Woodstock won the uphill battle

Vt. town home to first ski tow

In January 1934 a group in Woodstock, Vt., rigged a Model T Ford, turning it into the first known ski tow in the US. In January 1934 a group in Woodstock, Vt., rigged a Model T Ford, turning it into the first known ski tow in the US. (Photo courtesy of Woodstock Historical Society)
By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / January 1, 2009
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It's about a mile outside of town on Route 12 in picturesque Woodstock, Vt., and if you aren't specifically looking for it, you'll drive right past the birthplace of modern skiing in the United States. All that's left is a marker by the side of the road, the skeletal framework of wooden poles snaking up a sloping cow pasture, and memories that grow a bit more hazy with each passing winter as fewer and fewer locals remain alive to tell personal tales of the nation's first ski tow.

Seventy-five years ago this month, dairy farmer Clint Gilbert thought he was getting a steal of a deal when he rented his hillside for $10 for the entire season to a group of pioneering skiers. They jacked up a Model T Ford, removed one rear wheel, and rigged the other to drive a loop of rope around a spoked hub at the top of the hill. The tow operator sat in the driver's seat of the truck and stomped the gas pedal, and when the first adventurous volunteer rocketed up the slope, the contraption that would be the genesis of chairlifts as we know them today came into existence.

"A bit of rope that didn't go much more than 150 yards, and now it's a multi-billion dollar industry," marveled Jack Anderson, director of the Woodstock Historical Society.

"Very frankly, I don't think Woodstock gets anywhere near the credit it deserves for being the birthplace of the ski tow," said Phillip Camp, who grew up in Woodstock and is a member of the Vermont Ski Museum Hall of Fame. "It all started in this quiet little town in central Vermont, and it transformed an activity into an industry."

To set the scene for what the Gilbert's Hill rope tow meant to Woodstock, and later, for winter tourism in the Northeast, you have to go back to the early 1930s. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression. The railroad that serviced Woodstock had gone out of business. Although the town was well known as a summer destination, business was so slow that several inns closed for the winters. Woodstock had plenty of snow sports amenities - even a toboggan run lit with electricity - but when trainloads of tourists arrived at White River Junction 13 miles away, rival innkeepers in New Hampshire whisked them away in automobiles so they could spend their money on the other side of the Connecticut River.

Bob and Betty Royce owned the White Cupboard Inn on the town green, and they had regular guests who visited from the Amateur Ski Club of New York. Back then, you had to hike or herringbone the hills first, and the skiers were starting to complain that the reward wasn't worth the effort. The guests kicked in $75 each and challenged the Royces to come up with machinery that would haul skiers uphill. They had heard rumors that during the winter of 1932-33, at Shawbridge in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, an entrepreneur named Alec Foster had hooked a four-cylinder Dodge to some rope and had done just that.

The Royces thought that a ski tow was as good an idea as any to revitalize winter tourism. They shared the concept with a few close friends, but otherwise kept the plan secret. Foster sent rough sketches from Shawbridge, and local mechanics worked to transform them from paper to reality. Soon, a prototype was ready. Total amount of time and money for research and development? Two weeks and $500.

January was not exactly the ideal time to be driving iron supports into the frozen ground, and the rope stretched and shrank according to the elements. But on Jan. 18, 1934, Gilbert's Hill tow was good to go, and a 17-year-old phenom named Bob Bourdon catapulted into history by becoming the first person in the US to successfully ride a mechanized device to the top of a hill for the purpose of skiing right back down.

"Successfully" is the key word in the previous sentence. Sherman Howe, who grew up not far from Gilbert's Hill, and these days volunteers his time as president for the Friends of Woodstock Winters, pointed out a little-known fact: Another local had actually been given the honor of first ride up the rope tow, but he couldn't negotiate the difficult, bumpy ride through rutted crust.

"Someone had gone up ahead of Bob and fell down," Howe said. "He never made it up the rope tow, and to this day no one knows who it was. Bob, on the other hand, became a minor celebrity. He was a natural skier with a beautiful technique."

Word spread fast, and by the next weekend, Woodstock was mobbed. Some 70 members of the Boston Ski Club reportedly arrived en masse. The tow fee was $1 for the day, and the 10-miles-per-hour rope could haul five skiers at a time, arriving at the 640-foot summit in a minute.

"It was a fever," said Camp. "Early on, it just possessed people."

Howe recalled the ski tow was such a curiosity that people traveled to Woodstock just to see it, and that early photographs show more onlookers than skiers.

Howe said there was a learning curve to mastering the rope tow, because there was nothing to sit on and no handle to grab. Primitive tows could be frighteningly dangerous, because they were few - if any - safety mechanisms to keep clothing and equipment from getting caught up in the tow line.

As Anderson put it, "It's safe to say that OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] was not around."

The rudimentary tow could not handle its own popularity, and gave out within two weeks. A Buick and a tractor were brought in as backups, and they limped through the remainder of the ski season. Wallace "Bunny" Bertram took over Gilbert's pasture the next winter, renaming it Woodstock Ski Tow. He switched to an electric motor, began adding additional tows, and within several years, there were five competing ski areas with 11 different tows operating nearby. A 1937 New York Times article christened Woodstock as "New England's towiest town" where thousands flock to "mitigate the laws of gravity."

The rope tow was copied and improved upon. J-bars, T-bars, and Poma lifts began to pop up. Sun Valley in Idaho unveiled the country's first chairlift in 1936, a breakthrough invention that allowed skiers to sit on a bench and zoom uphill without their feet ever touching the ground.

Somewhere along the line, the original Gilbert's Hill machinery was dismantled. Camp speculates that working parts were salvaged to fix other tows, but for the most part, the scrap was "just chucked in a barn" in nearby South Pomfret.

"Nobody had a historical concern back then," Camp said.

When Woodstock was preparing for the tow's 50th anniversary in 1984, Camp said some of the original parts were located and incorporated into a commemorative version in Gilbert's pasture. But that equipment, too, has been taken down and partially lost (the poles visible on the hill today are from that restoration 25 years ago).

Like a ghost that lingers without haunting, Camp said the lost framework has once again popped up in another barn, and has recently been donated to the Friends of Woodstock Winters for a demo tow that will be put on display somewhere in town.

Today, Suicide Six, located almost directly behind Gilbert's Hill, is the lone remaining ski hill in Woodstock. Anderson said that in some ways, it's a blessing that the surrounding geography (peaks not much higher than 700 feet) spared Woodstock from the rampant development that has swallowed up other ski towns in Vermont. Yet overall, he's grateful that his community can lay claim to such a revolutionary invention.

"The technology came along just when we needed a boost out of the Depression," Anderson said. "A cow pasture and a Model T - who would have thought it could happen?"

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