Home News and Features The Ski Tow on Sabin’s Pasture

The Ski Tow on Sabin’s Pasture

This student demonstrates the proper technique for riding a rope tow: one hand in front, one hand in back. Photo courtesy of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Although it may be hard to imagine during the snow-deprived winter of 2022–23, Montpelier youths used to enjoy downhill skiing within city limits. A basic rope tow operated on a west-facing hill in Sabin’s Pasture behind Vermont College’s Noble Hall from 1945 until about 1980, providing local youths and Vermont College students alike with an opportunity to learn to downhill ski.

The Sabin’s Pasture rope tow was constructed in the fall of 1944 by a group of citizens organized under the name of Montpelier Ski Tow, Inc. Leaders of the group were John Corskie, John Moody, and Jack Merrill. The group sold season tickets through Montpelier businesses as a way to finance the venture. 

The location of the hill was described as “the popular slope behind Vermont Junior College,” which suggests that the hillside, now partially overgrown, was already in use by skiers who enjoyed a downhill rush without the benefit of a tow. The Burlington Free Press reported in 1945 that the Montpelier tow was the only one in the region other than one at Mt. Mansfield. (A ski tow that operated at the Bronson farm near Montpelier Junction during the late 1930s and early 1940s had apparently ceased operation or the Free Press writer did not know about it.)

Home-front restrictions during World War II motivated community members to build the tow. “With many recreational facilities restricted in the war period, and travel to large winter sports areas difficult and expensive, it is felt that Monteplier will find the new area a worthwhile addition to its recreational development,” the Montpelier Evening Argus reported on Dec. 27, 1944.

Sabin’s Pasture ski hill as seen from the air, 1950s. The houses at the upper right were probably located on River Street; the smokestack in the center was part of a building on Pioneer Street. Photo courtesy of the Vermont College of Fine Arts
At one time the hill was described as “easily accessible from either College or Barre streets,” although it must have been a strenuous hike from Barre Street to the tow in the snow. Many skiers walked to the hill from their homes on College, Liberty, and surrounding streets. Once at the college, skiers had to walk or ski down a hill to the bottom of a gully and cross a stream before reaching the tow to take them to the top of the neighboring hill. When leaving the ski hill they had to climb back up the hill to the college.

The Montpelier ski tow opened with a bang on the weekend of Jan. 27–28, 1945, with 100 skiers on the hill that Sunday afternoon. The Free Press reported, “Only one slight accident marred today’s skiing when a Vermont Junior College student injured her knee and was taken to Heaton Hospital.” 

Vermont Junior College Ski Club patch. Photo courtesy of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In February the same year, the ski tow operators organized an ambitious ski meet in which boys of high school age and older competed in four combined events — downhill, slalom, cross country, and jumping (there was also a ski jump in Sabin’s pasture) — and women and juniors competed in three combined events, excluding jumping.

Skiing in Sabin’s Pasture was an afternoon and evening activity during that first year. The slope was open Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. (The country was on daylight saving time during the war, so it stayed lighter later than we experience today.) The tow operators also aspired to night-time skiing, “if the recent brownout restrictions and lack of fuel are lifted.”

Vermont Junior College Winter Carnival Queen, 1948. Skiing was an important part of social life at Vermont Junior College. In this photo, the 1948 queen is standing on the Sabin’s Pasture ski slope while wearing the patch of the Vermont Junior College Ski Club. Photo courtesy of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Private operation of the tow lasted only one year. In the fall of 1945 the Montpelier Recreation Committee, which later became the Montpelier Recreation Department, took over operation of the tow with assistance from community groups at different periods. In 1955, for example, members of the Schuss Tag Outing Club helped ready the tow for the season and donated lights for the ski hill. A member of the club arranged for several instructors to give lessons at the hill, “remembering the great number of aspiring skiers who swarmed the hill for lessons at the first call a year ago.”

A local resident, identified only as G. Reynolds by the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, remembered working at the tow during the winters of 1950–51 and 1951–52: “Each morning of operation the crew of two [high school students] would bring a toboggan down the Jr. College slope with two car batteries, freshly charged, and ten gallons of gas. I sold tickets (adults one dollar, kids 50 cents, as I remember), policed the lift line for line-cutting and rowdiness, kept a fire going in the warming hut stove, ski-packed or threw snow in the rope tow ruts, organized packing parties after it snowed, or packed myself, and other duties the engine man couldn’t do since he was tied to the top of the hill. On the frequent occasions when someone rode through the safety rope, he had to be handy to restart the engine.” 

Ward Seguin has memories of skiing on the hill: “I can remember the rope slipping through our mits until we could get a good hold of it to pull us up the hill. I think we wore out mits fast. The rope was probably coated with snow because it was dragged through the snow between skiers. And occasionally someone would crash while being pulled up the hill. If we were lucky we could steer out of the tracks and pass the fallen skier. We’d race down the hill and grab the rope for another ride a bunch of times. I guess there would be a line of 10 to 15 people at a time. I never remember the line being too long. I don’t remember the attendant controlling the spacing, so we could grab the rope just five to ten feet behind the person in front of us.”

Norma Cady moved from Montpelier when she was ten years old in 1961, but she still has very vivid memories of skiing at Sabin’s Pasture. She became an expert skier in Colorado and an environmental planner, both of which she credits to her early childhood experiences in Sabin’s Pasture in the winter and summer.

Two young women prepared for skiing. Photo courtesy of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Beth (Herschel) Gambler lived on College Street in the 1950s and 1960s and also got her start skiing in Sabin’s Pasture and skating on the college green. She would put on her skates or ski boots and walk to the recreation sites. (Ski boots were more flexible back then!) “I didn’t realize until I was older how spoiled I was,” she said. Beth’s brother, Jim, ski jumped in Sabin’s Pasture and skied for the high school ski team. Beth lives in Montpelier again and is still an enthusiastic skier.

The tow also made a significant imprint on student life at Vermont Junior College, known simply as Vermont College after 1958. Yearbooks for both schools are filled with pictures of students skiing and participating in winter carnivals. The ski hill also figured prominently in Montpelier’s own winter carnivals that were held in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ticket image courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society.
In the late 1960s Vermont College took over ownership of the tow and hill. A 1970 newspaper article stated, “Vermont College, in cooperation with the Montpelier Recreation Department, has again this year opened its ski tow to area residents.” In the late 1970s, the college’s catalogs boasted that “The college owns and operates a rope ski tow on the back campus with instruction given for the beginning and the intermediate skier.” 

The last mention of the tow in local newspapers is in a list of ski areas in 1978. It was last listed in the Vermont Tramway reports in 1982, which may have been its final year of operation. The tow had operated in Montpelier for 35 years, providing local youths and students at Vermont College with hours of fun within walking distance of their homes and schools in Sabin’s Pasture.