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This Place in History: First ski tow in the U.S.

WOODSTOCK, Vt.

At 'This Place in History', from Woodstock, Vermont, Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins highlights one of the most important places for skiing and winter sports in the United States.

"Right here in Woodstock is the site of the first rope tow in the U.S. The story goes back a little bit. There were three people, or three families who were involved in this story. One are the Gilberts, that was the farm that owned this hill right here that people liked to ski on and sled on in the winter. Another was the Royce family, which owned an inn right in Woodstock, so they saw a lot of winter people coming and staying in town. The other was a young skier named 'Bunny' Bertram," began Perkins.

"So Bunny was working at the inn over the winter of 1993 to 1934 and he was chatting with three guys who liked to go to Europe to go skiing. Now in Europe at the time, they had these cable cars who would bring you to the top of the mountain, and then you'd ski down. They were complaining that there really wasn't anything like that in the United States. That got Bunny thinking well how do we do that here. He talked to the Royces and they'd heard about a thing called a rope tow, at a resort in Quebec. So they wrote a letter to the resort in Quebec and they sent them the plans for this little rope tow," said Perkins.

In archived footage, a founding skier said, "So we each decided to put up $100 apiece, a total of $300 and we asked Mr. Royce of the White Cupboard Inn to see if he could find somebody good in the town to build such a contraption."

"They contracted with a local handyman here in town to see if he could build it and he said absolutely," added Perkins.

"We heard there was a rope tow in Woodstock and that was the Mecca. That was the very first, so we all congregated in Woodstock to ride up the rope tow at our peril," contributed another founding skier.

"The rope tow started in January of 1934. Right here on this hillside, it lasted until 1952. The Royces along with Bertram ran it that first year. The next year the Gilbert family took it over. Bertram stayed on with them. They built a warming shed and made sandwiches for people, all the things you take advantage of when you go skiing these days. They started doing that and of course Mount Tom opened up down the road. They opened a trail on the backside of this hill which is now still a ski area called Suicide Six," said Perkins.

"This rope tow was really important. It took the ski industry from being a niche activity for really athletic folks, because you had to hike to the top of the mountain, put your skis on and go back down, to something that families could do in an afternoon. And it was cheap. They charged $1 for the whole day, or $0.50 for a half-day."

"How does a rope tow work? Exactly how it sounds. They call it a continuous rope row because of the loop of rope. Think of it like a conveyor belt. So there's a truck in this case, a model T truck at the bottom with the rope attached to one of its back wheels. It would send that rope all the way up the hill and come back down along those pulleys. So there's a rope that runs along the ground going up. As a skier, you could grab ahold of that rope and hold on. It would pull you up the hill. That could be dangerous, especially in the early days. That rope just went one speed, whatever speed that truck was driving it. So you have to let it run through your hands, grab on and it will pull you up," explained Perkins.

"It was a perilous trip I must say, we've all been reminiscing a lot. The rope under tension would twist. And if you weren't careful, the rope would catch in your sweater and you'd arrive at the top without a sweater. Or it would catch in your mittens and threatened to pull you off at the top."

"Over the next ten years, this absolutely exploded and after World War II, the ski industry really took off," concluded Perkins.

"The Woodstock toll has a cherry spot in all our memories and it was really the beginning of a perfectly wonderful world of skiing."

Launching a new era of winter sports at 'This Place in History'!

For more from our 'This Place in History' series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont's roadside historic markers, click here.


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