These words about the earliest years at Hickory Hill are based on the memories of my mother, Fran Winbauer. There are, no doubt, some errors and omissions. We hope some of the other early “Hickory Hillers” will share their memories so we can continue this history in future articles.
Skiing was an important part of my Dad, Hans Winbauer’s life for a long time. In the early 1930’s, when he was a teenager living in Scotia, he and his brother Loise would take the Ski Train from Schenectady to North Creek.
The Delaware and Hudson offered a dedicated train including dining and lounge cars to transport hundreds of skiers to North Creek each weekend. At the train station in North Creek all sorts of trucks and cars served as taxis, meeting the skiers and transporting them to the top of the ski hills. Even school buses were pressed into service to handle the huge numbers of skiers. At the bottom of the ski run taxis met the skiers again and returned them to the top. The Ski Trains brought a huge economic boom to the North Creek area. Many families supplemented their incomes by renting rooms to the skiers, providing meals, transportation and entertainment. Skiing was in vogue. It was stylish and chic. It was a social event. The new friends you’d meet, the camaraderie of the day’s adventures, the sociable train ride home, all of these things contributed to the experience of skiing, giving it an ambiance, an image. It was daring, exciting and romantic.
Mom learned to ski at Stone’s Mountain, located on the east side of the Hudson River between Luzerne and Warrensburg, You can still see the remnants of the old rope tow on this steep little mountain. Skiing caught Mom’s eye and she begged and pleaded with her father for skiing equipment. He didn’t like the idea. It was the middle of the depression and skis were a luxury. He resisted for a while but finally, she won out and a trip to Montgomery Wards in Glens Falls resulted in wooden skis with bear trap bindings. She was hooked.
My Dad was drafted into the United States Army in the summer of 1943. Mom and Dad married in December and spent their honeymoon traveling by train to Camp Hale, Colorado. There, Hans, Fran and their friends Ken and Flo Bates planned, calculated, and dreamed about creating a place to ski with their friends. Being assigned to Camp Hale was no accident. Dad wanted to ski and had requested duty with the US Army Ski Troops. He was fortunate to receive the duty he’d requested, and based on his college downhill racing experience, qualified as a ski instructor.
In their time off duty, Ken, Flo, Hans and Fran began to scheme. Scheming w as not easy though, since Dad was a P.F.C. and Ken was an officer. Officers weren’t allowed to fraternize with the enlisted men. Mom and Dad would wait until evening and then sneak, in the dark, down the road and across the bridge to the Bates’ quarters. Plans were made and sites discussed. The two young couples had everything before them, including the rest of World War II. All plans were put on hold when Dad was transferred to the Infantry 305th and overseas. During their long months of duty Hans and Ken managed to keep their hopes and dreams, and themselves alive.
After the war ended, a serious search began for a site where they could build their ski center. Hours were spent poring over topographic maps. They were searching for a north facing slope with a significant vertical drop and within reasonable distance of the Albany / Schenectady area. Several possibilities were visited and rejected before they came across the Three Sisters. Hickory is located on one of the Three Sisters, three rugged mountain peaks overlooking the junction of the Schroon and Hudson Rivers. The property for sale had been farmland. It was now the summer home of Brooklyn resident Lillian Walsh. The farmhouse was in reasonable condition and there were large slopes that had been cleared. The slopes faced north, the vertical drop was significant and the price was right. Hickory had found a home.
In the late spring of 1946 when the property was purchased the Bates’ lived in Schenectady and the Winbauers in South Glens Falls. Both men had day jobs and Hans had a family soon on the way. Both men also had a stubborn, never say die attitude. They were absolutely determined to make Hickory a reality. Spending each weeknight at “the Hill” and then bringing their families to spend the weekends, every spare minute was spent in getting ready to open for the ‘46-47 season. The farmhouse needed major renovations to serve as a ski lodge. The interior walls had to be torn down, a ticket office built, the kitchen had to be converted to a snack bar and a fireplace installed. There was an old barn to be demolished, additional slopes to be cleared, existing slopes to be mowed, not to mention getting the lift engine and lift towers installed, ordering supplies and endless other tasks.
This project could have been overwhelming. It wasn’t. It was a time of sharing hard work and good times with friends and family. Each completed task was a victory, and brought all of these people closer to their own place to ski. There were many people lending a hand. Mutual friends of the Bates’ and the Winbauers showed up each weekend to help out. Hans’ brother Loise and his coworker Bob Selzer spent countless hours. These people remembered these times as a social experience, not as a business start up. They were all there because they enjoyed it.
The first ski run at Hickory was up the hill in front of the farmhouse, the “Honeyrun”. The lower portion of this slope had been cleared years ago. For a ski run, it had to be extended up the mountain to more than double it’s length. To clear the additional slope, a logging crew working with a team of horses was brought in. A horse drawn mower was used to mow the lower slopes. The new rope tow was located in the same location as today’s Poma 1. It was a long tow, extending all the way to the intermediate get off of the current Poma lift. A luxury sedan powered the rope tow. A Packard was driven up and parked at the bottom of the lift. Belts attached to the Packard’s drive train drove the lift. To start the rope tow, the car was started and put into drive for the day. Hickory had a high-class lift - the Packard was a deluxe edition with accommodations for a chauffeur, a sliding, etched glass divider, elegant glass bud vases at each door, and a luxurious passenger compartment.
The slopes were ready, the lodge modifications completed and the lift running smoothly. Now, Hickory needed snow. The plan was for Ken and Hans to operate and maintain the lifts while Flo and Fran worked the ticket office. The snack bar concession was let to Floyd Foot of Warrensburg. A hot dog was 25 cents. The lodge was a comfortable setting. There was an open, circular stone fireplace and a wood stove for heat, a cozy fireplace with an old cushy sofa in front of it and huge picture windows looking out on the slopes. The parking lot was located at the bottom of the hill near the town road. Skiers had to carry all their gear from there, over the railroad tracks and up the hill to today’s parking lot, and then up the next hill to the lodge. The grade of the road was much steeper then, and it was quite a hike. All-day lift tickets were $2.00. That first year was a huge success. The snow came. Crowds came and came back. Word about Hickory spread to neighbors and neighbors told friends. In one weekend that first season, Hickory took in $800. At two dollars a ticket that’s 200 skiers each day - a great turn out!
After the second season in operation, an expansion was planned. A second rope tow would be installed and some new trails cleared. This new tow would run up the right side of the slope, alongside the brook and paralleling an old road that led to an abandoned farm. We were told that three young sisters died of diphtheria at that farm in the late 1800’s, and were buried there. The lift was powered by a Cadillac parked at the top. This arrangement gave years of reliable service except for repeated problems with the electrical system. Repairs had to be made frequently to the car’s wiring due to damage caused by hungry porcupines.
Hickory grew by word of mouth. Families came, friends came and neighbors came. It was not unusual for an entire neighborhood to ski at Hickory every weekend. Hickory was a relaxed place where you didn’t worry about your kids (if they fell down or got stuck, the next person to come along would pick them up), you didn’t worry about expensive ticket prices, the skiing was decent, the lift lines were short, and the après ski hour was shared with good friends. Skiing at Hickory was a social experience, a loosely knit “club” of skiers who returned to Hickory every weekend. An example of how this “club” came to be: Ed Wardwell knew my mother from working with her at the Imperial in Glens Falls, and started skiing at Hickory with his wife Peggy. The Wardwells knew the McMullins, the McMullins knew the Braidwoods, who knew the Foxes, who were neighbors of the Heaths. Many employees of the General Electric in Schenectady skied at Hickory. Hans’ brother encouraged all of his co-workers there to give Hickory a try. Some early members might remember “Crazy” Ralph Mosher, a GE engineer who invented the first robotic hands.
For the Winbauer and Bates families, Hickory was all they had hoped it would be, and more. It was also much more work than they had counted on. In those days, before the Northway, the Bates’ put in many hours on the road traveling to and from the Hill. In the summer and fall, Ken would be at the Hill several weeknights as well as the weekends. Burn out was inevitable. When the travel and amount of sweat equity became too much, Hans and Fran bought the Bates’ interest in Hickory and became the sole owners. By this time there were two small Winbauer daughters underfoot. Fran took over the snack bar. Dad ran the lifts with the help of employee Jimmy Parker. Eventually, after a third addition to the Winbauer brood, the kitchen duties were turned over to Bess Wolf, and “Stan the Ticket Man” was hired to run the ticket office.
Skiing grew in popularity across the USA. In the northeast, new ski areas owned by large corporations were opening. These areas had modern Poma lifts and chair lifts. Hickory, with rope tows, couldn’t compete. By incorporating, and selling shares of stock, Hickory could raise money to purchase a Poma lift. Many of the Hickory regulars were interested in owning a piece of the mountain. A new, modern lift would improve the quality of skiing for everyone. After much discussion, Hickory was sold to the Hickory Hill Corporation for $1.00 and several shares of stock. In the late summer of 1955 a Board of Directors was chosen from the shareholders. The first Board included Jack Heath, Fred Longe, Pete Fox, Hans Winbauer, Don Brockwell, Teen Beeman, and Tom Meath.
If any of you have Hickory stories to share, please contact us.