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Bousquet: the beginnings of Berkshire skiing

By John Hitchcock
12:00AM / Wednesday, March 03, 2004
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Clarence J. (Clare) Bousquet, who built in 1935 the second rope tow in the United States at his farm in Pittsfield, was named to the National Ski Hall of Fame this winter. Bousquet, who died in 1966 at the age of 77, is the only ski area operator in southern New England to be so honored and was only the second Berkshire resident to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Mich. The other was John C. Jay, formerly of Williamstown, a pioneer ski moviemaker, who died a few years ago at his home in California. Bousquet’s son, Paul, attended the Jan. 28 ceremony in the heart of the Midwestern ski jumping country. Paul Bousquet lives in Woodstock, Vt., where this country’s first rope tow was opened in 1934 at Gilbert’s Hill. Members of the Mount Greylock Ski club began skiing on Bousquet’s pastures in the winter of 1932-33, and he soon converted his garage into a warming hut and built two outhouses. Bousquet visited the tow at Gilbert’s Hill the first winter and then went to work on his version, which was ready for the 1935-36 season. But skiers did not wait for the tow, and on Feb. 10, 1935, some 447 of them arrived on a snow train from New York’s Grand Central Station. Even more impressive was the crowd of an estimated 10,000 locals who gathered at Pittsfield’s Union Station to marvel at the visiting sports enthusiasts. The next season saw a second tow installed, and Bousquet’s farm became the Bousquet Ski Area, the first in the Berkshires and the first of a score to come in the next half decade. But Clare Bousquet kept ahead of the competition, and by 1942, snow trains had transported 35,000 skiers to the Tamarack Road ski area, an average of 7,000 a year, the most of any ski area in the Northeast. By 1945, Bousquet’s had 10 rope tows running, hauling 18,000 skiers an hour to the summit, by far the most in the nation, according to Cal Coniff of Holyoke, who had nominated Bousquet to the Hall of Fame. (Coniff had been the general manager of the former Mount Tom Ski Area in Holyoke for 14 years and then headed the National Ski Areas Association for a decade. He is currently writing a history of skiing in Massachusetts.) An extremely ambitious person, the Spencer native entered the home building and contracting business at 19 and after coming to Pittsfield in 1919 (after service in World War I, during which both knees were badly injured when he was blown out of his tank), he opened Charlie & Charlie’s, a sporting goods store on West Street. Then he pioneered aviation in the Berkshires, founding the Pittsfield Aero Club and owning three airplanes, including a seaplane anchored at Pontoosuc Lake. He also helped locate the Pittsfield Airport adjacent to the ski area. He was also a big game hunter and a saltwater fisherman, with camps in Florida and Maine. Until the advent of the ski business, he and his wife, Margaretha, and two sons, Russell and Paul, raised mink, cattle and sheep. As soon as his first ski tow went into operation, he realized there were dangers, and he devised a safety gate turnoff to the town when riders got into trouble. With the help of early skiers Win Gutmann and Warren Sears and General Electric Co. engineers, Bousquet opened the world’s first night skiing lights in 1936, and later he devised a rope tow gripper, selling some 500,000 of them throughout the ski world. After the war, sons Russell and Paul (captain of the University of Vermont ski team in 1953) assumed more and more of the ski area duties. Russell is retired and still lives in Pittsfield; their mother died in 1973. Bousquet’s dominance ended as more and more ski areas opened after the war, and they featured T-bars, Poma-lifts and single and double chairlifts. Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire even boasted an aerial tramway. Bousquet’s became a local area, no longer a destination resort, but the Bousquet family had brought thousands of new skiers into the winter sports world. In 1956, the historic ski center was sold to a brash young New York attorney and ski trip promoter, Donald L. Soviero, who bought the property for a reported $100,000. He installed the world’s then largest snowmaking system, covering the entire Russell Slope. He also replaced several rope tows with a T-bar lift, then a Poma-lift and finally a 3,500-foot-long double chairlift. Soviero reaped tons of publicity, and Life Magazine ran a full-page picture of the slope, covered by machine-made snow (and also with skiers) when Stowe, the self-advertised “Ski Capitol of the World,” was offering only ice-skating over a snowless Christmas Week. In 1957, Soviero engaged world-famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, then 87, to lay out a four-season resort similar to Sun Valley. Soviero spent big money on securing options for land adjacent to the 350-acre Bousquet property, but his backers “backed off” and the New Yorker went deep into debt. In 1967, Soviero sold out to three local businessmen, who lost the area through a mortgage foreclosure after only one year in the business. Younger son Paul Bousquet, then general manager of the vast Killington Resort, bought back the family area from the bank for $275,000 after forming the Otter Development Corp. of Vermont with several other people with Killington connections. The sale went through in December 1968, and Paul replaced the Russell T-bar with a double chairlift in 1980. But the bank again foreclosed in the spring of 1981, and that July, the present owner, George Jervas, took over the now “minor league” ski center. He was backed by family members and friends but is now the principal operator. Jervas has faced numerous “major league” problems. First the state Highway Department built the new Dan Fox Drive from South Street to the Pittsfield Airport through the Bousquet parking lots and the main water supply. Then the state drilled a new well, but another state agency closed it. Later a fire destroyed the snowmaking center. But Jervas, now in his 60s, prevailed and each year has demonstrated Clare-Bousquet-type inventiveness. Jervas, who had been a nursing home administrator and a snowmaker at Butternut Basin in Great Barrington, was the first in the Berkshires to introduce modern snowmaking tower guns and the first to offer snow tubing. Five years ago Jervas bought an entire water park and installed the slides and a swimming pool. He also offers go-cart rides, a golf driving range, a wall-climber and other games and attractions for the summer months. The main continuity offered at Bousquet’s is in the form of Court McDermott, hired by Soviero in 1958 to head the ski school and racing programs. McDermott, who started skiing some 70 years ago at the former Jug End Barn Resort in Egremont, retired several years ago but has stayed on as advisor and head of grooming operations. Sherry Roberts heads the indoor operations and books talent for the varied entertainment in the expanded base lodge, year-round. Ski and Snowboard School Director is John Koch, who came from the former Brodie Mountain Resort four years ago. Brodie was famed for its Irish Olympics and St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations, and Koch will preside at the Bousquet Celebration March 14. One of Jervas’ first steps at Bousquet was to lower prices, and his regular $25 rate is the lowest in the area, tied with tiny Otis Ridge. All Berkshire resorts are offering deals for the rest of the season, with Bousquet offering low rates for next season’s passes, also good for the rest of this March. Two-for-one lift tickets are good weekdays through March 15. Jiminy Peak and Butternut also offer reduced early rate passes for next season, with the passes also good for free skiing in March. Jiminy will also host the Mountain Dew Vertical Challenge, with races, games and parties, with registration starting at 8 a.m. Snow depths are great, thanks to snowmaking in this dry winter, and Vermont resorts are also packed with special events and races. Call for details! John Hitchcock of Williamstown writes frequently about the area sports scene.
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