Brattleboro’s Living Memorial Park offers $5 lift tickets and 8 decades of tradition
By Kevin O’Connor
Turn back history to January 1938 and you’ll see headlines as dark as storm clouds, be it about President Franklin Roosevelt focusing his State of the Union address on “a world of high tension and disorder” or Vermont ministers lamenting theaters breaking a longtime Sabbath rule by showing films on Sunday.
“Those motion picture houses that do evade the law do not merit public patronage,” one cleric said.
Bookended between the Great Depression and World War II, the era seemed inescapable. Then came news of a newfangled contraption — a “ski tow” — sprouting at a local hillside farm.
“A 20-horsepower electric motor operating a one-inch, specially prepared, waterproofed rope will be capable of handling 20 persons at a time,” The Brattleboro Reformer reported, “drawing them up the slope at a speed of over 10 miles an hour.”
Today, that once-modern miracle — it’s located at what’s now Living Memorial Park — is a throwback to a time when one could enjoy the outdoors with family and friends for the price of a magazine.
Then again, thanks to a current volunteer effort by snow sports enthusiasts, you still can.
Southern Vermont ski history dates back more than a century, to the 1890s, when author Rudyard Kipling, writing “The Jungle Book” and “Captains Courageous” in a hideaway home in the neighboring town of Dummerston, received a pair of downhill skis from friend Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the detective character Sherlock Holmes.
Vermonter Fred Harris — he was a young contemporary of the airplane-inventing Wright brothers — advanced the sport to dizzying heights in 1922 by building Brattleboro’s Harris Hill ski jump, the only Olympic-size venue in New England and one of a mere six of its height in the nation.
Fifteen years later, fellow locals Robert Billings, Elliot Barber, John Dunham and Floyd Messenger knew many were reluctant to climb a peak 30 stories high and leap off at speeds of up to 60 mph. As winter approached in 1937, they decided to build a community ski tow on a gentler Guilford Street slope.
Their plan, featuring a 1,100-foot rope ascending on Model A Ford wheels affixed to poles, was one of the earlier lifts in New England after the 1934 debut of the nation’s first ski tow in Woodstock, Vt.
The Reformer trumpeted the advance just before Thanksgiving 1937, but a lack of snow delayed the opening until January 1938, when locals could ski all day for 35 cents, or a half-day for a quarter.
Nicholas Collins, a member of the National Ski Patrol for nearly three-quarters of a century before his death last year, grew up in a nearby house and was one of the first to feel the rope’s pull.
“After the tow closed for the day, I would shovel snow into the ruts and then pack the towline with my skis,” the longest-serving patroller in the country recalled of his childhood. “They paid me in lift tickets, which was fine with me.”
Operators added lights in 1939, allowing the tow to run three nights a week. The slope continued to welcome skiers during World War II and became part of Living Memorial Park in the 1950s, when the town purchased the land and replaced the rope with a T-bar lift.
“At a time when the complexities and diversions of life have a tendency to separate families,” the Reformer editorialized at the time, “it is good to see one strong force at work bringing them together.”
And so it went until 1995, when the town, facing a budget crunch, stopped operating the ski tow.
Enter Living Memorial Park Snow Sports, a grassroots group of volunteers who formed a nonprofit organization to reopen the lift in 1997. With Collins’ help, they overhauled the equipment and obtained a snowmaking system and grooming machine.
The hill now hosts as many snowboarders as skiers, with an average of about 100 each weekend and several dozen more attending free (and, alas, already full) lessons.
“No one complains about the $5 lift ticket and often people pay more in order to contribute to our expense,” notes the group’s website, vtsnowsports.org. “It’s great to see lines at the hill again and support from area businesses and individuals have proven that Brattleboro is proud of our little ski hill.”
Make that the little ski hill that could.•
Kevin O’Connor is a Vermont native and Brattleboro Reformer contributor.