Skiing can suck. In April, when spring skiing brings sunny days, it is easy to forget. But skiing, especially in the East, was difficult to convince people to do. It is cold and wet. It is icy and slushy. Fresh snow is rare. And over winter vacation, when early ski centers would gross up to a third of their profits, snow was often non-existent. Passionate skiers forget how uninviting skiing can be. Today we ski in Gortex, nylon, and other synthetic materials. But in the 1950s water seeped through layers of leather, canvas, and wool. It chilled the bone. Froze fingers and toes. The modern ski industry was not inevitable. Rather, ski centers convinced people the pros outweighed the cons.
In the 1950s, the mid-Atlantic was easily the most densely populated part of the country. And, despite the rising popularity of skiing, most people who could afford winter vacations at the time headed south from D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Skiing was a booming industry following World War II. But it was still nebulous. No one was quite sure what the future looked like. And no one could foresee the almost 500 ski resorts that dot the United States today. Located in New York’s Catskills, close to the country’s densest populations, the Concord Hotel, in Kiamesha Lake, found itself on the frontlines of this battle. Originally a summer resort, it had to find winter patrons if it was going to succeed as a four-season resort.
In 1953, in the New York Times, Howard Stephen wrote about how New York State had an “early devotion to winter sports.” In particular, he singled out Lake Placid for its early role in winter recreation. The article, a puff piece on skiing in New York, highlighted how the state received on average 71 inches of snow a year, and it noted that some places – likely some of the 46ers in the Adirondacks – received as much as 334 inches a year. But, the deep glittering snow found in parts of the Adirondacks and the Great Lakes’ Snowbelt skewed the statistics. In the 1950s, the Catskills were new to winter recreation. And unlike their northern and western neighbors, they received relatively little snow.
Resorts like the Concord Hotel built a niche market that helped them prosper in the 1950s and 1960s. As Bernie Weichel recently wrote in Skiing History, the Catskills in the 1950s were known as the Borscht Belt, the Jewish Alps, and, by some, the Sour Cream Sierras. Famous winter resort towns like Lake Placid, Stowe, and Mont Tremblant often had Jewish-centered hotels. But anti-Semitism was rampant. The Lake Placid Club was renowned for its white supremacy. It defended its exclusion of BIPOC and Jewish patrons in closely watched court cases well into the 1960s. But in the 1950s, for example, as many as 80% of hotels, boarding houses, and rooms for rent in Stowe, Vermont did not welcome Jewish skiers. In other words, Lake Placid was representative of ski towns throughout the East. Patrons could navigate these waters by carefully reading ads. For instance, the word “restricted” advised Black and Jewish skiers that they were unwelcome. In contrast, phrases such as “observing strict dietary rules” or “Jewish-American cuisine,” notified people that the hotels served kosher meals, and were presumably Jewish-owned and operated. Nevertheless, vacationing in generally hostile towns was not particularly appealing. Jewish-owned ski centers and hotels in the Borscht Belt allowed the rapidly growing Jewish middle- and upper-middle-class population of New York and Philadelphia to ski in safety and comfort. But, places like the Concord still had to convince Jewish patrons to ski. The problem was that the Catskills were cold. But, compared to their northern cousins, the mountains were not particularly snowy. Convincing people to vacation in an often brown, damp, and dreary location was difficult.
On January 6, 1952, the Concord published for the first time a half-page ad titled “Summer Sun and Winter Fun.” Printed in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other regional papers, their ads dwarfed those of other winter vacation spots. The Concord Hotel was a resort – just not a ski resort. Ski resorts, at least as we known them today, did not yet exist. In the 1950s, they were simply called ski centers. Until the 1950s, the Concord catered mostly to summer guests. It advertised its pool, its tanning beds, entertainment, and the bar and restaurant. Even in the winter, skiing was just one of many winter activities such as tobogganing and skating.
Only 90 miles from New York City, the hotel was a short and easy drive from the metropolis. But, unlike the towns of Lake Placid and Stowe, Kiamesha Lake was small and summer-oriented. And unlike Mount Mansfield and Mont Tremblant, the Concord only boasted a few short slopes and a single rope tow. But the Concord was unique in the 1950s. Their advertising campaign tapped into an idea that was increasingly attractive in the post-war period. They claimed that they could artificially create the weather. They could make snow outside and they could guarantee a tropical setting inside.
The Concord ad “guarantees snow” for both skiing and tobogganing. It claimed that “even when nature fails… our revolutionary, new Snow-Making Machine blankets the ski trails with fresh snow, at 32° below.” And their snowmaking system truly was revolutionary. In 1952, they were one of only three resorts in the country with snowmaking machines. (For more on the early history of snowmaking see my article “Chilling the Industry.”)
Along with guaranteed snow, the Concord boasted “two magnificent rinks” for skating – one “artificial” and one “natural.” Between tobogganing, skiing, and skating, outdoor enthusiasts could enjoy all aspects of winter recreation. But the Concord also sold summer in the winter. The advertisements boasted that the vacationer could “swim in the new fabulous Concord Tropical Pool… sun-bathe in luxurious native cabanas… in tropical-like sunshine as effective as the southern sun.” As the rime said, “SUMMER SUN and WINTER FUN… two vacations in one!” With our 21st century eyes, the ad may look a bit silly. Both snowmaking and indoor tropical pools lack the authenticity that vacationers often look for today. Historian Hal Rothman has written about this as the post-modern desire for experience. But, at the time, this mechanistic control of environments was highly appealing.
The press took notice of the Concord’s new spin on skiing. For instance, in the fall of 1953, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that “it is no longer necessary to head for the north for skiing and skating, or to go south for tanning and tropical swimming. The Concord Hotel … now combines ‘summer sun and winter fun’ thanks to a unique array of sports and recreation facilities.” If the day was cold and dreary, vacationists could stay inside and enjoy the pool. If it was sunny out, the artificial snow guaranteed skiing, even if snow had melted from nearby slopes. The hotel guaranteed an enjoyable day, regardless of the actual weather.
The Concord may have been the first. But it was far from alone in its promise that it could control the weather, creating snow and sun. In the next decade or so, the hotel was joined by any number of smaller, often cheaper, resorts in the Catskills, Shawangunks, and Poconos. By the early 1960s, even large and famous resorts like Mount Snow, in the rugged and snowy Green Mountain National Forest of Vermont, adopted the Concord’s idea of mixing the summer and the winter. It, like its more southern competition, boasted a large snowmaking system and a tropical pool that looked out onto the ski slopes. Walter Schoenecht is often given credit for this as his innovation. And his resort was undoubtedly unique in its commitment to creating a hog-podge resort that offered an array of attractions. Nevertheless, this innovative scheme originated in large part due to the exclusion of the Jewish bourgeoisie from more famous “restricted” resorts and towns. And it suggests the overlooked importance of the small Catskill Mountains in the development of skiing.