Across the river in Vermont, skiing in the ruts of the St. Johnsbury toboggan chute was a popular pastime until 1914. It seemed to have every advantage; with good balance and a little luck, speedalways a great attraction for those on skisrequired little effort.
A natural hill called for skill in controlling the skis and in turning and stopping.
Across the river in Vermont, skiing in the ruts
The time to experiment and practice was only available to the well-to-do unless the skier had been brought up on skis. The most complete record of what it was like to learn to ski and become involved as a recreational skier in the years before organized skisport can be found in the diaries of a Brattleboro, Vermont, high school student, Fred Harris.
The entries are complete from 1904 to 1911 with seldom a day’s activity unrecorded, and they show what it was like for one who had “skeeing on the brain evidently” at a time when there were few to enjoy what he found so marvelous. He made his own skis, remarking when he obtained good bends; he fixed “dandy brass tips” on the front of the skis.
He experimented with woods; made poles of spruce, hard pine, hickory, ironwood, and oak; told of cross-country trips and of the successes and failures on his “slides,” as he termed going down hill. He built jumps, broke skis, hurt his back, and once even confided to his diary that he had been “overdoing lately and decided to lay off for one day. Although he had occasional companions, his was a lonely pleasure in these early days.
Harris worked hard at his newfound recreation. His joys were the joys of an experimental mind, one that was determined to master the technical difficulties as well as those brought on by failure of technique or bad weather conditions.
What a difference between Harris’s attitude and that of John Muir, whose capers above Lake Tahoe were recounted earlier, in Chapter 2. This committed environmentalist enjoyed skiing as recreation and as play. He spoke of a friend who, with no skiing experience and heedless of advice, launched himself in “wild abandon, bouncing and diving, his limbs and shoes in chaotic entanglement, now in the snow, now in the air whirling over and over in giddy rolls and somersaults that would shame the most extravagant performances of a circus acrobat!”
He quietly gathered himself, picked the snow from his neck and ears, and judged his performance “the very poetry of motion.” Muir himself talked of the “lusty reviving exercise on snow-shoes that kept our pulses dancing right merrily.
In the Aspen area, miners ”must be a jolly sort of fellows, sliding, skating, leaping, shooting chutes and jumping chasms,” the Denver Times guessed in 1901. At Grand Lake, skiing replaced dancing as the most popular winter activity, and many photographs show people engaging in fun and games on skis.
Although there were ski races among the mining camp communities in Colorado, the sport never became part of the total culture in the way it had in California.60 Insteadif we may believe photographs from around the turn of the centuryskiing became a social matter. Pictures in the Colorado Historical Society in Denver, show a group of women at Breckenridge in 1889, members of the Crystal Club, and an outing near Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan range. This early recreational interest became a major reason for organizing the skisport in the Rockies, but it contrasts with the cause of its development in the Norse-centered Northwest.
The one area where no reports of recreational skiing have surfaced is in the Washington and Oregon mountains where there was only a slight interest in the use of skis anyway. The Spokane Falls Review commented on other winter sports from time to time along with mining news and avalanches but no ski activity was mentioned until Olaus Jeldness, a man with Norwegian, Michigan, Colorado and Canadian experience, promoted a jumping carnival in 1913. Still, it is hard to believe that no fun and frolicking went on. Even when whaling ships were in Arctic winter quarters, skiing vied with snow-soccer and snow-baseball for recreation among the crews.
As immigrant communities turned into American towns, the settlers became part of the materialistic America that was emerging in the late nineteenth century. The immigrants used their winter leisure hours to organize both pleasure and competitive skiing in the hope of bringing renown to their club and their town, as well as recognition to their native country with its Idraet heritage. These economic, social, and cultural factors provide the foundations of the skisport.