Cars are parked at the base of snowy Cannon Mountain in 1969. (Boston Globe via Joe Runcie/Getty Images)
Ski historian E. John B. Allen didn’t involve himself in his latest book, “Traveling the Old Ski Tracks of New England,” but when he did, Stowe, Vt., was like the mid-1950s.
To begin Chapter 10, he writes, “I am very grateful to Stow because this is where I learned to ski. From 4pm to 1am, I was a bar waiter at The Whip, the best pub in the Green Mountain Inn, so I had skiing all day. While serving Tom and Jerry’s and Gluhwein, I overheard odd snatches of conversation: ‘I depend on markers, but, of course, Kubko’s front throw…’; ‘That second flush I dug my pole…’; ‘Mark yourself in my Riesenslaloms…’; ‘Mughals,’ ‘Ariels,’ ‘Stain Turns,’ ‘Shoes’ – unintelligible language.
Allen goes on to say that during his first day skiing at Mount Mansfield, the rope tow operator wouldn’t let him continue after he fell on the line twice. Some of us may have a common thread, but with personal stories like these, Allen manages to humanize his latest deep dive into New England skiing history, “Traveling the Old Ski Tracks of New England,” released by the university. Massachusetts Press in November (in full disclosure, I was asked to read an advance copy of the manuscript in 2021 to provide a review blurb for the back cover). From the original ski clubs that formed in the area to the forgotten stories of abandoned ski areas, here the book introduces us to some of the most remarkable timelines in the history of the sport. Every state in New England gets its share of attention at one point or another.
“But it was really hard to say anything decent about Rhode Island,” Allen said, “you know, the Ocean State and all that.”
Yawgoo Valley might like a word, but the mission to condense past century skiing into 250-plus pages is led by Plymouth State University history professor and longtime historian E. Who better than John B. Allen. New England Ski Museum. Allen has written more than a dozen books, including “From Skisport to Skiing: 100 Years of American Sport, 1840-1940” and “The Historical Dictionary of Skiing.” Alan has served as the academic chair of two international conferences on ski history, delivered a lecture at Norgesidretshogskol (Norwegian Sports University), lectured at the likes of the Ski Museum in Werfenveng, Austria, and has been a consultant for half a dozen skis. Historical Documentary Films.
The “journey…” was not what he hoped would result from his pitch to the University of Massachusetts Press a few years ago. Allen’s original idea instead focused on a book about the art of skiing. However, the UMass Press editor was more interested in what Allen could provide in terms of a book devoted to skiing in New England. Alan can do it, very easily, He said with a smile.
“I already had these materials, but they needed to fit into some kind of bigger picture,” Allen said. “Alone cannot last.”
Much of the research Allen encountered involved piecing together a timeline of events. This led to some new discoveries despite his already extensive knowledge of the subject. As Stowe’s chapter shows, some of them contain his own narrative.
British-born Allen said he is “more of a Yankee now,” having lived in the United States since the 1950s when he received a one-year exchange scholarship to a private school. He fell in love with the States and returned soon after completing his service in the British Army.
In 1976, Allen went on sabbatical to continue his studies of Renaissance diplomacy for his Ph.D. He settled on Innsbruck because of the amount of medieval artefacts and forums that can be found in one of the world’s most treasured ski locations.
It was the year the Austrian city hosted the Winter Olympics. One event he and his wife, Heidi, investigated during the Games was an antique bookseller’s exhibit that featured several old ski prints. “It has led me from sixteenth-century ambassadors to nineteenth-century skiers,” he writes in “Travelling…”.
When they returned to the US, Allen wrote a column in the local newspaper about a group trying to start a New England ski museum. After expressing interest in the venture, he was soon named director of the museum’s oral history project. It was very clean. If only Alan knew what oral history was.
Allen accepted the role only after taking a course in oral history at the University of Vermont. He later said that the museum’s idea of a role in oral history ultimately led to its tax-free status.
“I found out I was a golden boy,” Allen said.
He retired in 1997 after 29 years at Plymouth State.
“Why are we interested in the heritage of skiing?” In “Journeys…” asks Allen, “Interest arises at times when something seems about to be lost.” On that note, Allen isn’t shy about pointing to the cost of skiing as one of the sport’s potential downfalls, not to mention climate change. But the future is not the focus of his new book, which revels in the reader’s reliving of the past. That might include his experience at the stove or the colorful backgrounds of the many individuals who helped build the industry.
As Allen writes, “It is always difficult to come to any conclusion about a work in progress. But that’s the current state of skiing’s heritage in the American Northeast. Since skiing, the term has been used in all its meanings – social, technical, economic, visual and cultural – and has undergone continuous change. ‘Traveling New England’s Old Ski Trails’ provides a foundation for understanding where we came from. It may help us understand what made this winter sport part of New England’s local culture.