December 20, 2014

Places I’ve Played

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Cambridge ski tow (1935-1938)

By Bill Skiff

 

Cambridge’s first rope tow, built by Wesley Pope and located on the Skiff’s family farm (circa 1937). (Photo courtesy of Bill Skiff)

Wesley Pope was Cambridge’s go-to guy, a jack-of-all-trades and a master of all. He was the town’s undertaker, baker, tin roofer and lumber mill operator, just to name a few. Besides that, he was a wonderful man and everyone’s friend.

In 1935, Wesley built the area’s first rope tow. The lift was located on my dad’s farm along Vermont 15 between the villages of Cambridge and Jeffersonville. Wooden poles were placed into the ground at even intervals. At the top of each pole, Wesley hung a rim from a car wheel. One continuous rope ran over the rims and around a drive wheel, attached to a 1927 Cadillac motor. Skiers grabbed the rope and hung on for dear life as it pulled them up the hill. It was a mechanical success but Wesley made one mistake: The tow was located on a slope that faced south. Between the wind blowing and the sun shining, snow never had a chance.

According to “Cambridge, Vermont: Special Places, Special People” by Roberta Marsh, Wesley “sold the tow (after three years) to Craig Burt, head of the Mountain Company in Stowe Vermont. The tow was set up by the toll road and became the first tow installed in the booming state ski area.”

Dad taught me to ski on that hill.  His skis were made of hickory. The binding was a leather strap that ran through the middle of the ski and over the top. On the day of my first lesson, Dad placed his toe in the loop and headed down. At the bottom of the hill, he bent his knees and, by placing one ski behind the other, executed a wonderful left-hand telemark turn. He climbed back up the hill, handed me the skis and said, “That’s how you do it.” I never saw Dad ski again.

My first ski bindings were rubber rings from two Ball canning jars, the round rubber pieces that go between the jar and the top to seal in the contents. I put the jar rubbers over my snow boots and pushed them up to my ankles. Then, I slid my toes into the leather loops. When my toes were securely in the loops, I slid each rubber down around my heels, and then stretched them over my toes and the leather loops. They helped keep the skis from coming off, but you needed to carry a pocket full of rings because they broke so easily under the stress.

Over the years, I have enjoyed advancements in ski technology. I went from wooden skis to metal skis, and now use today’s shaped skis. I refused to wear a helmet for a long time — until I found out how warm they are. Now, those earlobes I exposed to frost bite so many times are much happier. Besides, I have to set an example for the grandkids.

Most skiers have a role model. Mine is 70-year-old Ken, who decided a couple years ago to be a snowboard instructor. When he applied for a job at Smugglers Notch Ski School, the head of the school said, ‘’Man, I have been looking for you for 10 years.” Kids do a double take when he flies by them with his gray locks flowing out from under his helmet.

As skis continue to go uphill in technology, I find that I have to work harder to keep my physical abilities from going downhill. But it’s worth the effort. Just the other day, while riding up the mountain at Bolton Valley, the sun came out and began shining on trees covered with frozen snow. Diamonds sparkled everywhere and I thought, “How lucky can I get?”

 

Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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