CONWAY — This coming Monday marks an 80th anniversary milestone in the annals of local ski history.
It was on Feb. 11, 1939, that the “father of modern skiing,” Austrian skimeister Hannes Schneider (1890-1955) wife, Ludwina and children Herbert and Herta arrived at the North Conway Train Station from New York to teach at Cranmore after he was released from Nazi custody in Germany.
As a famous photo shows, he was greeted here by hundreds of Eastern Slope Ski School children and townspeople, who formed an archway of ski poles under which the Schneiders passed that gray-skied morning.
Unlike the 25th, 50th and 70th anniversaries of the occasion, no train arrival re-enactments of the Schneider family’s arrival are planned for Monday — the Conway Scenic Railroad’s cars have been put to rest for the winter season.
However, as author of two books (on Cranmore and the Schneiders) I will be giving a ski history talk at the Meister Hut at the summit on Sunday at 9 a.m. to help mark the anniversary.
In addition, the Schneiders’ legacy will be celebrated during the New England Ski Museum’s 23rd annual Hannes Schneider Meister Cup, set for March 1-3 at Cranmore.
Jeff Leich, ski museum executive director, said this year’s program will include an expanded journal on the pivotal ski year of 1938-39, topped by Schneider’s release from Nazi custody through the efforts of Cranmore developer and North Conway native son/international financier Harvey D. Gibson. Gibson sat on Germany’s board of creditors and used that influence to free Schneider.
“Schneider and his family’s arrival certainly was the high point to what was an eventful year for New England and American skiing,” said Leich.
It also was the first season for the Cannon Mountain tramway and the first year in this country for 19-year-old Austrian skiing sensation Toni Matt. Part of the so-called “Austrian invasion” of Arlberg ski instructors, he went on to win the American Inferno that April by schussing the 800-foot Tuckerman Ravine headwall.
For the 75th anniversary five years ago, among those still living who were present at the Schneiders’ arrival in 1939 were Chet Lucy of North Conway, John Cannell of Intervale, Marion Morrell Owen of Center Conway, Norma Ashnault Haynes Wassall of North Conway, 10th Mountain Division veteran Bernie Peters of North Conway and Virginia MacKenzie R. Pearson of Kearsarge.
Only Owen — a 1939 graduate of Kennett High now in a nursing home in Newport, Vt. — is still living.
Asking about taking note of such historic benchmarks such as the Schneiders’ arrival, Leigh said “It is always important to honor a region’s heritage.”
He agreed the challenge for historians is to keep the great stories alive — and relevent.
“You know. I gave a talk to a group of about 60 students in a University of New Hampshire ski industries class in Durham last night, and not one of them knew who Hannes Schneider was,” said Leich. “So, when we talk and write about this history, we have to reintroduce them.”
Schneider built on the base that had been started by others, including Moody’s (now Black Mountain) in 1935 in Jackson; the Eastern Slope Ski Club, founded in 1935; and Carroll P. Reed, who founded the Eastern Slope Ski School in Jackson as the American branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School am Arlberg in 1936.
Gibson had bought and developed Cranmore in 1937, and also bought the Hotel Randell in summer that year, renaming it the Eastern Slope Inn and opening it for year-round use.
He hired local inventor George Morton to build a ski lift, resulting in the Skimobile, the lower portion of which opened in December 1938. He also bought Reed’s two ski schools (then operating in Jackson and Cranmore), and after winning Schneider’s release, put them under his control.
Upon his arrival, Schneider said trails had to be cleared from the summit, and that the Skimobile had to be extended — and it was, opening in August 1939.
“Time has passed,” added Leich, “but it was a big deal when Schneider arrived to teach skiing at Cranmore. It solidified what had been started here in the ski industry — Hannes’ coming here boosted the reputation of the town and increased business.”
The Eastern Slope Branch of the NESM has a few items pertaining to Schneider, including the trunk he brought with him when his family sailed from Cherbourg, France, on the Queen Mary to meet up with Harvey D. Gibson in New York City, prior to taking the train to North Conway.
Other Schneider displays are at Cranmore’s base lodge, and, of course, the statue in his honor at Cranmore’s base created in 1988 by Maine sculptor Ed Materson.
You can find copies of “The History of Cranmore Mountain” by Tom Eastman at White Birch Books in North Conway or the North Conway 5 and 10.