The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: Barrel Staves, technology light

Photo courtesy of Killington Resort
Barrel stave tip stand.

Killington Resort was a pioneering ski area. If familiar with some previous history pieces run in this paper, you already know about some of the important advances that came from Killington.

The short-ski learning experiment (GLM), ticket wicket (a wire device to attach ski tickets), the regiscope (a camera that helped eliminate ski-rental thefts), barrel staves, and a major marketing effort which included three publications were all successfully launched during 1964-65, and together they contributed to a successful season.

Barrel staves? As in the early 1900s' rudimentary skis that farmers, fathers, and woodworkers fashioned for their kids' (and their own) fun so they could get outdoors in winter and slide on snow.

Yes, barrel-stave skis. The introduction of barrel staves in 1964 revealed the lighter side to Killington's pioneering efforts.
It actually began as something of a joke in the spring of 1961 when Pres Smith, connecting some whiskey barrel slats and inner tube pieces, fashioned himself a pair of barrel-stave skis to wear in the annual Easter Parade. It was his way of depicting how skeptics said the area "would never be developed." (He had an astute understanding of why they didn't believe in his dream and chose to use the staves as a humorous comment on their disbelief!)

In subsequent years, he refined the skis as he continued the joke.

The result was the introduction of a new element in skiing for fun and national attention for Killington as the media gave widespread press to the "reinvented" barrel stave. (You might recall that Killington never was bashful in the promotions department - more on that in upcoming weeks.)

Killington promoted the fun element of skiing on staves, noting beginners could use them and experiment with maneuvers like parallel skiing and wedeling. Marketed as "confidence builders," the genuine oak staves with front-throw cable bindings, plastic-painted bottoms, and optional steel edges were manufactured in the Killington area and sold through the Killington Ski Shops. A distributor also marketed them to ski shops in the Northeast! (Killington was always willing to share their ideas with others, not just for financial reasons but also to promote the sport!)

Lest you think it was purely a gimmick, consider what instructor Wayne Gifford, who joined the ski school in 1962, recalled of his boss Ski School Director (and GLM innovator) Karl Pfeiffer. "One of the most fun times I skied with Karl we were in wet, heavy mush snow. I had barrel staves on and I made it. He was a great skier, but he couldn't get through though because he had regular skis on - that was about the only time I out-skied him."

Scott Leete Smith, Pres and Sue Smith's son who was born in 1961, remembered having "a tiny pair of barrel staves and going out with the family and skiing the moguls in the springtime" on his staves.

Scott also recalled that his father made "a single, wider stave and skied on it, one foot behind the other. It might have been a forerunner to the snowboard," he observed. (Smith was also an avid water skier.)

For those who know how serious Smith was about skiing and Killington and finding a better way to do things for the benefit of skiers, it's also good to know how he always supported anything that made the sport fun. Hence, Killington founded the Annual World Barrel Staves Championship. It was probably the most unorthodox 'ski race' ever hosted at Killington.

Held for the first time in March 1965, skiers had to wedel, ski backwards, spin in circles, and do royal christies - all against the clock and within a prescribed course. Karen Huntoon, a red-hot junior racer from Rutland who went on to become a freestyle/moguls world champion, won in 1965, edging out second and third place winners George Feinman of New York and Tom Rondeau of Rutland.

New York Daily News sportswriter Jerry Kenney was awarded a trophy for "Best Sport of the Day" as he gamely tried the staves that year. Tough assignment, but someone has to do it!

The Third Annual Barrel Stave Competition consisted of a special slalom race and a freestyle run during which the skier could try any maneuver he could think of. This sparked the creation of many "tricks" on barrel staves.

The Bourbon Institute of America sponsored large trophies to male and female winners that year, prompting the name change to the World Bourbon Barrel Stave Championship.

The most radical development at Killington also began in 1964 with the short-ski teaching/learning experiments that led to a new way to learn to ski. Of all the novel ideas tried at Killington, none was to have as far-reaching an impact on the future of the ski area as the development of GLM. 

The interest in the short ski as a teaching tool was revolutionary, but when it came to fun, the barrel staves gave GLM a run for "fondest memory" among many a former Killington worker and skier.