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Snowcasting Vermont

A ski museum finds permanent digs in downtown Stowe


Published October 2, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

It's said that a good museum is a soulful place. If you accept that premise, the new Vermont Ski Museum has found its spiritual home in Stowe. Few places, at least on this side of the pond, are as steeped in ski history as Stowe. The National Ski Patrol, for instance, got its start in 1936 when a New York insurance executive named Minnie Dole tried to help an injured friend on Mount Mansfield and decided there had to be a better way down the mountain than using a piece of roofing tin as a rescue sled.

Dole -- no relation to the former Kansas senator and presidential candidate -- later had a tete-a-tete with a few fellow skiers in southern Vermont and hatched a plan to convince FDR of the need for ski troops to fight in Europe during World War II. The success of the 10th Mountain Division in the Apennine Mountains of Italy, and their later influence on U.S. skiing, is one of the many worthy stories documented in words and images at the new Vermont Ski Museum.

With a declared mission to "collect, preserve and celebrate Vermont's skiing history," the museum celebrated its opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in August. It also inducted Andrea Mead Lawrence into the Vermont Ski Hall of Fame -- the native Vermonter was the only American woman to win two Olympic gold medals in one set of games -- in Oslo, 1952.

Originally established in 1988 by Roy Newton, an irrepressible collector more disposed to acquisition than organization, the eclectic collection grew to more than 4000 artifacts of Vermont's skiing past. Unfortun-ately, the public never beat a path to its Brandon digs, and Newton realized it was better to part with his brainchild than let it languish.

"The museum clearly belongs in a ski town," says Ken Biedermann, who helped spearhead the effort to bring the museum to Main Street in downtown Stowe. "It's like the Granite Museum. You're not going to put it in Burlington. You're going to put it in Barre."

With classic Stowe style, the VSM has found a fitting home in the completely restored Old Town Hall. Built in 1818, the handsome Federal Style building has done duty as non-denominational church, town meeting hall and fire station.

Sans hook and ladder, the new Perkins Building -- named after the former Alpine Shop owners who donated $250,000 to the project -- holds 5400 square feet of exhibition space in addition to a climate-controlled attic for archives. The inside of the airy building is dominated by an electric-powered mobile of actual ski lifts, which dangles from the ceiling like mistletoe. The effect is both stimulating and appropriate, considering Vermont was home to the nation's first lift -- a rope tow that ran off a Model-T engine at Gilbert's Hill near Manchester in 1934 and '35.

As Executive Director Dot Helling points out, the development of skiing as a viable tourist attraction helped change the complexion of the Green Mountain State. "You can't study Vermont and its history without studying skiing," she asserts, adding, "It certainly put us on the map."

One of Helling's favorite displays, coincidentally, is a map of Vermont's ski areas, both past and present, prepared by the New England Lost Ski Areas Project. While there are currently 28 operational resorts -- depending on how you count Bolton Valley -- the map identifies 103 defunct areas. Most were single-tow community areas -- places like the Underhill Snow Bowl or Hillside Ski Slopes in Milton -- from back in the day when skiing was part of the fabric of nearly every Vermont community.

But for every lost area, there's at least one bright light in the constellation of people and events orbiting the ski world. In one permanent collection, entitled "Stowe: A Community For Skiing," visitors can view memorabilia and scrapbooks filled with the treasure trove of stories the museum is designed to preserve. One item from the chest is the story of Annabel "Ma" Moriarty, a feisty Stowe mom who knitted a distinctive ski cap for her son Marvin -- a 1956 Olympian -- and went on to build a business that produced more than 100,000 three-plumed hats per year during its heyday in the 1960s.

Success didn't make "Ma" any less a character. Once, when a young woman complained that her hat wasn't standing up to washings and her foul-mouthed boyfriend contributed to the argument, Moriarty told SKI magazine, "I drawed off and cracked him one good."

In contrast to these colorful tidbits, a big-picture snowboarding display on loan from Burton features signed boards from Olympic gold medallists, and Vermont natives, Kelly Clark and Ross Powers. It also traces the roots of Burton's growth from a South Londonderry barn to a global industry leader.

Helling discounts any irony about including snowboarding in a ski museum, noting that the sport is "important to maintaining the viability of our ski areas." For his part, Jake Burton Carpenter says, "it's cool that the people who put the museum together went to the effort of getting some snowboarding representation."

Taking the expansive view of Vermont's mountainscape serves the museum well. Resisting an insular focus on Stowe, it will include a regular "featured ski area" exhibit that rotates among the current stable of Green Mountain resorts. Currently Mad River Glen, founded in 1948 by Roland Palmedo, is in the spotlight. Palmedo, along with other investors, had been elbowed out of his stake in Stowe -- via the Mount Mansfield Co. -- by insurance magnate C.V. Starr. He scoured Vermont looking "for a particular place for particular skiers" and found it on General Stark Mountain. The faithful have been coming to worship -- vertically -- ever since.

The more casual skier, and even non-skiers, will appreciate the integration of art and video into the museum space. No fewer than three screens run simultaneously, instructing viewers on history -- through videos such as Thrills and Spills in the North Country, produced by Huntington resident Rick Moulton -- or entertaining them with the latest Warren Miller action feature.

Colorful poster art, from the famed commercial artist Sascha Maurer, livens up the snowy white walls, and a series of five Mount Mansfield-inspired artworks, commissioned by Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund, challenge a visitor's conception of the familiar silhouette.

If there's one mountain all history museums must metaphorically climb, it's the challenge of connecting the dots between the old and the current -- in this case what Carpenter aptly dubs "some very cool old memorabilia in a super-nice building" and the real-world impact of mountain recreation today. Drawing its inspiration from Andrea Mead Lawrence, the Vermont Ski Museum appears to be on its way to the summit. A tireless advocate for the preservation of the mountain environment, Lawrence, now 70, is on the VSM board -- though she lives in California. She likes to point out, "You can only be a world-class athlete so many years; it's what you do with the rest of your life that counts." And that, it seems, is a lesson for the history books.

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