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.
December 19, 1955
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."
He set out to get all three. It was not easy. That first winter Sepp and the ski club put up a rope tow on pasture land rented from the Mt. Mansfield Hotel Co., owners of the Summit House. From Christmas through mid-April, the rope grossed $1,000 at 256 a ride. The Sepp Ruschp Ski School, made up entirely of Sepp Ruschp, gave 1,100 lessons at one dollar apiece, the ski club picked up another $1,500 through the sale of hot drinks and ski equipment. The Lodge, a rustic inn about 300 yards from the tollhouse, took in about $6,000 from visiting skiers. Total income for the entire Mt. Mansfield ski operation during the winter of 1936-37: $9,600. Sepp netted about $1,100, plus a degree of ill will from some locals who did not care for the notion that a foreigner was making money by running skiers up and down the sacred face of Mt. Mansfield.
That summer Sepp went home to Austria, fetched himself a bride, Her-mine, and came back to Stowe. In spite of the presence of a new wife, the winter was gloomy. Business improved slightly, but skiers were scarce, money was scarce, relations with some of the natives deteriorated and, to top it off, Sepp broke his leg in a spring race. By summer he was ready to abandon Stowe to take an offer from Yellowstone National Park, but the Mt. Mansfield Hotel Co. came to the rescue with a proposition that kept him in Stowe and, hence, probably saved the future of skiing in the Mt. Mansfield area. Under the new agreement, the hotel opened up another rope tow, widened the slope, built a small restaurant, enlarged the ski shop and made Sepp for all practical purposes the manager of the Mt. Mansfield winter operation with a contract that awarded him 20% of the profits. Furthermore, all profits from the ski school, now expanded to three men giving group lessons at $3 a day, private lessons at $5 an hour, went to Sepp Ruschp. This was a little more like it.
The next fall, in 1939, the operation really began to roll. The Lodge was bought for $35,000 by George Morell of Morristown, N.J., and guest capacity was doubled. Two new trails, the Lord and the S-53, were cut. But most important, a group of New York businessmen, headed by Radiobroadcaster Lowell Thomas and Roland Palmedo—an investment banker who had made some of the pioneer ski trips to Stowe—began to negotiate with the state for permission to build a chair lift to the top of Mt. Mansfield.
There were howls of protest from the same villagers who had been against Sepp and his ski operation from the beginning and some angry mutterings from a few hunters and nature lovers who hated to see trees cut down for a lift. But the protests were overridden. A company was formed, the Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., capitalized through the sale of stock to $90,000.
"I know," said Sepp. "I bought $400—magnificent." The lift went up—6,330 feet long, the biggest in the country at that time. A warming hut called the Octagon was built at the top. At the bottom the state of Vermont put up a warming shelter and restaurant and cleared a parking lot.
The new lift opened Nov. 17, 1940. "I remember that very clearly," said Sepp. "It was my birthday. The lift got stuck. There was 49 newspapermen dangling in the air for over an hour. Blinding snowstorm. Finally we had to pull them down with ropes, like the Wolga-schiffer."
MAN WITH THE MONEY
In spite of this unhappy beginning, the new lift successfully carried 57,266 passengers at 60¢ a head in the winter of 1940-41. The ski school had grown to a strength of 10. The Toll House Inn, now rebuilt as a ski lodge, did a gross business of $48,000, and the rest of the development prospered accordingly. That was the condition of Stowe when the war broke out; and it was still the condition of Stowe at the end of the war when C. V. Starr arrived in town and asked for a private skiing lesson from Sepp Ruschp.
Sepp took the new pupil over to the mountain. This being a normal weekend in Stowe, they waited an hour and a half for a ride on the chair lift. Starr asked why the lack of uphill facilities? Sepp had a ready answer: lack of money. Starr had a ready solution: his money; and after a decent interval he loaned Sepp $38,000. Sepp threw in $8,000 of his own, got another $34,000 from the local stockholders of the Mt. Mansfield Hotel Co. By the winter of 1947 there was a 3,000-foot T-bar lift since lengthened to 4,000 feet on Mt. Mansfield. There were also five separate companies running the ski business—the hotel company, the chair-lift company, the T-bar company, the Lodge and the ski school.
Such a chaotic arrangement sat poorly in the mind of C. V. Starr. Forthwith he produced $75,000 and bought 3,500 acres of skiing ground—practically everything not owned by the state or by the hotel. He moved into the Mt. Mansfield Hotel Co., increasing its capitalization from $50,000 to $325,000 (majority stockholder: C. V. Starr). The hotel company then bought out the chair lift for $300,000; absorbed the ski school and the T-bar; and the whole was reincorporated as the Mt. Mansfield Co., Inc., Sepp Ruschp, Vice-Pres. and Gen. Mgr.
"So then," said Sepp, "we had everything under one company except the Lodge." That fell in November 1950 to the tune of $250,000. The next year a 2,000-foot T-bar went up on Spruce Peak. The Toll House Inn was improved to the point of charging $8-10 a night; a swimming pool, tennis court and golf driving range were added to the Lodge for summer guests.
There was one more project that needed financing, a double chair lift complete with trails, restaurants, etc., on Spruce Peak. Cost: $750,000 plus another $250,000 for improvement in the entire area, a loan that C. V. Starr preferred not to float alone. To get the money, he and Sepp worked the final miracle in the conversion of Stowe. They got the local Vermont banks, some owned by the original antiski New Englanders, to come across with a loan of $500,000. Starr matched it.
That finished, for the time being, the construction of ski facilities, and the Mt. Mansfield Co., Inc. settled back for a brief period of leveling off. This past year, the first in which the Spruce chair was working, the company's profits were handsome. From a gross income of $1,136,776.02 the corporation took in a neat 6% gross profit—and immediately plowed most of it back into improvements on the buildings and ski slopes.
Last week at his penthouse apartment high above Fifth Avenue, the 63-year-old Starr wound his legs through the rungs of a dining-room chair, rubbed his jutting jaw with a surgically clean hand and reflected on the success of his hobby. Plainly, he was pleased. "When we came to Stowe," he mused, "there were five companies all fighting each other. Now they're all together, purring like kittens. And," he added, "I believe we're the only big ski resort that makes money."
Then he put the record straight on why he was in the ski business.
"I wasn't seeking any publicity, and I don't want any. I try to stay in the background; and I believe my manner is quiet." Starr's voice, as he said this, was indeed quiet and controlled.
He continued: "I'm just an angel, a backer. Really there is no difference in having a yacht, or a racing stable, or an actress, or a ski resort. It's no more expensive. But my business has very little to do with skiing." He gestured across the room to Sepp Ruschp. "Sometimes I find a man who has an inner fire—a man who is perfectly in his metier, his orbit. And when I do, I back him." He pointed to Ruschp again. "I picked you," he said softly, then turned to the listener, "and Sepp isn't the first. In my own business I've backed some of the greatest young insurance people. And," the hand again sweeping the air, "I've never been wrong—so far."
It was obvious from the nature of Starr's dwelling, from the quality of the food served and from the staggering $100 million per year in premiums that is taken in each year by the worldwide insurance empire, that Starr had made few mistakes in picking his business lieutenants. And it was equally obvious that he had made no mistake in picking Lieutenant Sepp Ruschp.
For Sepp, too, the ski business has been an unqualified success. Instead of living in a tollkeeper's hut, he and Hermine and their two children now own a handsome 10-room house at the base of the mountain. Instead of running a one-man ski school, he now occupies the sort of pine-paneled office that befits the president of a multimillion-dollar corporation.
And the local Vermonters? They have been converted, almost to a man. The road from town to the bottom of the mountain is dotted with inns and ski shops, none of them owned by the Starr interest and all of them making money from skiers. In the surrounding countryside there are an estimated 2,000 beds that will be filled weekends and holidays from Christmas vacation till the end of Easter. And the income which skiing has brought to the village of Stowe has been estimated at $2.5 million a year.
NEW SKI FACILITIES BUILT FOR AMERICANS
DODGE RIDGE, Calif.: a new Pomalift, 2,200 feet long, rising 600 feet. Capacity, 1,000 per hour; cost, $35,000. Area has also poured out another $145,000 for two rope tows, a new water system and a sun deck and to enlarge parking lot, base station, restaurant, ski shop.
COLD SPRINGS CHALET, Calif.: $175,000 chalet complete with J-bar lift scheduled to open this month.
CISCO, Calif.: a 1,450-foot Pomalift with capacity 900 per hour, costing $25,000. Also a 1,200-foot Austrian lift.
DONNER SKI RANCH, Calif.: a double chair 2,300 feet long, rising 750 feet. Capacity, 800 per hour; cost $120,000.
SIERRA SKI RANCH, Calif.: a 2,600-foot Pomalift rising 600 feet, capacity 900 per hour.
MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN, Calif.: rope tows being replaced by 3,200-foot double chair rising 950 feet. Capacity, 800 per hour; cost, $120,000.
HEAVENLY VALLEY, Calif.: a 4,000-foot double chair rising 1,600 feet. Capacity, 600 per hour. This is first of three chair lifts which eventually will rise to 11,000-foot summit of Monument Mountain. Total cost of first lift and attendant trails: $180,000 plus another $65,000 for lodge, ski shop, bar and dining room now going up at base of lift.
TABLE MOUNTAIN, Calif.: at Big Pines, a 2,250-foot Pomalift with 750-foot rise. Cost, $50,000; capacity, 1,200 per hour.
BLUE RIDGE, Calif.: also in Big Pines area, a 2,640-foot double chair to carry 650 skiers per hour up vertical rise of 400 feet.
SNOQUALMIE, Wash.: a Pomalift 1,000 feet long, with vertical rise of 300 feet and capacity of 1,100 skiers per hour. New restaurant under construction, and 50 more acres of slopes cleared. Total cost, $80,000.
STEVENS PASS, Wash.: uphill capacity of resort increased 50% by double chair 1,500 feet long with 250-foot rise on beginner's hill, by installation of new rope tow at top of main chair and by three new motors attached to old rope tows. Total cost, $80,000.
WHITE PASS, Wash.: new resort near Yakima offers 5,200-foot double chair with rise of 1,520 feet. Capacity: 600 per hour. Also a 1,950-foot Pomalift.
MT. HOOD, Ore.: at Timberline Lodge, a new double chair lift 3,300 feet long with 560-foot rise and per-hour capacity of 900 skiers. At Mt. Hood Ski Bowl two electric rope tows, 700 and 400 feet long. Also a new lodge with warming facilities on highway.
TAOS SKI VALLEY, N. Mex.: ambitious new ski area backed by group of Texans including Pro Footballer Doak Walker. Area opens December 25, will have two Skikuli T-bar lifts. One is 685 feet long, rises 200 feet, the other is 1,000 feet long with rise of 500 feet. Expert run beginning at 11,680-foot level on Mt. Wheeler reached by shuttle bus or snocat.
BRIGHTON, Utah: a $100,000 double chair, 3,600 feet long. Vertical rise: 725 feet. Capacity: 900 per hour.
SUNSHINE VILLAGE, Alta.: a 2,000-foot T-bar rising 500 feet and costing $30,000. Capacity is 360 per hour.
SLIDE MOUNTAIN, Nev.: near Reno, 14,000 feet of rope tows added. New run made to connect Big Bonanza and Central Pacific.
HIDDEN VALLEY, Col.: two platter pulls, 2,300 feet and 1,200 feet long, rising 750 and 450 feet. Capacities 600 and 500 skiers per hour. Warming hut and eating facilities now open; skating rink, bobsled run being built by National Park Service.
WOLF CREEK PASS, Col.: near Monte Vista, a 2,500-foot Pomalift with 750-foot rise and capacity of 340 per hour. Also a parking lot for 100 cars.
TERRA ALTA, W. Va.: a new area with two rope tows and a 1,000-foot slope.
MONT TREMBLANT, Que.: a 2,859-foot Constam T-bar with vertical rise of 690 feet, capacity 900 per hour.
LAUREL RIDGE, Pa.: a new combination T-bar and chair lift. Length is 2,000, rise 700 feet, capacity 800 skiers per hour. Cost to the builders: $55,000.
LAKE PLACID, N. Y.: a Pomalift at Scott's Cobble 1,335 feet long with 300-foot rise and capacity of 800 per hour. Another Pomalift at Fawn Ridge.
BROMLEY, Vt.: a Pomalift 2,190 feet long with 400-foot rise and capacity of 900 per hour replaced rope tow in East Meadow. Rest rooms at halfway point. Ski shop and checking room facilities doubled.
OKEMO, Vt.: near Ludlow, two Pomalifts, one above other. Lower lift, 1,800 feet long. Upper lift, longest Pomalift in country, measures 6,200 feet. Total rise: 1,800 feet.
MT. SNOW, Vt.: a 3,800-foot double chair on top half of mountain with rise of 1,000 feet and capacity of 1,180 per hour opens four two-mile runs. Improvements worth $90,000 put into access road.
HOGBACK, Vt.: a 1,700-foot Pomalift with 300-foot vertical rise and 1,000 per hour capacity. Two new trails—Great White Way, Molly Stark—also opened.
INTERVALE, N.H.: an 1,800-foot Pomalift. Also a new 400 by 400-foot area cleared at top, and baby-sitting service is now available.
MT. CRANMORE, N.H.: a 2,300-foot double chair with 600-foot rise and 800 per hour capacity on East Slope, serves new Hannes Schneider memorial trail and 25-acre practice slope. Rope tow on South Slope also being replaced by 1,800-foot Poma with 350-foot rise, 800 per hour capacity.
MT. PLEASANT, Me.: near Bridgeton, Maine's first chair lift—a double chair 4,250 feet long with 1,200-foot vertical rise.
SUGARLOAF MOUNTAIN, Me.: near Kingfield, a 3,800-foot T-bar with 890-foot rise and capacity of 450 per hour.