In the year 1930 the small village of Stowe, Vt., like practically every other piece of prime skiing ground in the United States, did almost nothing about skiing. There were no broad, open slopes or colorful warming huts like those pictured on these pages; and certainly no weekly mobs of snow bunnies—the untalented and semitalented hordes that have made skiing big business in Stowe and points west. In those days a handful of New Yorkers and Bostonians, whom the village elders tended to regard as good-natured eccentrics, arrived from time to time to flounder in the liftless, trailless gorges of Mt. Mansfield six miles away. And then, to the relief of almost everyone, they went away and Stowe settled back once more to its accustomed quiet hibernation.
That was in 1930. Last year, 2,500,000 people went skiing in the United States. More than one hundred thousand of them checked in at Stowe. There is a popular concept that this growth can be traced directly to public enthusiasm for a sport that is at once relaxing, challenging, and exhilarating. The concept is 100%, correct. However, it ignores the other moving force, and that is the businessmen, some of whom were on those early Spartan expeditions to Stowe, who saw the investment possibilities in the sport and were willing to back their vision with hard cash.
The western names are well known—Averell Harriman of Union Pacific and Sun Valley, Walter Paepcke of Aspen and Alec Cushing (SI, July 11) of Squaw Valley, the newest of the ski tycoons. The biggest man in the East, however, and a man who has a way of winding up a giant in any field he enters, is comparatively unknown. He is C. V. Starr, a world-ranging businessman. Starr took up skiing 15 years ago for fun and wound up owning the lion's share of the stock in the $2.5 million skiing plant which he and the Austrian skimeister, Sepp Ruschp, developed.
As ski resorts go, Stowe is big; and by most standards, the Mt. Mansfield Co., Inc., which owns virtually all the property in the immediate ski area, is big business. Its assets include, among other things, two chair lifts, two T-bars, six restaurants, four inns and 4,300 acres of land in the snow trap formed by the east slopes of Mt. Mansfield, the south slopes of Spruce Peak and the west slopes of Madonna mountain, and the intervening valley called Smuggler's Notch.
Of the 13,300 shares of common stock now outstanding in the tightly closed Mt. Mansfield corporation, Starr owns more than 9,000. In spite of these impressive statistics, Stowe is, by Starr's business standards, small potatoes—much more of a hobby than a life's work.
MAN WITH A CALLING
For Sepp Ruschp, however, the ski business has been a life complete. As a young man in Linz in upper Austria, Ruschp was national cross-country champion and four times upper Austrian champion in downhill, slalom, jumping and cross-country combined. To support himself in those days he worked as a salesman, designer and buyer for a sports-equipment company in Linz. At night he went to a business school and, in between, somehow found time to pass the stiff government examination for ski instructors.
In 1936, just after he won his national cross-country title, Ruschp and some of his racing cronies were cornered by one of the czars of Austrian ski racing. "You boys with all your championships," said the man. "Why don't you get out and use your experience instead of racing until you die?" This seemed like a fair question to Sepp, who scraped up a list of 80 or 90 small ski clubs in the U.S. and wrote to each one of them, applying for a job as instructor. He got four replies, the most promising from Stowe. So in the fall of 1936 he boarded a boat for the U.S., armed with an agreement from the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club which promised room and board for the winter, the magnificent salary of $100 a month, a 50-50 split with the club on any money above $100 a month and a free ticket back to Linz.
Sepp's first impression of Stowe was hardly favorable. There were no lifts anywhere. The CCC, under the urging of Perry Merrill, the Vermont state forester, had cut three narrow trails—the Nose Dive, the Chin Clip and the Bruce—that wandered through the state-owned forest on the east face of Mt. Mansfield. There were only four inns in the entire territory catering to skiers. And the day Sepp arrived, Dec. 10, 1936, there was very little snow.
"This was like a lost territory," he recalled. "I looked around and I said to myself, 'Okay, I'm in America, but where is the skiing?' " A few days later he went looking. Climbing the mountain on a private toll road that ran from his quarters in the tollkeeper's cottage to the Mt. Mansfield Summit House, a summer inn which still sits at the top of the mountain, he took his first run in America. "I skied the Nose Dive in new powder snow," he continued, "and I saw this was not so bad. A little wider here, a little this, a little that. Later I looked to myself a map. I saw—my gosh—New York, ski trains, crowds. And I realized all you got to have is trails, tows, inns."