The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: Of dreams and a woman’s perspective

After their marriage in 1955, Pres and Sue Smith honeymooned at Stowe. The experience reinforced the dream of developing a ski area... Another expedition to Killington in mid-May 1955 finally convinced them that this was the mountain to develop.

As an American-Scandinavian fellow at the Royal College of Forestry in Stockholm, Perry Merrill had observed the development of skiing in Sweden. Deeply impressed, he had envisioned similar recreational and economic possibilities for skiing in Vermont.

In his job as the state's Commissioner of Forests and Parks, he was instrumental in bringing about the development of Mount Mansfield in the 1930s and 1940s and employing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to build roads and ski trails there.

With the state having been deeded the 324-acre Killington Peak mountaintop in 1938, Merrill was eager to capitalize on its ski potential and tried to promote his Killington idea to businessmen in Rutland in the early 1940s. He was not successful as they were aware of the challenges facing Pico and lack of access to the mountain. Soon World War II halted Merrill's ski-area promoting.

The Vermont Marble Company sold 2,776 acres of its Killington lands to the state in 1945, and in 1951 Merrill sent forester Charles Lord and highway engineer Abner W. Coleman to survey Killington. Lord said in a 1980s interview that they pronounced it "fit for skiing," but still Merrill couldn't persuade anyone to develop the mountain.

Merrill persevered in his attempts, and in 1954, he finally met with success. From the clearing of the first horse path to Killington Peak in 1859, it was just a few years shy of a century before another man with a vision of utilizing the mountains for recreation would begin clearing some trails for skiers. Just six months shy of the one 100th anniversary of men "going up the mountain" to visit the peak, Preston Leete Smith and the Sherburne Corporation had men sliding down the mountain.

During 37 years on the job, Merrill oversaw the purchase of 170,000 acres of forestland in 27 state forests and 32 state parks and negotiated many long-term leases with ski areas - Mount Mansfield, Burke Mountain, Jay Peak, Smuggler's Notch, Okemo, and Killington were among the big areas while there were smaller rope-tow areas, too. The late Vermont Senator George Aiken wrote of Merrill, "It was in no small way due to his aiding and abetting, cajoling and urging, that Vermont is now noted for its excellent ski areas."

A Woman's Perspective
It is not often that we see a woman's perspective on the ski industry - it was after all still "a man's world" when the post-war ski boom saw a proliferation of ski areas. But with the founding of Killington, there was a woman who not only supported the vision but actually worked toward it.

The late Susanne H. Smith was born in Vienna, Austria in 1933. Her parents had fled Austria and Europe on the brink of World War II in 1938. She recalled their struggles and the many difficulties they encountered in establishing a new life in the United States, noting in a late 1980s interview: "In retrospect my early years influenced and prepared me for life as it was to unfold. I emerged from these formative years with the belief that the opportunities to pursue the American Dream existed and that all things were possible through hard work and tenacity. When Pres and I embarked on the Killington venture, it never occurred to me that success might elude us."

While a teenager, Sue had her first skiing experience on the nearby Yale golf course, where she and a friend paid one dollar for a ski lesson. Growing up in New Haven, Conn. was not conducive to pursuing the sport so it wasn't until she attended the University of Connecticut that she embarked upon her first trip to the mountains of Vermont on a college outing club trip to Mad River Glen.

When Sue's father died suddenly in 1953, she was forced to leave college, but her career plan was already established by a desire for travel and adventure. Due to her foreign language fluency, Pan American Airlines had promised her a flight attendant position on the bi-lingual international routes when she turned twenty-one. In the interim, she began to work as a secretary in the Health Department of Yale University.

She met Pres Smith the following summer at the Connecticut shore. When Pres proposed, Sue "had to make a very conscious decision between the lure of seeing the world with Pan Am and the prospect of marriage and an unknown future in Vermont."
Although Sue noted that she never thought of the Vermont venture as pioneering, she did regard it "as an exciting and adventurous opportunity to share a life together."

After their marriage in 1955, Pres and Sue Smith honeymooned at Stowe. The experience reinforced the dream of developing a ski area, and afterward Pres made further studies of Killington's potential while Sue returned to her job at Yale to provide an income. Another expedition to Killington in mid-May 1955 finally convinced them that this was the mountain to develop.

"The direction our lives took was implemented not only by our own fervor and commitment, but the timing was right. During the late 1950s, many more Americans were ready to rediscover the mountains for recreation - this time through the sport of skiing. We caught the wave and rode the crest," Sue recalled.

 "Looking back, it seems naive to think that you could start with no financial resources, no experience in the ski business, and tackle something like that. But we had the dreams of youth. We didn't see the obstacles, just a step-by-step process. We thought about Killington in a matter-of-fact way as something we could do, not something overwhelming that we couldn't cope with," she had added.

And naïve as that might seem today, that is exactly how so many "new settlers" came to the town and cast their lot with the ski area and tourism trade.

Next week we'll recall some of the early entrepreneurs who caught the Killington wave.

Tagged: Killington, Perry Merrill