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Resorts Then and Now: Mt. Otsego

 

SKIING HISTORY

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Resorts Then and Now: Mt. Otsego

By Jeremy Davis

Cooperstown hit two fouls, then a 380-foot home run.

Photo above: Kate and Chris Mulhern at the base of Mt. Otsego in 1958. The main slope is visible behind the sign, with the rope tow to the right. Courtesy Barbara Harrison Mulhern

Cooperstown is, of course, forever the home of baseball, hosting the National Baseball Hall of fame since 1939. But it’s also the center of a pioneering New York ski region. Here, community leaders and volunteers created skiing opportunities at four locations for over 40 years.

Cooperstown, at the foot of Lake Otsego, lies in hilly terrain with annual snowfalls approaching 90 inches per year. In the early to middle 1930s, skiers toured these hills, including the Fenimore Slope next to today’s Farmers Museum. The land, now just north of the downtown district, was once owned by James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans.

New York State’s first rope tow operated for the 1935-1936 season in North Creek in the Adirondacks. In the fall of 1937, the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce began making plans for a ski lift. A suitable location was found on the former Robert Sterling Clark estate in Bowerstown, located about a mile south of Cooperstown Central. By 1937 it was county land. A 1,200-foot gasoline-powered rope tow was installed, and the Reynolds brothers hired to operate it.


Longtime patrolman Charlie Michaels
(right) at the top of Mt. Otsego’s T-bar.
Courtesy Charlie Michaels

The tow officially opened on January 15, 1938 to enthusiastic skiers and spectators who had never seen anything like it. Skiers came from as far away as Binghamton, and more than 75 cars lined adjacent roads. However, improvements were needed: snow fencing, better grading for the tow, and lights for night skiing. These were installed over the next few months, but a lack of snow limited operation. Higher elevations nearby promised more consistent snowfall, and thoughts turned to relocating the tow.

Tow Moved to Drake Farm

In the summer of 1938, the Sports Committee of the Chamber of Commerce began the hunt for a new location. Dr. Francis Harrison, Sherman Hoyt, and others explored hills to the north, in Pierstown. Harrison’s daughter Barbara Mulhern, now in her 90s, remembers “riding along with my father and his cronies” on dirt roads as they scouted the region.

They found what they thought might be the perfect slope, on Drake Farm, 500 to 700 feet higher than Bowerstown. The tow was moved, lengthened and installed during the fall of 1938. The higher elevation was expected to provide deeper, more consistent snow depths.

To promote the bigger hill, the committee transformed into the Cooperstown Winter Sports Association. Lester Hanson, a founding CWSA shareholder and neighboring farmer, ran the tow. He would run tows here and at other locations for nearly forty years.

Despite the Association’s best hopes, the location was fraught with problems. While skiers came from all around to check out the new ski area, strong winds scoured portions of the slope clear. A third location would need to be considered for the following year.

The Opening of Mt. Otsego

The Association did not need to look far. To the south of Drake Farm, a broad slope offered 380 feet of sheltered vertical on the Lamb Farm. The tow was moved again, to its final location, for the 1939-1940 season. The Lamb farmhouse would serve refreshments to skiers.

The name Mt. Otsego was chosen, for the lake, called “Glimmerglass” in Cooper’s novel The Deerslayer. In November, crews cleared brush and cut new trails. Hanson fired up the tow in December of 1939.

To promote the ski area, the Cooperstown Ski Club was formed the same year. Vice president was Nick Sterling, principal at Cooperstown Central School. The club aimed to make skiing affordable for everyone. Membership was set at just one dollar for adults, and 25 cents for children. Principal Sterling arranged for school kids to get free ski lessons, taught by volunteers. Over several decades, thousands of students entered the sport.

Cooperstown Hires Inga Grauers

Shortly after organizing, the Cooperstown Ski Club hired Miss Inga Grauers, 30, the only certified female ski instructor in Sweden. A pupil of Hannes Schneider in St. Anton, Grauers was expert in the Arlberg technique. She left Sweden at the outbreak of World War II, to find new opportunities in the United States. For two seasons from 1939-1941, she taught at the Fenimore Slope on weekdays and the Mt. Otsego slope on weekends.

At the end of the 1940-1941 season, Grauers left to teach skiing at Stowe, Vermont. She married E. Gardner Prime, and after the war the couple purchased the Alpine Lodge in Lake Placid, where they started their own rope tow ski area. Later, Inga became a ski legend at Vail, and was featured in the 2002 backcountry documentary “Spirit of Skiing.”

Snow Trains

Many of the early New York ski areas were far from major population centers. The Cooperstown Ski Club arranged for several snow trains to visit Mt. Otsego in 1940 and 1941. Trains came from Albany, and even from New York City, bringing up to 400 skiers at a time. Skiers were picked up at the Delaware & Hudson Station in Cooperstown and brought to Mt. Otsego in any available vehicle.

Formation of the Ski Patrol

It became clear after the opening of Mt. Otsego that a ski patrol was needed. In late 1939, Carlotta Harrison, the wife of Dr. Harrison, met with Minot Dole in New York City to begin organizing a patrol, just a year after Dole started the National Ski Patrol. Dr. Harrison was the first patrol leader. A future patrol leader, Charlie Michaels, now in his 80s, learned to ski as a kid at Otsego, in exchange for hauling gas cans to run the rope tow.

Fenimore Slope Gets a Tow

The Fenimore Slope did have the benefit of being close to town. In the late 1940s, Lester Hanson put in a rope tow and lights for night skiing. The tow opened weekday afternoons and evenings, and occasionally on weekends. The slope was abandoned in 1950.

Otsego Reaches its Peak

Like many ski areas, Mt. Otsego closed during World War II. It reopened in the fall of 1945. Additional beginner tows were added, and by 1950 skiers enjoyed new trails and slopes, including Natty Bumppo. A new lodge went up in 1956, transforming Mt. Otsego into a center for community activities through the 1960s.

The largest capital project at Mt. Otsego was a Hall T-bar on new slopes south of the rope tow. Another T-bar was later proposed to replace the main rope tow, but skiers protested—the T-bar would take at least twice as long to ride, resulting in fewer runs. In 1963, Lester Hanson, who over the years had been buying up shares from his partners, finally owned the ski area.

Later Years of Mt. Otsego

The 1970s were not kind to many smaller ski areas throughout New York, and Mt. Otsego was no exception. Back-to-back mild winters in 1973 and 1974, gas shortages, rising insurance rates, a lack of snowmaking, and aging facilities took their toll. The area closed during the 1976-1977 season.

Lester Hanson sold Mt. Otsego in 1978, and a series of new owners tried to resuscitate the area. In most years, only the T-bar operated, and only when natural snow allowed. At the conclusion of the 1982 ski season, Mt. Otsego closed for good.

Today

The former Mt. Otsego Ski Area is on private property, clearly visible from Wedderspoon Hollow Road. The T-bar was removed and sold for scrap, though its drive building remains. The rope tows are long gone. The landowners have kept most of the trails clear.

Mt. Otsego may be gone, but like other small areas that closed in the ’60s and ’70s, its legacy lives on with the thousands of skiers who learned the sport there as kids and passed the passion on to their own families. 

 

 

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