Celebrating its Mt. Washington Valley Roots
by Tim Scott
The New England Ski Museum’s Eastern Slope branch has opened as a fitting tribute to North Conway’s skiing heritage and the crucial role the sport continues to play in making our Valley what it is today.
Less than 80 years ago, winter outdoor recreation was the province of a hardy few, while the rest of the world labored to stay warm. Winter, before the advent of warm clothing and the rise of snow sports, was a desolate time in our valley. What work there was involved heading into the woods for logging.
Legend has it that during the 1930s, locally born success story, Harvey Dow Gibson, returned from New York one winter to find the people of his hometown struggling to survive. Wanting to help his friends in a tangible, especially long-term way, his brainstorm was to make his hometown a year-round resort destination. Skiing would become the backbone of his vision.
Gibson set about gathering the resources he would need to put North Conway on the map. The result made North Conway, known as the Eastern Slope Region, one of the most heralded destinations in the annals of American skiing. It changed the face of the Valley almost overnight, and inspired the lives of many generations of outdoor enthusiasts who learned to ski here. The Eastern Slope Inn, Mount Cranmore, and the Hannes Schneider Ski School quickly formed the epicenter of New England skiing, building rapidly upon the fledgling ski industry that dotted our hills, including early ski tows in Jackson, Intervale, and North Conway. Today, there are 13 alpine and Nordic ski areas within the Valley, and 16 within 90 minutes of North Conway.
Other pieces of the puzzle included the acquisition of Carroll Reed’s famed Eastern Slope Ski School. Reed’s ski school is widely seen as the foundation of Eastern Slope skiing. It later spawned the Carroll Reed Ski Shop, a precursor to our outlet shopping of today. Thanks to ingenious marketing, the remarkable feat of saving Hannes Schneider and his family from the Third Reich, and the utility of the ski-rental-shop-equipped snow train from Boston and New York, skiers of any ability could easily find their way to the Valley for a day, a weekend, or winter vacation on skis. (Interestingly, Reed was also one of the local founders of the Conway Scenic Railroad.) Soon, long shuttered summer inns reopened for the winter, and many local families took in ski boarders looking for reasonable, family-style lodgings. Thanks to the foresight and ingenuity of Mr. Gibson, our valley was no longer shuttered from November to May.
Schneider’s Austrian influence was dominant, and its mark remains in the Valley today. Along with skiing, architecture, and cuisine, came fashion—as the industry of ski, and après-ski gear and apparel moved into the limelight. Joining Carroll Reed were other unique shops, such as Jack Frost and Joe Jones, where aspiring skiers could find everything they needed for a happy time on the slopes as well as into the evening. Skiers who once wore knickers, jackets, and ties were soon eclipsed by enthusiasts wearing the latest European fashions, which in addition to being stylish, were both more practical and warm.
The New England Ski Museum’s Eastern Slope Branch has opened as a fitting tribute to our skiing heritage and the crucial role the sport continues to play in making the Valley what it is today. The museum’s expansion to North Conway fills a void in how we understand and celebrate the deep roots that skiing has in our communities, and how America came to enjoy being outdoors in winter.
Long a familiar and popular Franconia landmark, the Ski Museum is much more than a regional celebration of all things winter: it is a renowned international repository of, and about, the sport. This Eastern Slope expansion will enable the museum to continue to grow while pursuing its mission of collection, education, and promotion of the sport so many people love. It will also serve as a tribute to our economic history and to the far-reaching vision of Harvey Dow Gibson, who conceived of the North Conway Community Center building just before he died. It is fitting that, six decades later, the New England Ski Museum will occupy that very same historic space, bringing Gibson’s generosity and deep concern for his community full circle.
All this history of how we became what we are is both as important as it is instructive. While it is easy to trace our outlet shopping influence to those early ski and clothing shops, our model of the classic ski town has been copied throughout the country, whether in adjacent towns or at the base of ski areas. Summer is still the busier of our seasons, yet most of us no longer stay indoors in winter, just waiting for spring.