his interest in the history of skiing was first aroused when he came across some old prints of skiing's early days at an exhibit at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976. Although fascinated with the 16th-19th century prints, it was not until a few months later that he became a true collector while attending a flea market in Munich, West Germany. "The first item I saw was a designer's painting of early ski clothing, and I bought it," Dr. Allen recalls, adding, "A chap at another booth who had a few more prints asked me if I was a collector, and with a little hesitation, I answered, 'Yes.' I've been a collector and skiing historian ever since."

Upon his return to the United States, Dr. Allen saw a notice for an organizational meeting to develop plans for the New England Ski Museum in 1977. Allen wrote to the directors of the new museum to let them know he was interested in working with them, and included a few proposals for an archive with the letter. The oral history program idea was among those proposed, and was well received by the directors who told Allen to proceed with the work.

The program was listed as an experimental course at Plymouth State College in the fall of 1978, a format which allows the college to test the value and popularity of new courses for two semesters before fully committing itself. Five students enrolled in the program that first semester, interviewing such New Hampshire skiing legends as former Governor Sherman Adams, chief of staff under President Eisenhower and President of Loon Mountain Ski Area; veteran racer Al Sise; early ski film-maker John McCrillis, and Mt Washington Valley residents Carroll Reed, Herbert Schneider, Arthur Doucette and Sel Hannah. The course was most recently offered during the fall of 1980, with over 30 persons having been interviewed to date.

Dr. Allen says that the project is a worthwhile one since it allows students to receive hands-on experience while documenting skiing's colorful past, a vibrant history which has received surprisingly little serious attention before. Says Allen, "It seems curious to me that we don't really have much information about the history of skiing when you consider that we as a country spend so much time and money on sports in general, and on skiing in particular here in New Hampshire where it is of such economic importance. We're talking about a tremendously important industry, and people are rapidly losing sight of that heritage. We're trying to catch its essence while it's still there to be recorded."

Allen and his students have relied on a nucleus of New England Ski Museum members for assistance in tracking down the famous and not so famous persons who have contributed to New England skiing. Once a name is given to them, Allen writes an introductory letter to the person and explains the purpose of the project. If interested, the person is then interviewed by a student who records the entire conversation on cassette. The cassette is then transcribed by the student, with minor editing changes made by Allen for the sake of clarity. A copy of the tape and a final typed transcript is then sent to the New England Ski Museum while another is stored at Plymouth State College's Institute of New Hampshire Studies.

A great deal of preparation is required of the students before the interview session. Initially, they read textbooks on oral history techniques and articles such as the "Fallacy of Memory" or the "Ethics of Oral History," both of which deal with problems frequently encountered when undertaking an oral history project. They next hold classroom practice interview sessions where they are critiqued by their fellow students on their technique, an important step in the learning process, according to Allen. "Students often have trouble learning how to actually listen, as well as how to listen and be able to be thinking of the next question at the same time. A good interviewer has to be able to do both, however, and that's what we try to work on," the professor noted.

The second phase of the students' training requires them to learn about the history of skiing from its origins 5,000 years ago in Scandinavian countries to the mid-19th century when skiing techniques changed and the sport was introduced in America. They then receive an understanding of New England's role in the development of the sport, as well as how to do background research to prepare for an interview, a process which Allen refers to as "reading around" a subject.

"There are few all inclusive books which deal with skiing's past - a student has to learn how to find the background information he needs from a number of sources as a result. For instance, if a student was interviewing Carroll Reed or Arthur Doucette about the early ski schools and instruction techniques, he'd have to know what the Arlberg method was and where it came from in order to understand the significance of its introduction to this country in the 1930s, as well as the political situation in Germany which led many instructors to leave there for America at the time. It's a matter of knowing what you're talking about so you can ask the right questions, understand the answers, and recognize a false statement when you hear it," Allen explained.

Allen notes that his main criticism of some of the interviews to date has been the tendency of the persons to dwell on the histories of event rather than discuss their own active participation in the event. Says the professor, "A good oral history should be a memoir, not a re-hashing of an event. We're trying to zero in the human element in these interviews -- when discussing ski schools, we want to hear what it was like to be an instructor at Mt. Cranmore in 1938, not so much how the schools evolved. We're looking for the primary source." He says that most of the persons interviewed have been exceptionally supportive of the work, although the recollections have not all been entirely accurate in some cases. "The memories of the people we've talked with have been either of two ways - generally good but not specifically accurate for details, or great for details but generally off the mark. That's when a prepared interviewer who's done his homework can aid the process," Dr. Allen commented.

Among the glimpses of skiing's early days received through the project, Allen says that the most striking aspect about the era was the extra-ordinary lack of care or caution given to safety by skiers. "Time and time again in these tapes, you hear an old-timer describing a certain turn on an old ski trail by saying, 'Ha, ha, that's the corner named after so and so who lost his teeth there.' Others tell you that the skiers racing in the first Inferno Race down Tuckerman Ravine skied with long red strips trailing from their pants which would serve as locators in case of an avalanche," the professor stated, noting that the second major aspect of skiing early days learned through the tapes is the amateur quality of the sport in general and racing in particular.

Unlike modern ski racing's emphasis on monetary records, Allen says early ski racers competed purely for the love of the sport. "I recall the story of two racers who were skiing down the Moosilauke Carriage Road Downhill Race in 1933 when one of them lost it on a bank and ended up in the woods. The other skier failed to negotiate the turn as well, and landed on top of his competitor in the woods only to find the other chap offering him a nip out of a flask. They both got back on the course together and finished in the middle of the pack. That was ski racing in those days - far different from today's emphasis on .001 differentials," Allen related, noting that oral histories are especially effective in preserving such amusing and colorful incidents.

In the future, Allen intends to concentrate his efforts on conducting interviews with a theme once the initial phase is completed. "I suspect that we'll move on to the next stage after we conduct approximately 100 interviews. When you start hearing the same things after a while, that's when you know that it's time to stop."

Possible theme projects include interviews with the members of the 1936 US Olympic Ski Team as well as discussions on ski clubs and the development of the ski manufacturing and clothing industries. The first stages of the project will be available to the public when the New England Ski Museum opens its doors in Franconia, an event scheduled for the fall of 1981. In the meantime, Dr. Allen will devote time to teaching as well as working as a scriptwriter and historical consultant for a film based on the development of alpine skiing in this country. As he noted, "It's all living history with a very important message to tell. It's also a great deal of fun, something which some academics have lost sight of in their work. I haven't and I enjoy it immmensely."

bottom of page