February 6, 2010

Vermont Ski Museum doesn't gloss over long history


If you go

Vermont Ski Museum, Old Town Hall, P.O. Box 1511, 1 South Main St., Stowe, VT 05672. Phone: (802) 253-9911.

It's a mobile that rivets your attention when you first enter the Vermont Ski Museum in Stowe.

Not one of those simple mobiles you made in high-school art class, either. Nor one of the type that made Alexander Calder famous. Rather, it's an atrium-filling depiction of 60 years of ski technology.

Hanging from three steel I-beams and slowly rotating throughout the day, the Ski Lift Mobile shows off a range of equipment from a homemade rope tow to a gondola. A venerable T-Bar, a Poma lift, plus single, double, triple and quad chairs demonstrate how getting to the top of a ski trail has become quicker and more comfortable over the years. Visitors should be sure to view the array from the second-floor mezzanine.

There's much more to this museum, which fills an 1818 meeting house that also once served as a firehouse during its journey through village life.

Timelines, one focused on Vermont's contributions to skiing history and another juxtaposing the national and international scenes, provide context. Posters, memorabilia and a treasure trove of artifacts help bring the story to life.

Vermont has become synonymous with the sport of skiing. By 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps saw the potential of ski trails along former lumber roads. Workers envisioned a similar purpose for an 1857 carriage road leading to the Summit House atop Mount Mansfield. Soon after the state's first rope tow, driven by a Model T Ford engine, opened at Woodstock in 1934, Mount Mansfield had one of its own.

That tow, powered by a 1927 Cadillac engine, cost 10 cents a ride, or — don't cry, modern-day skiers — $5 a season.

One interesting artifact is an ingenious nutcracker-like device that allowed skiers to grab the rope while keeping hands free.

By 1940, Vermont had its first single chair lift. In 1954 came the first Poma lift (at Suicide Six), and in 1969, at Killington, the inaugural six-person gondola. Meanwhile, Trapp Family Lodge began its reign as a cross-country ski mecca. The now-ubiquitous snowboard also had its beginnings in the Green Mountain State.

However, skiing far predates the Vermont experience. The winter activity was recorded as early as 1841 in California's Sierra Nevada gold mining camps, where races became common during the Gold Rush era. Europe hosted jumping competitions by 1862 and had ski lifts by 1908.

Scandinavian countries pioneered cross-country skiing, its purpose being more utilitarian than recreational. Finland had military ski battalions from the 1870s.

Some of the museum's most compelling displays detail the evolution of ski equipment.

"Nine History Making Skis" shows progression from early handmade wooden skis to the high-tech versions dominant today. Hickory or ash were favored for their resilience. In 1888, a company in St. Croix, Wis., turned out the first factory-made wooden skis.

Wood had limitations. Addition of metal edges in 1930 aided in turning, alleviating one problem. Wood also loses its camber and spring over time, so the search began for more resilient materials. Howard Head successfully incorporated metal in 1958, encasing wood cores with plastic sides and aluminum tops and bottoms. Fiberglass sheathing soon followed. Piezoelectric ceramic chips beneath the outermost layers added glitzy flickering light.

Developments in bindings followed the need for increased safety. From leather toe and heel straps, gear progressed to steel cables, and then, in 1939, the first release bindings. Improved toe plates and ski brakes typified later improvements. Examples allow visitors to get a sense of their function.

With steel cables came the need for sturdier boots. Steel-reinforced shanks became commonplace; so did buckles. Advances in synthetic materials and insulation provided better stiffness, warmth and comfort.

A section on the museum's second floor is dedicated to snowboarding. John Burton had a passion for what he called "surfing on snow." In 1977, he fashioned the first equipment in his barn at South Londonberry. The company bearing his name continues as a leader in snowboard manufacturing.

Another corner pays tribute to the Vermont 10th Mountain Division. Outfitted mannequins show off typical clothing and equipment. The list of what goes into a 90-pound rucksack reminded us that even a casual outing for the Army would be quite taxing. White skis added a degree of camouflage.

If you happen to be a neophyte, "From Schussing to Shredding: The Evolution of Ski Technique" offers a needed glossary. Included on the list is one of my own specialties, the stizmark, defined as "butt mark in the snow where you fell."

This is not a place to get lost in statistics, but here's an interesting one. How many "lost" ski areas once dotted the Vermont landscape? A full 103, according to a detailed map.

No comprehensive ski museum would dare overlook fashion. Transitions from cotton and wool to rayon and Spandex, then to polyproylene and micro fibers are well detailed. A glass display case shows off woven ski hats, including triangle-peaked ones that Anabel Moriarty made for her sons in 1956 and became a standard in the field. And don't forget fur-trimmed apres-ski boots.

There's more. The history of ski competition. The Vermont Ski Museum Hall of Fame, featuring hometown hero Billy Kidd. The Catamount Trail, at 300 miles, North America's longest cross-country ski route. (It's interesting to note the idea developed as a master's degree thesis by Steve Bushey at Carleton University.)

Scrapbooks invite in-depth perusal of information on Ski Patrols and offer a sampling of early stereopticon photos of Stowe. One can also sit awhile and watch continuous video footage. There's the excitement of ski jumping, the pleasure of traversing deep powder, and plenty of simple frolicking. Some of the acrobatics simply defy imagination.

If you're skiing anywhere near Stowe, or if you're a non-skier just looking for a refreshing Day Away, take a look at the Vermont Ski Museum. You'll likely leave wanting to create new outdoor winter memories of your own.

E-mail Richard Frost at: