Winter Sports History at the New England Ski Museum
Story & Photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
This day tripping story is somewhat unusual for two reasons. First, I am not a skier and I am writing about a ski museum. Secondly, it takes place a bit north of the Lakes Region and while really not in the Laker’s coverage area, it’s definitely worth sharing.
The place is the New England Ski Museum’s Eastern Slope Branch location in North Conway. The original New England Ski Museum in Franconia is a beloved place for many who like skiing and the history of how the sport came to NH. A year or so ago, a second location became a reality in the building that had previously housed the North Conway Community Center in downtown North Conway.
I had been meaning to drive north to see the ski museum, but a busy summer schedule prevented it. However, a few weeks ago my adult daughter Megan was home for a visit, and we decided to head to the Conway area from the Lakes Region to do some shopping and have lunch.
As we planned our itinerary for the day, I thought about the ski museum; the blustery November day seemed the perfect time to visit. On our way up Route 16 from the Wolfeboro area, we stopped to take in the view of Mount Chocorua and to grab some photos from a rustic wooden bridge. Unlike other days when we stopped at the area, on this mid-November day it was bone-chillingly cold and windy so we didn’t linger, but we did get some nice photos of snow-capped Chocorua.
Our first stop was the New England Ski Museum, before we indulged in lunch. Because it was the pre-Christmas shopping season and a weekday, the traffic was light. The Ski Museum is on the left as you head into the downtown North Conway area, and there is a convenient and ample parking lot behind the building.
As we entered the museum, we were greeted by an attendant who told us admission is by donation and that we should sign the guest book and take our time to browse the exhibits.
In the entrance area, there is a great little gift shop area with all sorts of ski-related items and we promised ourselves we would browse the shop after touring the exhibits.
The main exhibit room is large and sectioned into glass display cases and many, many other areas with everything from very early skis to old ski-related signs to a jacket worn by Olympic ski legend (and Lakes Region native) Penny Pitou.
I started by browsing on the left-hand side of the exhibit hall with a section focused on New England Beginnings. I supposed I never thought much about how skiing came to this country, and specifically to NH, so I was surprised to learn what brought the sport to the area. In the late 19th century, pulp and paper industries in NH attracted Scandinavian immigrants skilled in that type of work. For leisure, the workers turned to something they loved to do: skiing. Paper mill work was abundant in Berlin, NH at the time and when not working, Norwegian transplants skied and soon formed a ski club in the 1880s. This would become the Nansen Ski Club; ski jumping, cross-country and early downhill skiing on Mount Washington were claims to fame of the club. The Nansen Club’s huge ski jump hosted national and other competition in the 1930s and 1940s. Displays show the club as well as more information on the Dartmouth Outing Club. (The Dartmouth Club sponsored the country’s first slalom and downhill competitions and members installed one of the earliest rope tows.)
Rope tows helped those who skied in the early days get up the mountains, but how were those mountains prepped for skiing at a time long before snowmaking and grooming? Early on, men blazed trails with hand tools, according to information at a Ski Museum display. The Civilian Conservation Corps forged many miles of trails on state and federal land in the 1930s and helped open up the forests and hills for skiing.
I have always loved old movies, and was enchanted by a photo of Wizard of Oz star, young Judy Garland, dressed in winter ski gear, ski poles in her hands, posing with famed ski instructor Otto Schnieb. Otto was the first European ski instructor in New England and he gave lessons at for the Appalachian Mountain Club. Eventually he became a ski coach at Dartmouth College. His motto “skiing is not just a sport - it is a way of life” has become the mantra for many skiers over the years.
Other early ski instructors seem to have found their way to NH as well, and the museum pays tribute to many of them, such as Sepp Ruschp, an Austrian skier.
One of the fun things about this museum is the attention to detail that really shows what life and skiing was like way back when. An example is an early axe on display. It was used to help cut ski trails by Conservation Corps members long ago.
Not forgotten at the museum is local resident Harvey Dow Gibson, who went on to become a financier and was internationally known in the 1930. Born in North Conway, Gibson probably saw the financial promise of skiers coming to the mountains and thus he began to develop a ski area on Cranmore Mountain. The resort was among the first in the country and it seemed to have it all: great ski slopes, an unusual new Skimobile, Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider and the popular Eastern Slope Inn.
A portion of the exhibit area is dedicated to ski safety, and the methods used to rescue injured or lost skiers. Tuckerman Ravine in particular could be quite dangerous and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol was a big help then and now.
I was fascinated with an old Avalanche Bulletin Board, a wooden box-like sign with a windowed area where officials could post avalanche warnings and information to the public.
An old photo of early skiers decked out in the outfits of their time show us they wore wool trousers, woolen sweaters and windbreakers when skiing was just getting started in the 1930s!
Old signs from ski shops, ski schools and more hang from the ceiling and they show us the graphics and wording used in the 1930s and 40s.
In the early days of skiing, accidents were certainly affecting skiers, and sometimes injuries posed unusual problems for the country doctors who were called upon for treatment. Downhill skiing might cause a broken bone or torn ligaments, among other problems, and many local doctors were used to treating country ailments such as coughs, sore throats and the occasional farming accident, but not things like compound fractures from a spill on the ski slopes. Dr. Harold Shedd of North Conway practiced in the 1930s and 40s in the area and saw his share of ski-related injuries. He became proficient at treating these injuries; he was an authority of treating fractures and dislocations and saw 370 such injuries in 1950 alone! Among his developments were new ways to cast fractures. He shared his skills with other doctors at the local Memorial Hospital. Dr. Shedd also was a skier and the founder of the Eastern Slope Ski Club. His photo and information about his skills are on display at the museum.
The 10th Mountain Division League was famed for their ability to go where other soldiers could not - and on skis - during World War II. They were highly trained soldiers and after the war the men went back to civilian life. But they had special skills, skiing among them. For the next half century, the men built and shaped American ski areas and ski clubs, and some positively impacted NH skiing. Attitash, the Dartmouth Outing Club, and Jackson XC are listed at the museum as among those in NH that were associated with former 10th Mountain Division soldiers. It is moving to view the display dedicated to the 10th Mountain Division and to see photos of the soldiers and to read about their lives.
A “wall” of old wooden skis stands as a proud historical testament to how skiing has evolved over time and those who are avid skiers today will be fascinated to see the skis that were once state-of-the-art!
Another area of displays focuses on New England Olympians, including NHs Bode Miller and Penny Pitou.
I won’t go into each and every exhibit area of the wonderful museum. I leave it to each person to visit and discover all the great, historical and just-plain-fun thing the New England Ski Museum offers.
The gift shop was last on our museum tour and it did not disappoint. With everything from coffee mugs to a great selection of books on skiing and its history, there is something for everyone in the gift shop.
The remainder of our day was spent with a leisurely lunch and lots of shopping, but we were very glad we took time to visit the Ski Museum in North Conway. One needn’t be a skier to enjoy the many fascinating exhibits. Because I love history, I could’ve stayed all day, browsing the exhibits, looking at the old photos and reliving the early days when to ski meant finding a nice snow-covered hill or mountain, strapping on wooden skis and spending a day in the glorious great outdoors.
The Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum is located at 2628 White Mountain Highway in North Conway. The museum is open daily from 9 am to 4 pm.
For information, visit www.newenglandskimuseum.org or call 603-730-5044.