It All Started Here

By Frances Shaine

New Hampshire Profiles, June 1965

Early days of skiing. Cathedral Ledge ski jump, 1923.

Once upon a time in the hills of Austria there was a very small boy named Hannes. When Hannes was about seven years old, some very wealthy, very athletic strangers from Scandinavia came to visit in Hannes's small home town of Steuben. They came to ski.

Oddly enough, even though Austria had its share of Alpine snow, no one in Austria skied for fun. When they skied at all, which was not very often, it was merely a mode of transportation. But the sophisticated Scandinavians had discovered that there was pleasure in schussing down the mountainside on two slim slats of cambered wood. It didn't take Hannes long to find out that skiing could be fun.

And that is the very beginning of the story of how skiing came to North Conway. For that small boy was Hannes Schneider, the skimeister to whom skiing and the teaching of it were as natural as breathing.

By the time Hannes had grown up, skiing had built the exciting luxurious resorts now famous in the Austrian and Swiss Tyrol: Garmisch, St. Moritz, Davos, Zermatt, and St. Anton. St. Anton was just across the Arlberg Pass from Steuben, and so it was natural for young Hannes to approach the small hotel at St. Anton when he decided he was ready to teach the Europeans who were beginning to find skiing the world's most exciting sport.

The school was successful as indeed it was sure to be, for Hannes Schneider's genius ran far beyond a mere ability to ski and ski well; he had a drive to teach, a rapport with the student, the ability to communicate enthusiasm which is the mark of the very great instructor.

Meanwhile, in the United States the virgin mountain slopes were almost totally untouched by lifts, trails, or skiers. Some few skied; some few jumped; skiing was a truly esoteric sport.

One of the devotees was Carroll Reed from Boston, a member of the newly organized White Mountain Ski Runners. This group of skiers was often coached by Charles Proctor of Hanover, one of the top United States skiers at that time and they were all dedicated to the sport.

There were no New Hampshire ski areas, as we know them today. When the club went skiing, they stayed at their clubhouse on Belknap Mountain or in the Eastern Slope Region at the Moody Farm, where room and three full meals cost them $2 a night. At that time, the early 1930's, the trip from Boston took over five hours by car.

Before they skied, they climbed. Carroll Reed remembers one day in the spring of 1934, when they had climbed the slopes of Mount Washington twice, and skied down, and were spending the afternoon on Wildcat Mountain. And Carroll Reed fell. It was a bad fall and a bad injury, and Reed found himself, back broken, partly paralyzed, in the hospital, with nothing to do but rest and read and think.

Skimobile in North Conway, now all-season recreation.

Naturally, his interests turned to magazines that dealt with the sport of which he was so fond. One article he read made such a deep impression on him that he remembers it clearly to this day. The author was Tom Cabot; the periodical was Appalachia published by the Appalachian Mountain Club, of Europe. Cabot closed the article with the prediction that there would some day be ski schools in America.

For Carroll Reed, those few words caught fire. A friend who had skied at St. Anton told him about Hannes Schneider. His physician the late Dr. Harold Shedd, was enthusiastic about the idea, and encouraged him, outlining the advantages of the Eastern Slope area for such a new development: the high annual snow fall, the many natural snow bowls, and, most important, the ready to use community of inns, developed during the previous fifty years for the many summer visitors.

Nineteen weeks later when Reed was ready to leave the hospital, the first steps had already been taken. In the summer of 1936 Carroll Reed borrowed $1000, and sold memberships in the still non-existent ski school to raise additional funds. By this time an Eastern Slope Ski Club had been founded which agreed to lend its name and support to the school. Using the Club as his base, Reed wrote to Hannes Schneider, outlining his plans for a ski school in The White Mountains of New Hampshire.

One of Schneider's most proficient instructors agreed to head the new school. That was Benno Rybizka who, with Otto Lang, another of Schneider' instructors, and Schneider himself decided to come to the United States in time for the First Sports Show at the Boston Garden. Lang was to go on to a new ski school being formed at Mt. Hood, Oregon.

Five hundred of Reed's precious dollars went for Rybizka's passage, but he was assured of enough more money to get his school started. Nevertheless, when he started for New York, to meet Rybizka's boat, Dr. Shedd advised him to visit Harvey Gibson, North Conway's favorite financier, at his office in the Merchants Bank.

This was Reed's first meeting with Mr. Gibson, who was later to play such an important role in the development of skiing in the North Conway community. Reed says Mr. Gibson was most interested in the enterprise, all the more interested when he discovered he was not being called upon to put capital into it.

Hannes Schneider, Rybizka, and Lang arrived with a burst of publicity that followed them all the way to Massachusetts, and had great impact on the metropolitan Boston sport-minded community, the population center on which the school would have to draw.

Because Schneider had given both Rybizka and Lang permission to call their respective projects The Hannes Schneider Ski School, his presence in this country lent considerable prestige and interest to the enterprises. Then Schneider went back to St. Anton, and Benno Rybizka went to North Conway to build a school.

He asked Reed to find four "good boys" for him to teach them how to ski. They were Arthur Doucette, Arthur Callan, Francis Savard, and Tyler Mickeleau. They worked hard and long with Benno and they were devoted to him. Reed says they even acquired his Austrian accent, so much so that one of the pupils later that winter commented to Reed on the young Austrian who was teaching her to ski. "I could tell he was the Austrian by his accent," she said. But her teacher was one of Benno's "good boys".

It's interesting to note that Arthur Doucette and Francis Savard are still [1965] teaching skiing in the Hannes Schneider Ski School at North Conway, and Arthur Doucette heads his own Ski School in Jackson.

Jackson was where the Hannes Schneider Ski School spent its first winter. Carroll Reed says it was a very bad year for snow, worse even than this 1964-1965 season. Rybizka's classes were held in a sheep pasture reaching up the mountain slope behind the barn on the Moody farm. Despite the newness of the school, despite the length of the trip from Boston, despite the light snowfall, The Hannes Schneider ski school gave 6000 lessons that year.

The technique came straight from Hannes Schneider. As much as Benno Rybizka was a hero to his young students, Schneider was his hero. He prefaced every lesson, every order with "Hannes Schneider says". He taught the boys to teach with a minimum of words and a maximum of demonstration, because he and Schneider believed that only in this way could the complexities of the sport be communicated.

And what was Carroll Reed doing all this time? Everything that needed doing, including filling in on the slope when necessary. He had persuaded Saks Fifth Avenue to open a ski shop in Jackson like the one they planned in Sun Valley, and Reed was managing the store. In addition he ran all the business details of Ski School, and, in his spare time, functioned as an accommodations bureau for incoming skiers.

Carroll Reed notes that Harvey Gibson's stepdaughter spent the entire winter in Jackson that year, learning to ski. He believes that Gibson wished her to watch the school's progress, and he believes further that Gibson's deep interest in North Conway led him to suggest that the school be moved to the slopes of Lookout Point (now Cranmore Mountain) which he had purchased.

With Rybizka's guidance, slopes and trails were cut into the side of the mountain and that next winter there were two schools and two ski shops, now under Carroll Reed's direct ownership, one in Jackson and one in North Conway in the Randall House which Gibson had also purchased. The number of lessons given doubled that winter.

By the fall of 1938, Gibson had also bought the ski school, and was deeply involved, with the help of his bank's European officers, in the struggle to extricate Hannes Schneider from Austria. For by this time, the war in Europe had deepened. Austria was no longer free, and, although Schneider was not a political figure, he was outspokenly in favor of freedom. Too, there were those in his community who were his enemies and wished to appropriate his property. And Austria was concerned that his leaving not appear to be one more instance of the voluntary emigration of its foremost citizens.

"Mr. Harvey Gibson is an old friend," read the news story. "And Hannes Schneider is merely going to visit him." Gibson's bank was the fiscal agent in America for Germany at this time, yet it took many months of negotiation to effect Schneider's release.

In January, 1939, none too soon, Hannes Schneider arrived in North Conway, with his wife and two teenaged children. Reed still remembers that all the children of the town were lined up, making an arch with their ski poles. No one who has ever seen the picture of Schneider, smiling as he descended from the train at the North Conway station, will ever forget it. It was the end of a very long journey.

And a new beginning for a very successful ski school. The Skimobile, first of its kind, was started in 1938, finished in 1939. The sport of skiing virtually exploded. The school grew, the Carroll Reed Ski Shops grew, and North Conway grew, to keep up with the ever-increasing influx of new skiers.

In the beginning most of the skiers were the wealthy, but by the end of World War 2 more and more people were finding the wherewithal to put ski equipment, school lessons, and lift tickets within their budgets. The Ski trains, loaded in Boston with young skiers, many of them completely inexperienced, flooded the town with day visitors, as opposed to the longer-term vacationers who had been the School's first market. And, for a time the crowds exceeded the capacity of the area.

But with the burgeoning of ski areas and the ubiquity of the automobile, the North Conway ski trains lost their appeal. North Conway fought back to its former identity.

Today, the Hannes Schneider Ski School finds three groups of skiers; the vacationers or weekenders who stay at the area's many inns, returning year after year with their children and their children's children; and the day skiers who spend most of their time sunning and watching other people's wedeln; and the new group of ski lodge owners who have bought land made newly available by those who have owned it for many years, built chalets of varying sizes, and made North Conway their second home. Some of these chalets belong to ski clubs, some to individuals.

And the Ski School in the Skimobile Ski area, now under the direction of Herbert Schneider, the ski meister's very personable son, still flourishes under the same set of rules. Teachers must not merely ski like experts, they must teach like experts.

That small Austrian boy, a legend in is own time, served as the inspiration to a full generation of small American boys (and girls), learning how to ski the Arlberg technique on the slopes of North Conway.

But what was going on in North Conway was the focal point for the development of skiing throughout the state, and more particularly in the Eastern Slope region. At the same time that Reed and Gibson and Schneider were breaking trail in North Conway, Bill Whitney was busy at Black Mountain, where his famous "shovel-handle" tow forecast today's pomalift. Other nearby communities had even more rudimentary lifts, similar to the one that had preceded the Skimobile on Lookout Point: a donkey-powered crank which pulled a skier-laden rope through a clearing to the midpoint of the slopes.

But it wasn't until the 1950's that Wildcat Mountain took the first of its giant strides into the skiing forefront, and Mount Whittier, to the south, initiated its expansion plans. In 1961, Wildcat installed gondolas; two years later Mount Whittier followed suit.

This past season two more ski areas opened new slopes and trails to the ever-increasing, ever more demanding ski population: Attitash and Tyrol. Like the Hannes Schneider Ski School, they opened in a year of little snow. However, it takes more than a light snowfall to dull the instincts of the ardent searcher for new slopes to conquer, so the new areas received their share of downhill runs.

And the Tuckerman's Ravine the still unblemished snowfilled circque on Mount Washington, continues to offer adventurous spirits the challenge Carroll Reed found on Mount Washington thirty years ago.

The snow is the same, but the competition is keener, and the merchandising of the area becomes increasingly more high-powered. But this is probably all to the good. Just as skier-rich Vermont boasts of its Route 100 as the skier's highway, in the heart of ski country, so New Hampshire has its Route 16, passing through the communities of the Eastern Slope and The Mount Washington Valley. Serving as a connecting link between the towns and ski areas, this road is symbolic of the new spirit of co-operation which seems to have enveloped the area. This year skiers could buy lifts tickets good for any of the slopes at Wildcat, Black Mountain, or Cranmore, and many of the inns lent encouragement by providing package plans which included, besides the usual charges for bed and board, a varying number of the multi-area tickets.

With the many charms of North Conway and the multitude of facilities offered by the ski developments in the Valley, it would seem that the area is destined for even greater expansion in the future. The White Mountain Regional Association, a group of tourism-minded businessmen in the area, has been for some years actively working toward promotion of the region for winter and summer alike.

Almost all of the shops, and many of the exciting ski lifts and interesting restaurants cater to summer as well as winter travelers, opening the mountain peaks to sneaker clad shutter bugs who find the verdant slopes quite as exciting as do their skiing brethren in another season.

More on the history of skiing in New Hampshire