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Remembering Brodie’s glory days

By John Hitchcock
12:00AM / Thursday, August 12, 2004
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Brodie Mountain as it looked in its last ski season in January 2002. (Photo by John Hitchcock)
The purchase last month of the former Brodie Mountain Ski Resort in New Ashford by Silverleaf Resorts of Dallas means that condominiums will replace skiers and snowboarders. The nearly 600 acres of forests and ski facilities was sold by FO Ski Resorts, which also owns and operates Jiminy Peak in Hancock. FO principals Brian Fairbank and Joseph O’Donnell of Boston Concessions bought Brodie in November 1999, from founder Jim (JW) Kelly and operated Brodie as a separate ski area for two winters, then limited operations to a snow-tubing area with one short chairlift. Kelly, meanwhile began construction of an 18-hole golf course on his Donnybrook Farm, immediately south of the ski area on Route 7 but entirely in Lanesboro. Although about six holes are playable, no date has been set for a commercial opening. Kelly’s background was primarily in logging and the operation of sawmills when he decided to build a ski area in March 1964. Although surrounded by long-established ski centers in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont, Kelly brought a new and lively, if not exuberant, approach to the ski business. At the time when Brodie opened a three-level base lodge topped by the 5,000-square-foot Blarney Room with its hardwood floors or carpeting, the standard at most other resorts included gravel floors. Other ski areas closed at dusk, but Kelly did a record-setting bar business and brought in live bands and entertainers. As a ski instructor and news reporter for first The Berkshire Eagle and then the Springfield Republican, I followed Brodie happenings closely. I first skied Brodie Mountain in late December 1946, when the “Mad Russian” Gregory Makeroff had two rope tows and a few trails just south of the present Brodie parking lot. When I arrived with my skis, a lanky ex-Marine was busy splicing the main tow rope. His name was Walter Schoenknecht and he was leasing the operation from Makeroff. After the winter he returned to his home in Connecticut and built Mohawk Mountain before moving on to Mount Snow. The next winter a former Williams ski coach, Jim Parker, made the Brodie connection with Makeroff, who then moved out West and died shortly afterwards. Then Harley Phelps, operator of an adjacent farm, acquired the Makeroff property and skiing became past history. But Jim Kelly’s father bought the adjacent land for its logging potential and in 1963 a federal recreational study named Brodie Mountain one of three prime sites for a commercial ski operation in the Berkshires. (The other two were Spruce Peak atop the Mohawk Trail and the Saddleball section of the Greylock Range). That was enough for Jim Kelly, and he decided to enter the ski business. He sought information for all sources, including me, and he and I walked the property on deep snow cover in early April 1964. By December he had a ski center with the imposing base lodge, a chairlift and a short T-bar and a half-dozen trails. Other ski operators, including those at Jiminy Peak only 3 miles away, were doubtful about Kelly’s ability to run a ski center. In those days there was little in the way of snow-making except at Bousquet in Pittsfield and little natural snow fell in Kelly’s first winter. With Washington’s Birthday approaching, Kelly Hardwood Trucks were busy hauling snow from deep drifts near the Berkshire Hills Country Club in Pittsfield, and soon there was plenty of white stuff at Brodie. The next year Kelly installed the first top-to-bottom snowmaking system. For good measure, he lighted most of the trails. And when the snow became too hard, Kelly invented his Hard Pack Pulverizer and sold it to competitors as well. Baby boomers were blasting down Brodie’s ever-increasing number of trails. I got into the act and opened a cross-country ski touring center at Brodie with most of skiing at Donnybrook Farm. Brodie was hot, and Kelly was acknowledged as a shrewd and creative operator. He introduced professional ski racing and the Irish Olympics in conjunction with the St. Patrick’s week festival, with even Mount Snow’s Schoenknecht participating and observing. But Kelly’s success inspired the competition, and the old-timers at Jiminy, including then President Fred Crane Jr., contracted with Kissing Bridge Inc. of western New York to manage the area. Kissing Bridge, which was also managing Mount Ascutney in Vermont, brought in young Brian Fairbank as resident manager and the rest is history. Before too long, Fairbank had joined forces with O’Donnell (one of the bidders for the Red Sox) and after a few years they acquired control of Jiminy and made the former almost moribund ski area the pride of southern New England. Meanwhile, Jim Kelly turned over active management of Brodie to two of his sons, Matt and Doug, and saw the former baby boomers turn into slow skiing old-timers. Brodie maintained a faithful but declining following, who praised the now slower tempo and sunnier, easier slopes. When Fairbank and O’Donnell bought Brodie, they found it difficult to bring back the old crowds and after two years decided not to spend the approximately $5 million thought necessary to bring Brodie up to Jiminy’s level and instead built the new Jiminy Village Center. Jim Kelly, once a tennis fanatic, had transformed his zeal from skiing to golf, and all indications are that his Donnybrook Golf Club will be as outstanding as Brodie skiing was in the old days. And Kelly, ever a shrewd dealer, maintained ownership of two apartments at Brodie, located over the lower terminal of Andy’s Chairlift. Fairbank told me Monday that the original agreement means that Kelly will still own two units at the new Snowy Owl Resort for “at least 70 years.” The FO deal with Silverleaf, for some $2.6 million, stipulates that there will never be any public skiing or boarding at Brodie, although FO would operate such activities for condo owners if desired. And FO will operate its tubing center for at least another winter. What goes around comes around, as they say, and Schoenknecht lost control of Mount Snow before succumbing to MS several years ago. American Skiing Co., present owner of Mount Snow, Killington, Attitash, Sugarloaf USA and Sunday River in the East, now includes golf at most of its properties. I played the Mount Snow course recently with PR man Mike Murphy and agree that the Geoffrey Cornish-designed layout will be a true test for the third annual Vermont Senior Open Aug. 24 and 25. There will be separate divisions for pros and for amateurs in the 50 to 59 age group as well as 60 plus, with $16,000 in cash prizes for the pros. This month will see club championships at most courses, as the competitive schedule will enter the more relaxed fall foliage season. Get out there. John Hitchcock of Williamstown writes frequently about the area sports scene.
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