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Maine's longest running ski area boast decades of leadership


December 30, 2010
What's so new and modern about a triple chair?

Included in the project was a new conveyor-belt loading system, a first for Maine. The Italian-built conveyor speeds up the loading process and reduces the number of stoppages due to mis-loads. The result is that today's skiers can expect a quicker ride to the summit and more runs each day down Shawnee's 1,300 feet of vertical drop.

Maine's first conveyor-belt loading system continues Shawnee's long record at the forefront of Maine's ski industry. The story began nearly three quarters of a century earlier, when 2,002-foot Pleasant Mountain was an enticing attraction for skiers in the era before ski lifts.

Lifts began turning in 1938, so Shawnee Peak is Maine's longest-running ski area.

First Decades

Pleasant Mountain -- the original name -- officially marks its opening date as Jan. 23, 1938, when a rope tow began running on the lowest section of its north-facing slope. But skiers who were willing to hike up the hill had been using Pleasant Mountain for decades.

Bridgton's official town history notes that a local man by the name of Norman Libby and a group of friends were skiing the carriage road on the western side of the mountain around 1905. Thirty years later the Civilian Conservation Corps cut a pair of ski trails on the north slope.

From 1938 into the early 1950s, Pleasant Mountain was merely one of many rope tow hills in Maine, but it moved to the forefront of Maine ski areas with a pair of "firsts" in the mid-1950s. The state's first T-bar was built in 1953, followed by Maine's first chairlift in 1955.

For the balance of the decade, Pleasant Mountain was the foremost ski area in Maine. Although it's since been eclipsed in terms of physical size and customer numbers, it has remained at the forefront of the Maine ski business to the present.

Ski School Shines

The 1960s and 1970s were defined by developments connected to Pleasant Mountain's ski school. Swiss-born Hans Jenni, a former European racing champion, headed the ski school during the first half of the 1960s. Although best remembered today for his elegant style, Jenni left his mark with remarkable leadership in learn-to-ski programs for children and adults.

Teaming up with the Down East Ski Club, Pleasant Mountain created a four-part learn-to-ski program that began with two indoor lessons at the Y.M.C.A. in Portland, followed by two days on snow. Thousands of people signed up, and many of those became lifelong skiers. Jenni also created women's programs and taught skiing to developmentally disabled children -- years before Special Olympics.

Freestyle was prominent on the Pleasant Mountain scene in the 1970s, led by ski school director Rudi Wyrsch and his assistant, Bruce Cole. Two athletes in Cole's freestyle program went on to international prominence. LeeLee Morrison competed in moguls in the Olympics and was later inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame. Greg Stump was an international amateur champion and later dominated the professional freestyle circuit, but his greatest fame came when he retired from competition to produce and direct ski films.

Past Three Decades

Two owners and one general manager re-invented Pleasant Mountain over the past three decades. In 1982 Ed Rock became the GM, and he's still running the show. Among Rock's first accomplishments: installing the mountain's first snowmaking system and modernizing the lifts.

An investment group from Pennsylvania bought Pleasant Mountain in 1988 and transformed the ski area. First among the changes was a new name: Shawnee Peak. (The new owners already counted eastern Pennsylvania's Shawnee Mountain among their holdings.)

The most substantial change was installing lights on the mountain. Night skiing was nothing new in Maine or New England, but the scale of Shawnee's new lighting surpassed anything the region had ever witnessed. Almost overnight, after-school children's programs became a major part of Shawnee's business model, while adults were attracted to the mountain's after-work opportunities.

The present owner took over in 1994. Chet Homer, formerly the financial guru of Tom's of Maine, believes in a forward-looking, low-key style of leadership; his long record of accomplishments includes a nonstop program of investments and improvements. Under Homer's ownership, the mountain's three principal chairlifts have been replaced, half a dozen new trails have been cut, base facilities have been enhanced and snowmaking has been vastly expanded.

Scott Andrews is a snowsports journalist from Portland who frequently skis in the Mount Washington Valley.

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