Monday, December 8, 2014

Local ski hill

This is the local ski hill in my memories of Danvers. This is where I learned to ski. This is where I skied for years and years with family and friends.

I love this 1954 photo, which captured the scene very well. The photographer (David Brewster) was standing on the flat area at the top of the slope – the place where we started each downhill run.  Last year his son Dave digitized his father's old slides and shared this with me. Such memories!

The rope tow ran along the right side of the open slope. In the photo I can see (faintly) a few bodies coming up that tow, and I know that the little figures at the bottom of the hill are approaching the rope and getting ready for the up-hill ride.  The rope tow engine was, in those days, a Model T Ford that sat in a shed at the top of the hill, behind and to the right of this photographer.

The view here is eastward, towards (unseen in the distance) Summer Street in north Danvers. On the right in the distance would be the St. John's Preparatory School property; on the left, Bishop's Meadow. By 1971, bulldozers and other large earth-movers were re-shaping this landscape, preparing to build Route I-95.

This ski slope disappeared in the construction.  In fact (I discovered today while staring at a Google map of the area) I-95 now runs right through this location, though hundreds of feet lower. Much of the hill, containing good gravel, was re-distributed elsewhere, leaving behind a valley and a much steeper slope on what was left of the old hill. That new slope dropped 300 feet, my father said. He attempted to ski there, but highway officials discouraged the practice.

What hill was this?  We called it "Locust Lawn" because of the old estate that had once been built there. Some people called it "Nichols Hill" because so many generations of our family had lived on or near it. Older maps mark it as "Dale's Hill," probably for a similar reason. Today the fragment of it that remains is called "Conifer Hill."

Update: On Thursday December 11, 2014, the Danvers Herald published my column about skiing on this hill. The online version was posted December 14. See  Remembering Danvers: When family ran local ski hill.   Or, read that same text here:

Remembering Danvers: When family ran local ski hill
By Sandy Nichols Ward

The first big snowfall of the year, transforming the landscape to white, triggers memories of my childhood in a skiing family in Danvers.

My parents not only loved to ski, but also enjoyed sharing the fun of skiing with others. They cleared trails on the hill near our home, and invited friends to join them. They were old-fashioned skiers, accustomed to climbing hills under their own power.

Their equipment was simple: wooden skis and bamboo poles. They could go out skiing almost anywhere, as long as enough snow covered the ground. Even before the snow flew, they sometimes taught skiing to beginners on a steep slope covered with layers of pine needles. My role at times was to gather more pine needles from the woods and spread them on that slope, to fill in gaps, making the surface more uniform and slippery.

After a deep snowfall, especially one that ended with a hard crust on top, we’d all go out, put on our skis, and step sideways up and down the ski hill to break up the crust and pack down the surface, making it easier for people to ski. Although the preparation was tiring work, the benefit of having a ski slope right near home was worth it. This was do-it-yourself, low-cost, local skiing – no lines, no long drives to mountains up north, and everyday access to a family-friendly ski slope.

In 1950, my father and others formed the Locust Lawn Club, “a year-round recreation club to promote skiing and similar wholesome outdoor and indoor recreation, run for the enjoyment of members and their guests as an informal and no-profit organization” (Bylaws, Feb. 12, 1950). Dues were $5 per adult, plus a contribution of labor – four hours a year – to help the club.

My father rigged up a ski tow, using a Model T Ford to pull a rope, and skiers holding onto it, up the hill. As the popularity of this Danvers ski hill grew, more trails were cleared and a second rope tow, much longer than the first, was added, powered by an old Buick. These cars, mounted on blocks, were positioned at the top of the hill. In each case a tow rope was wound around a back wheel (rubber tire removed).

A series of pulleys and wheels guided the rope down the hill to an anchoring pulley at the bottom, where the rope looped back for the return to the top. The return part of the loop dragged on the snow in places and at the crest of the hill was prone to wear a narrow trench down to the dirt under the snow, so my father inserted metal rollers under the snow there to keep the rope from getting muddy.

Many children from Danvers and nearby towns learned to ski at Locust Lawn. Their parents liked the low cost (only $10 a year for a whole family, unlimited skiing). My sister and I enjoyed skiing with the other kids. We eagerly skied down the slope, turned toward the moving tow rope, pointed our skis in the right direction to go up, grabbed the rope with our mittens, and up we went, ready to let go at the top and whizz down the slope again.

Around and around we went, happily skiing for hours, reluctant to stop. We’d invent games as we skied, sometimes playing tag on the slope. Our parents outlawed the use of ski poles during the tag games, so we became very adept at skiing without poles.

Sometimes the skier who as “It” would be coming up the rope tow and see an opportunity to catch a downward skier by moving the tow rope sideways to intercept the skier on the slope. My father frowned on this practice, as it tended to be hard on the towrope. He was a playful father, though, and loved joining in some of the fun. He acquired a second-hand pair of “trick” skis: only 5 feet long, with both ends turned up. He liked to show off, turning in circles as he skied down the open slope.

By the time I was in high school, he had added lights for night skiing, and replaced the cars with an electric engine to power the rope tow. Club volunteers no longer had to haul gasoline and water up to those cars to keep them running. We could flip a switch to start the tow – much easier than the hand-cranking needed to get that old Model T going.

It was a joy to ski at night on that illuminated slope. I remember a blue tinge to the shadows cast by trees in that artificial light. I have many happy memories of the years of skiing on that small hill. As my father often said, we could get many more hours of skiing than the folks who went away to big resorts. They wasted time in lines, and time traveling to get there, while we just skied and skied.