The Early Years of Glen Ellen

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On the fiftieth anniversary of the development of Mt. Ellen, a look back at the carefree early days of a family mountain (with a few adult traditions).

Cynthia Greenfield remembers it well. 

“Walt came home in December of 1961, and informed me that he was going to build a

ski area.”

“Really?” Cynthia responded at the time. “What does that mean for me?”

“It means we’re moving.” Walt replied. 

“To Warren, Vermont. And you’re going to love it.”

Greenfield was skeptical. Raised in New York City, Greenfield was an urbanite living in Connecticut and expecting her first child. Her husband, Walt Elliott, had spent time in South Africa in his youth, and had then gone on to earn an engineering degree from Cornell. They had met at Gustin-Bacon Manufacturing, an acoustic tile company based in New York, where Walt still worked. But not for long. What seems to have been more influential to Elliott than his urban existence was his presidency of the Stamford Ski Club. During his tenure, Elliott had been involved in building a ski lodge up at Killington, Vermont, just an hour south of what would become the Glen Ellen Ski Area. 

Greenfield remembers the drive up to her new home in Warren. The town was not much different in the early 1960s than it is today—a post office, a library, a fire station, an inn, and a general store. Elliott had rented a house next door to the post office.

“In those days, I drove a sports car—an Austin-Healey. I drove up in January, and it was snowing,” Greenfield remembers. “The floors [of the house] went downhill. And the people were not that friendly … Where was Fifth Avenue?”

The change from New York City to Warren, Vermont, was—and still is—stark. And the closest Cynthia Greenfield would get to Fifth Avenue would be Sugarbush, a ski resort just south of Glen Ellen that had opened a few years before and was already a weekend retreat for New York models, editors, and socialites. Walt Elliott, however, was founding a new and different ski mountain, one that would never aim to achieve the glamour of neighboring “Mascara Mountain.”

A Family Mountain

The ski area that Elliott conceived in the early 1960s would be, above all, a family mountain. Purchased from a private landowner with funds raised by Elliott and a small group of investors, Glen Ellen opened for business in December 1963, with twenty-eight trails, three chair lifts, and a T bar. Greenfield remembers that individual shares of the mountain were sold for $1,500 and included twenty years of free skiing; family shares sold for $4,500. Bud Lynch, who hailed from Stratton Mountain, designed the original trails. Area loggers cleared the land and sold off the wood. Greenfield oversaw food and beverage sales and, as she says, “watched the money.” Neil and Zip Robinson moved up from Bromley to run the ski school. 

Elliott’s training as an engineer was a useful background for running a ski area, and people who worked with him remember him being very hands-on. “He could do just about anything,” recalls Barbara de Lima, who was hired as his marketing assistant in 1969 and worked on and off for Glen Ellen and Sugarbush until 2009.

“That man never asked you to do anything he wouldn’t do,” adds Bill Bozack, who joined Glen Ellen as an assistant ski patroller in 1965. (Bozack went on to become the national professional director of the National Ski Patrol and was named NSP Outstanding Professional Ski Patrolman in 1972. His wife, Mary Ann, became the second woman in the nation to be certified by the NSP.)

Walt and Cynthia’s daughter Tracie Condon recalls riding the school bus to the mountain every day after school along with her younger sister, Dawn. Much of her childhood was centered there.

And despite Cynthia Greenfield’s early impressions of Warren, Vermont, she, too, grew to embrace the new ski area. “I always felt it was a lot of fun,” she says, “and never minded working seven days a week after getting two kids off to school.”

Fun

Most people who were part of the early Glen Ellen years mention the cowbell, a gift to Elliott from Stadeli-Lifts. The cowbell hung in the bar on the second floor of the base lodge, then called the Golden Thistle. Elliott would end many of his days here, not unlike resort owner-operators today.

“Walt would pull out the champagne,” Greenfield remembers. “You’d stand behind the bar and pull the cork. If it hit the cowbell, you didn’t pay for your drinks that night.”

 “I remember one night opening a bottle, the cork hitting the [ceiling] beam, then the bell, and then falling right into Walt’s champagne glass,” recalls de Lima.

Après-ski gatherings in the bar were a fundamental part of the scene back then. So too were the Sunday afternoon brunches, which Greenfield still remembers vividly. “In those days, we’d have a Sunday brunch,” she recalls, “a big buffet upstairs from noon until eight p.m. It was famous for the seafood Newburg with scallops and shrimp … scrambled eggs, bacon, rolls, and coffee.”

The weekend visitors would have a hearty meal before loading up their cars to return to Connecticut, Massachusetts, or New Jersey, and the seats would then fill with staff coming off the mountain for the day, with big appetites and visions of pinging the cowbell.

The Golden Thistle hosted a New Year’s Eve dinner dance each year, and Condon remembers folks “riding their snowmobiles up the mountain to watch the fireworks from the Glen House, and then skiing down afterward.” The Fasching Costume Ball, a party honoring the German Carnival season held around Fat Tuesday each year, was yet another opportunity for the mountain and its skiers to celebrate.

Tony Egan, who had moved up from New York City in the early ’60s and managed public relations for Glen Ellen, recalls another tradition, the Gelandesprung Championship. (The title comes from the German word for “jump.”) “We’d build a takeoff area right off the base lodge, and watch a lot of people with no brains and big balls go off,” Egan says. “There were lots of spills. It was a great spectator event.”

Another spectator sport, Pond Skimming, was held in the early days of Glen Ellen, and rumor has it that, along with the six-foot-three Walt Elliott skimming (and coming up short), one of the ski patrollers participated in the event in the nude. Races were held between the ski patrol and the ski school each year, as well as slalom races pitting local restaurant waiters and waitresses against one another.

Internationalism

Over at Sugarbush, Norwegian Olympian Stein Eriksen promoted his signature style of skiing—graceful, and with a narrow stance—followed by Austrian ski racer Sigi Grottendorfer. Glen Ellen set itself apart in December 1968 by hiring French National and Olympic team member Pierre Stamos. Earlier that year, Stamos’s teammate Jean-Claude Killy had made a clean sweep of medals in the Olympics in Grenoble, thus drawing considerable attention to the somewhat unorthodox wide-leg stance of the French technique. Stamos brought with him a small group of French ski instructors and a bit of international intrigue. According to the Glen Ellen Reports, a 1968 brochure for the mountain, Stamos was “a handsome and charming 27-year-old bachelor.”

“He certainly was Mr. Smooth,” recalls Tony Egan.

Racing

Walt Elliott had been an early proponent of ski racing, and Pierre Stamos’s arrival furthered Elliott’s interest. Glen Ellen was one of the first eastern resorts to adopt National Standard Race (NASTAR) ski racing, and it is said that Stamos may have been the NASTAR national pacesetter shortly after his arrival. In 1970, Glen Ellen won the privilege of hosting the USSA National Championships, planning to stage the downhill event on F.I.S., the slalom on Cliffs, and the giant slalom on Inverness. After the first two events went off without a hitch, the Inverness lift suffered a mechanical problem before the giant slalom race; neighboring mountain Mad River Glen stepped in to host the event, one of several examples of longtime collaboration between the two mountains.

Elliott’s early support of the racing culture provided a welcome environment for the nascent Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS). Started in 1973, GMVS first began training at Mad River Glen, but soon moved to Glen Ellen. By the late 1970s, the school had started a relationship with the mountain management that would serve to fund and build necessary facilities for student training well into the future.

Al Hobart, one of GMVS’s founders, recalls a deal over snowmaking: “Glen Ellen was looking for money. I gave them a loan to put in snowmaking on the top of Inverness so we could use the trail.” (Elliott was an early pioneer of snowmaking, installing his first guns on the number 4 lift, now the Sunny Double, in the late 1960s.)

In 1982, GMVS helped fund the installation of a Poma lift specifically for student training on Inverness. And as recently as 2011, GMVS and Sugarbush co-funded the purchase of forty energy-efficient Snow Logic guns for additional snowmaking on Inverness. 

A New Era

Cynthia Greenfield returned to New York in the late 1960s with her two daughters, leaving Walt to run the mountain with the team he had built. Walt and Cynthia divorced shortly after her departure. In 1973, Elliott sold the mountain to Fayston resident Jenna Van Loon. Elliott remained in Vermont, but died tragically in a plane crash in 1978. Van Loon’s ownership was brief, ending with a bank intervention. Former Canadian Olympic team member and Stratton Mountain manager Harvey Clifford bought the mountain from the bank and returned it to solid footing. Then, in 1979, Roy Cohen—who had purchased Sugarbush the previous year—made an offer to Clifford and took over Glen Ellen, changing the name of the mountain to Sugarbush North. The mountain was referred to as both Sugarbush North and Mt. Ellen going forward; since 2001, it has been called Mt. Ellen at Sugarbush.

While Lincoln Peak at Sugarbush has benefited from an investment strategy that includes development of a slope-side hotel, private town homes, and an upgraded base lodge and skier services buildings, little has changed at Mt. Ellen. The base lodge is much as it was in the Golden Thistle days. Pond Skimming has moved to Lincoln Peak, as have the New Year’s Eve celebrations, but Mt. Ellen remains true to Walt Elliott’s original mission: the mountain is a family ski (and ride) area, offering affordable season passes, a variety of discounted ski days, and an après-ski bar scene that some claim is the best at Sugarbush.

This season, Mt. Ellen turns fifty, with a weekend-long celebration scheduled for January 9–12. There will be discounted skiing as well as on- and off-slope events throughout the weekend that give a nod to the mountain’s past. It will be a time for veteran skiers and newcomers to come together and celebrate Walt Elliott’s vision—one that is still alive and well today. And with any luck, the mountain will have an opportunity to welcome characters from its storied past—owners, employees, pass holders, racers, and perhaps even the hallowed cowbell.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Photo from Sugarbush archive.

Heading to the bumps on F.I.S.

Apres-ski in the Green Mountain Lounge.

Catching air in the award-winning terrain park.