Tales From the Ski Sage
Recounting Jackson's Early Years
As a center of winter sports activity, Jackson is no mere upstart. As a matter of fact—well—alleged fact, anyway—Jackson's very first white settler is said to have arrived here, a migrant from Madbury, down Durham way, in mid-April with five feet of snow still lingering in the woods. He had loaded all of his belongings onto a hand-sled to which he had harnessed the family pig. That fact alone makes us a little skeptical; anyone who has ever tried to lead a pig, let alone put one in harness, knows what I'm talking about.
But arrive he did, Jackson's first snow-season visitor and, indeed, Jackson's sole human inhabitant for the next 14 years. (Don't think he was all that lonely, however. Conway had been settled for quite a few years already, and Benjamin Copp, for that was his name, had just headed a little farther north to get out of all that traffic).
Benjamin's choice proved to be a good one and, by the 1820s, the town of New Madbury had gone through its first name change, to Adams, and had acquired a population approaching 700 people. They were outnumbered by several thousand sheep who, among other things, were helping to clear the slopes for future generations of skiers. Republicans were also outnumbered, and when the town voted almost unanimously for Andrew Jackson for President, they also voted to change the name of their town, once more.
So much for our preamble...
Jackson As A Resort
Jackson's first move toward becoming a resort village occurred several years before the Civil War when artists discovered the unique beauty of the area and found lodging in local farmhouses while they painted local scenes. Finding a means to make a living that didn't involve working the rocky soil or cutting the forests appealed to some of the inhabitants and, soon after the end of that war, Jackson was well on its way to becoming a village of hotels and summer boarding houses.
The first winter visitors arrived within 25 years and, in the 1890s, it was not unusual for one of our hotels to open for several weeks, especially in February around Washington's birthday time—the 22nd, remember—to entertain groups of 100 or more ladies and gentlemen, who donned heavy woolen mackinaws, stocking caps, and other appropriate attire, to venture over the meadows and through the woods on snowshoes or, more rarely, on very long skis with which they carried a long pole to help in steering or braking if the things got going too fast. Little did they imagine what this would all lead to...
Skiing's Early Years
It was in the late 1920s that Boston (in its largest sense) began to discover the new sport of skiing. There had always been Dartmouth men and, in Berlin, N.H., the Nansen Ski Club, with the emphasis on jumping and some cross-country, was already rounding out its first half-century of activity. Improvements in equipment and the first development of an established technique, gave the sport more widespread popularity.
Perhaps the key year in Jackson's entry into the age of modern skiing was 1934. The Moody Farm, which had already established a winter clientele, was bought by Betty and Bill Whitney and the Shovel Handle ski-lift, the invention of local mechanic, George Morton, "turned a wheel" for the first time in its now-legendary career, serving the pasture slope behind Whitneys' Inn. Stanley Howe opened the family inn "Overlook" to winter guests and the great meals served by Elise Stephanie—call it Swiss/Yankee cuisine—made gustatory history in the village. The Hawthorne was opened and away up toward Carter Notch was Fernald Cottage, a secret hide-away for proper Bostonians. Several local families fixed up their spare rooms to get into what is now called the hospitality business, and snow trains from Boston and then New York, found their way to Glen/Jackson station. Who remembers the four debutantes from St. Louis with their dozen trunks, the "Duchess" Mme. Schiaperelli and her poodles, Franz Koessler and the "Tea Kettlers" Ski Club?
In 1936, Saks 5th Avenue had a ski shop in the Dinsmore Block (now the Wildcat Inn & Tavern). Carroll Reed was the instigating manager of that store. In the following season, he started the Carroll Reed Ski Shop at that location, the first step toward creating a retail and mail order company which has become known throughout the nation and well beyond. But equally important was Reed's founding of the Eastern Slope Ski School, a branch of the world-famed Hannes Schneider Ski School in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria, to which he brought Benno Rybizka, as Director.
Local pastures became classrooms to learning skiers, and public and private funds went into the clearing of mountainside slopes and trails. Today, the vitality of New Hampshire's forests is evident when one tries to locate most of these areas. That wonderful locale once known as Garmisch Part-in-Perkins Part-in-Pitman's pasture has lost its identity among the alders and cottages, and the Precipice at Eagle Mountain House, with a flock of sheep and a barn roof for runout, is fast going back to puckerbrush. They weren't lift served, and that was that.
Alpine skiing wasn't everything, then, either. Few people had the skinny skis that are now de rigeur for cross country travel. But the bindings on alpine skis could be quickly converted for touring, boots were soft and flexible, and, to get to the top of the pasture, you climbed with skis on feet and, unless it was a long climb that called for climbing skins, you waxed right and took off cross country and uphill. The long runs off the Knoll, or down from Tin Mountain's northern slopes, or through the extensive meadowlands that have become Tyrol, were cross-country runs par excellence.
And, in the late 1930s, Jackson was one of a very few ski resorts in this country to sponsor an annual cross-country race, attracting some of the best langlaufers around. It would have made for better communication if a few more of us had been able to speak Finnish.
The Jackson Course was a tough one. It started in the Village, heading up the Wildcat Valley on the Eagle Mountain side, to cross the river well beyond Gill Bridge to come into the West Pastures on Black Mountain, crossing over the ridge to the East Pastures to eventually pass over Tin Mountain for a long downhill return to the village. It seems that that was over-long and over-difficult, and little by little the course was drawn in, shorter and closer to town. But it remained a good one and an important annual event until finally given up for lack of man- and woman-power to stage it. How many volunteers would we find today to snowshow-pack the course on the morning of the race?
Briefly, too, Jackson had a jumping event, held in connection with winter carnivals staged by the Jackson Ski & Outing Club. The jump was a slightly modified natural slope behind Thor Lodge, (now The Drifters Lodge). History is mostly silent on this event, but even here a legend was created. Birger Ruud, still recognized as one of history's best four-event skiers, visited Jackson (was it 1938?) and stayed with the Holmers, who owned the lodge at that time. John Holmer was a professional jumper, and he and his wife also operated the Thor Restaurant in Boston, across from Oscar Hambro's where many of us bought our first modern skis.
Birger was inveigled into trying John's little hill. He took off neatly, sailed well out beyond the outrun to land on the flat and establish a hill record. Unfortunately no records have survived and neither has the hill. So much for history.
For the remainder of the `30s, and on into the '40s, skiing grew but change was gradual. With World War II many of this area's skiers, residents and visitors alike, found their way into what later became the Tenth Mountain Division, figuratively clutching their three letters of recommendation and a duty assignment generated through the National Ski Patrol System.
Most of our local ski/soldiers were fortunate enough to return at war's end to find careers in skiing and outdoor recreation. Even today, scratch a ski area and you are likely to turn up a veteran of the Tenth and to these veterans, nationwide, is often attributed the inspiration which has brought the Ski Industry to its present proportions. I'm one, and that's why I had to mention it.
Editor's Note: Dick May is no longer with us, but, the long time public relations director for Wildcat Mountain had been involved in skiing since first working in his brother Jake's ski repair shop in Jackson, in the spring in 1938. In that same season he mastered the snowplow turn (Arlberg style) through almost daily lessons over a period of six weeks. He is best known as the former Publisher of the Carter Notch Clarion. A full-time resident of Jackson since 1945, he has become somewhat of an authority on local history, if only by being a part of it.