March 01, 2012LITTLETON — Starting in the late 1930s, Mount Eustis Ski Slope was "the place to be" for youths and families. Always affordable, it was where many locals learned to ski. On some weekends it buzzed with competitions or was even a refuge for Cannon Mountain ski enthusiasts when the winds were too high for the tramway to run. Then, as many good things do, it came to an end in the early 1980s after the area experienced a few snowless winters and interest eventually fizzled out.
Still, over the past 25 or so years, it has remained one of town's most visible features, and now a group of locals wants to recapture that asset for the Littleton area.
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 1, several local ski and outdoor enthusiasts will make a presentation to the Littleton Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the land, at the Remich Park headquarters. Though the project is still in its infancy, their hope is to get the ski operation up and running with little or no impact to taxpayers. Then volunteers, donations and/or a nominal use fee would keep it going.
Many of Littleton's residents still remember being able to ski to Mount Eustis from their own backyards, or their parents would drop them off for the day knowing that they would be safe and too busy to think up any mischief. In an area that prides itself on being part of New Hampshire's ski country, it was a low-cost opportunity for many locals to get a taste for the sport that could become a healthful, lifelong hobby.
Today, while the ski slope is still open for sledding and mountain biking in the summer, the lack of an organized ski operation means one less opportunity for youths and families to take advantage of their unique environment in the North Country.
Ten years ago, local businessman and builder Herb Lahout tried to revive the ski slope but his one-man effort never garnered enough support. Today residents and businesses have been looking for ways to attract visitors and young families, with the recent Littleton Area Community Project identifying a need to offer more activities and events. Now, with just a few phone calls, more than a dozen locals have signed up to contribute their specific expertise if they can get the town's green light for the project.
"No one is really spearheading this," said Herb Lahout, though Littleton Bike Shop owner David Harkless is credited with getting the conversation started again.
The project's viability is going to be in its volunteers, and even though there already is a core group ready to chip in, Lahout said it's not at all exclusive. They'll need a lot of community support throughout it all, and certain categories still need a champion, such as someone to look into ski patrol and medical services and also for someone to do marketing and press releases.
"It's a real community effort," said Lahout. "We want the Parks [and Recreation] commissioners' blessing to run with it … and we're trying to get this up and running without it being a [financial] liability to the town." However, he's realistic and added, "that's our goal, but we're not saying that we're not ever going to ask the town for any money."
The short-term goal is to install a ski tow and ready the trail for skiing next winter. The long-term goal would be to provide night lighting and build a warming hut, similar to what was available 30 years ago. The group will also have to work with snowmobile clubs in order to not infringe on their trail system, and abutters' blessings also will be sought.
Trevor Hamilton, who has signed up for "layout and slope safety" with Steve Roberts, said he heard about the possible Mount Eustis revitalization and contacted the Lahouts to see what he could do.
Now the program director of the Franconia Ski Club, Hamilton remembers being able to ski out of his backyard as a kid and make his way to Mount Eustis through a combination of skiing and walking.
"It was a very friendly and easily accessed, safe environment," he said.
In school, Hamilton also was a member of the Littleton Ski Team and the mountain was a great training resource.
He still feels that the Mount Eustis would be a good way to introduce children to skiing without it being a financial burden on their parents.
"I think it's a great opportunity to get that slope used again," said Hamilton. "The biggest value is in it being a community resource — that kids that might not otherwise be able to pay, but they want to ski."
Gardner Kellogg, who also remembers skiing at Mount Eustis, has agreed to offer his surveying and mapping services, which he does professionally. He said he joined the effort "simply because it's a nice facility that the town has, and it would be a shame to let it go by the wayside."
Ted Gardner, an employee at Lahout's Country Clothing & Ski Shop, also remembers skiing at Mount Eustis every Friday night and on Saturday and Sunday going back to the mid-1950s.
"It was just the place to go," he said, explaining that it was the intermediate ski slope during every child's progression from the Remich Park ski tow to skiing Cannon Mountain.
Mount Eustis got its start under the ownership of George H. Lewis, who purchased the 60-acre Johnson dairy farm in 1902. In 1938, as part of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the 1,600-foot slope to the rear of the farmhouse was smoothed out, and Lewis' son Wilson set up a ski tow powered by a Ford V-8 motor. Additional upgrades were made over the first year or two, including installing a heavy truck motor with drive wheels in order to power a 3,200-foot length of rope for the ski tow.
When the ski slope went into operation, according to the 1984 Littleton Town History, a per diem ticket cost $1.10 after school. Residents today still remember there being a minimal or no cost to use the mountain.
Peak times were when as many as 200 skiers came to Littleton from Franconia when high winds closed the Cannon Mountain Tramway, according to the 1984 history.
Then in 1945, Lewis sold the property to George Pepperell and his wife, and they enlarged the farmhouse to include a snack bar and operated slope for a couple of years. After a few years, the town started to lease the ski area, before it purchased all of the property above the highway after Interstate 93 shortened the slope by 600 to 800 feet. In 1960 the town purchased 34.67 acres for $7,600.
Lastly lights were installed for night skiing and under the Littleton Outing Club's operation, a warming hut with snack facilities was built.
Harkless said that today he uses the mountain a lot for biking and sledding, but feels that not having a ski-slope operation is a waste.
"It's a great thing, it's right there," said Harkless, "But there's been a whole generation now that's been raised in Littleton without it.
"If we don't get it up and running now, it's never going to happen."
He sees it as being a boon to the area — attracting people looking to settle in a place that has a lot of amenities.
"If you're a young couple looking for a place to settle and enjoy the outdoors, this is the place to do it," he said, adding that more opportunities to keep kids active and moving are important.
"People are always saying [skiing is] too expensive," said Harkless. "If we make it so that a family can go skiing for very little or no money, that would be a good thing."
He also says that he really does not want the project to be a burden on taxpayers as he knows that not everyone is interested in skiing and they shouldn't have to support something they don't believe in.
"I also don't want to create extra work for parks and rec," Harkless said, "that's not the idea."
He envisions being able to hand the ski slope over to the town with an established group of volunteers manning and maintaining it, and the operation would also be an opportunity for high school students to get community hours for graduation.
"We're behind it because we have such an amazing asset in our town that's not being used," said Ron Lahout, who owns the Lahout ski shops. "Skiing is just such an integral part of our area … and we want to bring that asset back."
Ron Lahout also remembers skiing along snow banks to get to and from Mount Eustis, and that he had a lot of friends who also participated in the sport.
"Now, unless children take part in the schools' ski programs, the activity is too expensive for many families to consider," he said.
Ron and Herb Lahout both said that other than Remich Park's skating rink, there just isn't enough in town to keep youths busy during winter weekends.
"I think we'll have enough people who care behind [reopening Mount Eustis], so it won't be a burden to taxpayers," said Ron Lahout. "To not have it open, doesn't make sense."
Of course, the project faces a number of hurdles to really get going. The power to say "no" to the project lies with the town and recreation department, and some taxpayers will doubtless have concerns that they may end up footing a bill. If the group gets the go-ahead, it also will remain to be seen how they work together and make use of their various expertise and resources.
But naysayers face a lot of enthusiasm from those who remember the good times on Mount Eustis that they had as children.
"We might fall flat on our face," said Herb Lahout, "but the people on this committee are so capable, I doubt that will happen."
"The Littleton-Franconia area is sort of the cradle of New Hampshire skiing," he added. "[Skiing] is our heritage."
In addition to those already mentioned, also contributing to the effort includes: Brien Ward for legal and historical information; Gary Ward and Gerry LaFlamme for moving dirt; Shawn Sweeny for environmental issues; Mike Norman for permitting and wetlands; Joe Lahout for night lighting; Herb Lahout for hut construction; Phil Branch for ski tow and snowmaking; Bill Wetherbee for grooming; and Jim Hamblin for signage.
Anyone interested in contributing, may contact David Harkless at 444-3437, Ron Lahout at 387-6209 or Herb Lahout at 616-7991.