SKI HISTORY OF CHARLEMONT (ABRIDGED)
Berkshire East began as Thunder Mountain, but once was one of five ski areas located within a 3- mile radius centered in Charlemont in the beautiful Deerfield River Valley. Starting in the 1930s, skiing in Charlemont became a big business for the community, yet Berkshire East Mountain Resort is the only survivor. This is part of that story.
Lots of thanks to the great work of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project and New England Ski History. In particular, to Jeremy Clark, one-time Berkshire East manager and the inquisitive mind who keeps digging up the colorful history of this awesome sport.
SKIING COMES TO CHARLEMONT
The first two ski facilities in the area of Charlemont were built in the 1930s. The first, Chickley Alps, was located several miles south of Charlemont in the town of Hawley. The second, founded by racers, was called the Mohawk Skiers Project and was located on the mountain behind Zoar Outdoor.
We are uncertain of the railroads connection to the ski areas, but at the time, on the summit behind the Mohawk Trail Skiers Project, was a large Adirondack Style gentleman's farm and retreat owned by the Boston and Maine Railroad. The home was tied to 1000 acres for hunting, golfing, farming, and general carousing that we suspect played a connection between Charlemont ski areas and the snow trains, which kept these mountains busy with guests from NYC and Boston.
Soon after these two got started, Snow White opened in the 1940s, and after that, Thunder Mountain. This resort, the predecessor of Berkshire East, was opened in 1953. Founded by Art Parker, a skier of Chickley Alps and a guest at the Plantation House.
The last hill to be opened in Charlemont was Sawmill Hill, located in the lower fields of the Warfield House Inn. Operated with a rope tow that its only known use is that of a steam powered ski lift. The creator, Charles Goodwin, was known as a local genius, and he built many contraptions around town, including the "Hoot, Toot, and Whistle," a miniature children's train that operated as a roadside attraction until the mid 1980s.
Closer to Greenfield, Mohawk Mountain Ski Way opened in the mid 1950s. Further to the south, on Route 9, the Berkshire Snow Basin was opened in 1949, by Stan (veteran of World War II) and his wife Ruth Brown, both former ski racers. Berkshire Snow Basin operated until the 1980s, and many of the instructors, race coaches, and guests of that mountain converted to Berkshire East when it closed.
EARLY DAYS OF CHARLEMONT SKIING - THUNDER MOUNTAIN GROWS UP
As the 1950s became the '60s, Art Parker focused on turning the Thunder Mountain of two short rope tows into a major southern New England resort.
Managing the business through hurricanes and the theft of the original tow rope, Art managed to recapitalize and opened for the 1961/1962 season. In preparation, a summit ski lift and t-bar were installed, as was lower mountain snowmaking. More lifts and lodges followed soon after.
Despite the capital investment, trouble ensued, and the business did not operate as expected, so in 1965, Richard Tambussi became the primary shareholder and took over. By this time, 3 of the 5 ski areas in town were closed, and in 1969/1970 Thunder Mountain was renamed and reopened as Berkshire East. A massive development was planned, but not executed. Lifts were ordered, but not purchased. Some infrastructure was built, including ski lift footings near the end of Big Chief, but the lift was never installed.
By 1975, Berkshire East was in bankruptcy, and Roy Schaefer, an experienced ski area manager, PSIA examiner, and father to 3 kids living in southern Michigan, heard about the bankruptcy from Hugh Knapp, an industry connection. After a visit, Roy offered to run the mountain for the bank.
Roy's history in the sport started in the 1940s at a small farm "hill" near his family farm in West Branch, MI. His parents' farm was so remote that in his early days, he grew up without electricity. Growing up in wartime rural Michigan, Roy remembers his handsome uncle who was lost in Bataan. It was under the Rural Electrification Act (Roosevelt, 1936) that power eventually made it to their farm in the late 1940s/early 1950s. From these humble beginnings, Roy raced on his high school ski team at Ogemaw Hills and eventually made his way to Boyne Mountain, where he joined a ski school operated by Otmar Schneider. Otmar was a gold medalist in the slalom and a silver medalist in the downhill at the 1952 Olympic Games.
Working at Boyne, with Otmar and under Everett Kirtcher, the founder of Boyne Resorts, Roy rubbed shoulders with many of the great skiers of the day, including Stein Ericksen. After several impactful trips to Portillo, Chile with these European greats, including 1966 when the World Championships were held at that southern hemisphere resort, Roy decided to go into business on his own and built the Lansing Ski Club.
The Lansing Ski Club, located very close to Michigan State University, was a small club operated by Roy and run with a board of directors that included several high-profile professors from the nearby university. Roy and Becky's family was started at this time; Jim was born in 1968, Mya 1970, and Tom 1972.
BERKSHIRE EAST IS BOUGHT BY ROY SCHAEFER
When Roy officially moved with his family to Berkshire East, he drove his Michigan-plated station wagon into the parking lot with his wife, Becky, three kids, and a marketing director from Michigan named Shelly. In the parking lot that day was former US Ski Team member and then-top-pro-skier, Bill Farrell, out on a 100-mile bike ride. Upon meeting, Bill agreed to stay in the area (he grew up at Thunder), eventually married Shelly, and with Roy's support, laid the groundwork for the well-known race program that exists to this day at Berkshire East.
Roy was lots of things, but he did not have the capital to grow the resort, so he brought in partners from Michigan. In 1977, Union Terminal Piers run by brothers from Petosky and St. Ignace, MI, and son of WWII era Senator from Michigan, Prentiss Brown Sr. (father of the Mackinaw Bridge), made a commitment to partner with Roy at Berkshire East. They also eventually purchased Cannonsburg Ski Area in Grand Rapids, MI. While always a bit of a mystery to the local Charlemont crowd, the Brown family was impactful in the history of the resort.
The Brown's operated multiple large family businesses in, on, and around Mackinaw Island, MI, with close family ties to the small towns that played host to them. Well regarded by those communities, the family always emphasized kindness, openness, and support to the people that worked for them, patronized their facilities, and interacted with them. The kids, similar in age to the Schaefer kids, achieved ski racing and personal success of their own; Katie (now a TV personality), Lynn, Marley (a well regarded artist), and Paul Brown Jr (a regent for the University of Michigan). The Brown family, while not active partners in the day to day business, led behind the scenes with their community engagement, their considerate approach to their employees, and by sticking to their commitments.
In the 1980's and 1990's, the partners pursued snowmaking and infrastructure upgrades largely through the contraction of the huge numbers of small ski areas that closed at that time. Auctioned equipment from as many as 26 small bankrupt ski areas from across the nation were either trucked back to Berkshire East or sold to other operators to fund operations. Farmers and machine operators from Charlemont crisscrossed the country, returning parts and pieces to Roy's Berkshire East. Most famously, Roy gutted parts of Magic Mountain, Berkshire Snow Basin, Ski Rio NM, Berthoud Pass, Mt. Tom, as well as resorts at Mackinaw Island, MI, Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri, and more.
In the late 1980s, a large condo project was proposed but only 6 units were built, as the project died with the rest of the '80s real estate boom. Despite the setback, work continued and Roy kept working to install hard infrastructure assets across the resort.
By 1995, four beginner trails had been cut, many fan guns were installed on towers, and Roy had purchased a large tranche of equipment from Magic Mountain; this equipment included a triple chair which quickly replaced the Summit Double. The remainder of the equipment was sold back to Magic for more than the auction price. This deal funded the expansion of the Main Lodge in 1995. As a 12-year-old, Jon Schaefer fondly remembers going to Magic and meeting the old European founder and the days he spent watching crews pull equipment from the hill, and as a 15-year-old, he remembers staining the window sills on the lodge addition late into the night, hours before opening.
Interestingly, the fan guns that Roy had the most affinity for were SMI's. Snow Machines Inc. was founded by Jim and Betty Vanderkelen at the back of their carpet company in Midland, Michigan. Midland is just down the road from where Roy grew up. SMI grew by innovation and the acquisition of patents. One of the patents that SMI acquired was created by Bill Gilbert, ski business innovator and co-owner of Catamount Ski Area.
Roy's kids, and many other local kids, grew up ski racing under the tutelage of Bill Farrell, Paul Putnam, Steve Putnam, Jim Hawkins, and countless other ex-racers and coaches that Roy encouraged to come through Berkshire East. At this time, and with Paul as the head coach, several racers made the US Ski Team and the US Development Team, and many kids ended up racing at the NCAA level, including multiple All-Americans.
Most importantly, countless kids learned the lifelong skills of winter action sports, and many were provided similar opportunities as what Roy experienced in his life, as they spread across the country and world after learning how to ski or snowboard at Berkshire East. Berkshire East may be a modestly sized-mountain in Western Massachusetts, but because of the quality of the kids and families that have called Berkshire East home, its reputation is large.
For the four Schaefer kids and their best friend/brother, Gery Benedetti, son of longtime business manager Katie Benedetti, the sport provided lots of off-season, ski-related travel to Europe, South America, New Zealand, and Australia. The boys achieved a level of racing to remain competitive, and off-season travel was a prerequisite for ski racing success.Most impactful was what the kids brought home with them.
The ski racing experience was instrumental in bringing home ideas and an understanding of the potential for adventure sports in Charlemont. Ski racing requires dynamic cross training, and ski athletes were early adopters of mountain biking, they became aggressive trail runners, and they pursued sports such as kayaking and rock climbing. As their window to the world opened, so did their understanding of how special this community was, is, and could be.
Folks in Stowe should know that in the late 1990s a gangly European showed up at Berkshire East. With broken English and a talent for parking cars as well as Roy, Igor Vanovac joined the coaching staff at Berkshire East, the Schaefer family helped Igor through college, into various jobs, and he has been thought of since then as a surrogate son to Roy and Becky. Igor is now the Executive Director of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
By 2002, local competitors Mt. Tom and Brodie had shut down, and Berkshire East was seeing growth in business. However, one of the complexities in the ownership group which owned summertime ferry businesses in Northern Michigan began to show. Berkshire East was neglected in the summertime, largely because Roy and his family would commute back and forth to Michigan to work in various businesses, either connected to Union Terminal Piers or privately held.
Logically, it is hard to focus on the ski business when the place is empty from April to November.
Despite the tension between the summer business in the midwest and the winter business in Massachusetts, the Wilderness Quad was installed in 2001. This lift came from legendary Berthoud Pass, CO, and is another example of Roy's ingenuity in finding used ski area equipment and deploying it at Berkshire East.
In the winter of 2007, Jim and Roy Schaefer purchased Berkshire East from Union Terminal Piers, and the family immediately started working on improving infrastructure. Youngest son, Jon, moved home in 2008 to begin learning the business from Roy. By 2011, the most visible progress had been made as a 277’ wind turbine graced the summit of Berkshire East.
Soon after, a solar field made Berkshire East the only ski area in the world to operate from 100% on-site renewable energy.
BERKSHIRE EAST COMES ALIVE
With dad Roy finding a new business partner in son Jim and son Jon on the full-time staff, Berkshire East was truly a family affair. For these two boys, their history in the sport d-1993 New Zealand national team. Jon attended Middlebury, raced in multiple national championship events (Nor Ams, etc.), and he coached the Middlebury Ski Team after graduation. After graduating from Middlebury, Jon coached the ski team with a friend who went onto coach Bode Miller and is now one of the head coaches of the US Ski Team. While on a surf trip with together in Costa Rica, Jon discovered zip lining and came back on a mission to build summer operations at Berkshire East.
By 2009, two zip line tours were opened at Berkshire East, and an additional one, the Valley Jump was added in 2010.
In 2014, a lodge expansion was underway, the Summit Triple was replaced by the Summit Quad, the Thunderbolt Mountain Coaster was built, and the need for an additional 'anchor' summer business was clear. In August, 2014 Dave Kelly and Rob Coycqut from Gravity Logic (builders of the Whistler Bike Park) were hosted by Jon and Roy at a simple lunch meeting in an unfinished lodge; there was a hole in the ground where the Summit Quad was being installed, and despite the unsettled setting of the meeting, all present shared an instant group mind and developed the concept of what would become Thunder Mountain Bike Park. Within 2 weeks, three operators and a team of trail builders started on what would become the East Coast's number-one-rated bike park the following year.
At the same time, the boys were negotiating with Moxie Whitewater for that company's allocation of whitewater spots on the Deerfield River. Rafting has long been a key part of the summer activities in Charlemont. In fact, the boys were part of the first photo shoot at Zoar Outdoor and have been longtime friends of the Mooney's, operators of Crab Apple Whitewater. Mya was a guide for Zoar Outdoor for the 1990s, and Jon would cover for eventual bike park director, Gabe Porter Henry, as the Crab Apple Funyak driver on days when Gabe had to call out, in the mid 1990s.
On the ski side, lots of snow guns, ponds, two magic carpets, two ski lifts, another major beginner trail expansion, summit pond addition, trail widening, and snow groomer upgrades made Berkshire East one of the premier small ski resorts in the Northeast.
In the Spring of 2018, another well-known regional resort, Catamount Ski Area, became available. Jim Schaefer moved quickly and purchased the resort. Combining operations and installing common software has given the combined operations many efficiencies. In the Spring of 2019, Jon Schaefer became CEO of both resorts. Catamount is being rebuilt with the same principles as Berkshire East, sound investments in infrastructure and diversification of the business through summer operations. In the Fall of 2019, the 'Catamonster' opened and became the longest zip line in the 50 states, and the 7th longest in the world.
THE FUTURE AT BERKSHIRE EAST
We look to the future with great excitement. Western Massachusetts has a growing adventure sports scene, and these mountains are at the heart of it. Berkshire East is known as a leader in summer businesses at ski resorts and a pioneer in developing energy efficient techniques for operation. Catamount has a long history, and we are excited to integrate that into the community, as well.
The forests of New England have seen at least five cycles of human impact. Skiing is a light sixth, but the story isn't about the land, it is about the people that traverse the impacted landscape and what this sport means to them. It is the only true generational sport, and it is one of the only athletic pursuits that can transport a child form impoverished post-war rural Michigan, to the southern hemisphere, to the slopes of the Berkshire's where he raised a dynamic family, created a business, and provided a legacy. To Roy's extreme honor, there have been thousands of kids that have come through Berkshire East that have gone on to transform their own lives because of the skills they learned at Berkshire East.
As for the huge number of colorful employees, guests, contractors, locals, and people we have interacted with because of this awesome sport, we remember you! We don't forget where we came from or who helped grow our resort. Please, come back and share it with us and be a part of its future. We look forward to sharing stories, taking runs, and having a trip down memory lane.
On behalf of my entire family,