Skiing in Sullivan County in the 1940s

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A publicity shot of the Christmas Hills ski area in Livingston Manor from circa 1950.It was in October of 1948 that what local newspapers called “Sullivan County’s first commercial ski slope” began to take shape.

It was Christmas Hills on DeBruce Road in Livingston Manor, and despite the claims, it was not the first ski operation in the county, as Liberty Winter Sports, Inc. had operated the Walnut Mountain ski hill in Liberty more than a decade before.

Christmas Hills had a lot going for it, and there were high hopes for its success, but in the long run the obstacles, most notably a lack of snow when it was really needed most, were too much to overcome, and it eventually became just another in a lengthy list of failed winter sports businesses in Sullivan County.

A few years before Grossinger’s and the Concord would pioneer the concept of making snow to augment what Mother Nature provided their ski hills, the five Miller brothers converted a portion of the family’s Seven Keys estate on DeBruce Road in Livingston Manor into a complex of slopes of varying degrees of difficulty.

“During its first season of operation Christmas Hills will be open every weekend, except during the holiday season when a daily schedule will take effect,” Jeffersonville’s Sullivan County Record newspaper announced in its October 21, 1948 edition.  “It will provide two of the latest type electric ski tows, varied slopes, including alternate ski trails through the woods and a professional ski school.”

The five sons of I.A. Miller, Theodore, Martin, Edward, Stanley and Harold, added an interesting wrinkle to the operation that they thought would draw skiers of all levels of skill from miles around.

“There will be the added feature of ‘ski-joring’ the use of a horse for level towing on skis is planned as an added thrill for the fast growing ski public,” the Republican Watchman newspaper reported on October 22, 1948.  “The Christmas Hills slopes compare favorably with the best on the Eastern Seaboard.  More than 1500 feet long, the main ski run varies in rise from 30 degrees for the ski expert to a mild 10 to 15 degrees for beginners.  Snow conditions should be ideal over a long period and the Southern exposure of the slopes afford an exceptionally beautiful setting.

“It is hoped that with the success of Christmas Hills this season, Livingston Manor will become as famed for its winter sports as for its summer activities.  The sport of skiing, which is still in comparative infancy in this country, has already demonstrated its popularity by transforming sleepy New England towns into prosperous winter resorts with thousands of visitors pouring in for daily or weekly visits throughout the snow season.

Already, Mr. Sidney Rueben, Assistant General Passenger Service Agent of the Ontario and Western Railroad has offered his enthusiastic cooperation in arranging special ski excursion trains.  Taxi service for the four mile trip to the slopes on DeBruce Road will be available as it is in the summer.”

The Miller brothers worked closely with the Livingston Manor Chamber of Commerce to provide accommodations for the skiers.  They engaged Roscoe electrician Fred Sprague to furnish the electrical equipment for the latest model electric rope tows, “which includes two ropes, 1500 feet long double, and two 7-1/2 horsepower motors to pull the tow up the hill, a distance of 195 feet.”

Virtually no expense was spared in an attempt to make the Christmas Hills ski experience one that equaled that found anywhere in the East.  In the end, however, it was the one factor that the operators could not control that doomed the enterprise.  Just as it had with the Walnut Mountain ski hill a decade before, the lack of snow prevented Christmas Hills from ever becoming as successful as it might have been.

At times there was more than enough of the white stuff, as in December of 1950 when the hill advertised that it had just received six inches of fresh powder on top of an existing seven inch base, but more often than not, there was precious little snow.

Of course, other local ski areas had the same problem.  At Grossinger’s, before snow making equipment was installed in 1952, it was a common practice to physically move as much of the snow as possible from the hotel’s extensive property to the ski area on the golf course in an attempt to accommodate the skiers.  It was not a foolproof plan, and only occasionally provided satisfactory results.

An extreme example of the continuing struggle with nature local ski hills faced prior to the popularity of snow making equipment came in January of 1949, shortly after Christmas Hills opened for business.  The weather was so mild for one stretch that month that some of the area’s golf courses re-opened and golfers outnumbered skiers.

The Liberty Register newspaper reported in its January 27, 1949 edition that at Grossinger’s, golfers were “teeing off within sight of looping skiers.”

“The irregular weather that has been affecting the winter sports season throughout the east has caused an anomalous situation at the Grossinger Country Club here,” the Register noted.  “Golfing and skiing are going on simultaneously.

“While skiers go slaloming down the hill, golfers just a few feet away are teeing off on greens cleared of ice and snow by the warm temperatures of the past few weeks.”

Of course, even artificial snow cannot be produced unless the temperatures are cold enough long enough, and even with the advent of second and third generation snow making equipment at popular hills like Holiday Mountain and Davos, turning a profit on winter sports in Sullivan County remained an almost impossible task.

Photo: A publicity shot of the Christmas Hills ski area in Livingston Manor from circa 1950.

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