By Rich Place
A jury-rigged rope tow on Fish Hill in the mid-1930s seems like a fairly humble beginning for developing Ellicottville into the ski town it is today.
But as people flocked to the village — ski trains arrived each weekend carrying city folk to try the slopes — and interest in skiing grew, members of the Ellicottville Ski Club in 1957 purchased 30 acres of land and formed Win-Sum Ski Corp., the parent company of Holiday Valley.
This month, the resort celebrates 60 years of operation since the first T-bar and slope opened to the public on Jan. 4, 1958. On Saturday, Jan. 6, the resort will celebrate its anniversary at 1 p.m. on the Champagne Sundeck outside Yodeler Lodge with cake and champagne.
“One of the interesting things about our history is that (the founders) had this vision and stuck to this plan that is still going on today,” explained Jane Eshbaugh, marketing director at Holiday Valley.
For starters, the “Win-Sum” aspect of the parent company’s name stands for Winter-Summer, inferring the resort would be a year-round attraction. And although known primarily for its ski slopes, the summer features have increased in recent years.
“It didn’t happen right away, but now summer is a really important part of our business,” Eshbaugh said.
According to a publication produced for Holiday Valley’s 50th anniversary in 2008, the resort’s roots date back to 1936, when Ellicottville’s G. Wilbur “Doc” Northrup and German ski champion Karl Fahrner brought the state Skiing Championships to Ellicottville.
“Northrup and Fahrner jury rigged a rope tow on Fish Hill just west of the village and soon skiers began flocking to Ellicottville from Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and all points in between,” the publication reads.
Among them was Edna Northrup, a well-known Ellicottville resident. She was recently interviewed by Holiday Valley for a series of anniversary videos and, alongside the now late Lillian Congdon, in 2002 wrote “For the Love of Skiing: Our Story of Skiing in Ellicottville.”
“My first trip to Ellicottville was in January of 1944,” Northrup wrote in the book. “I was 18 years old and tremendously excited about skiing. It was early in the morning on a glorious day when I stepped onto the train at the foot of Main Street in Buffalo with my new winter clothes and skis. The train was a steam engine with one passenger car, a baggage car and a caboose.”
Seemingly each year since Holiday Valley’s opening in the late 1950s, the resort has made improvements to become the destination it is today.
Over its first few seasons, additional tows and the Tannenbaum T-bar were installed and, as it closed in on its first decade, the resort saw the installation of the Mardi Gras double chair and School Haus T-bar, according to a timeline provided by the resort.
In 1962, the first nine holes of golf opened to live up to the year-round mantra the resort would improve on as the years progressed.
In 1965, the first snowmaking equipment was installed.
“We never could have imagined when they first started Holiday Valley we’d get to where we are today,” said Eshbaugh. “Stuff just didn’t exist back then — we didn’t even know about chairlifts and snowmaking and things like that.”
As the resort entered the 1970s, it continued to grow. Among the notable milestones, the Middle Chalet was enlarged in 1972, night skiing reopened in 1972 after one season on Yodeler in 1970, the Clubhouse Chalet was enlarged in 1977 and Valley Village was developed that same year. In 1978, Cindy’s double chair was installed.
Although Holiday Valley — as well as the village — saw growth prior to the 1980s, Eshbaugh said it was the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s where the area saw the most significant growth.
“When we first started, it was tough,” Eshbaugh explained. “They had a lot of years when they had to go to the bank ‘hat in hand’ and beg them to give them a loan to do something small. Then, in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, we really grew a lot.”
She attributed the growth to the interest overall in skiing during that period.
In 1982, the Clubhouse was expanded; the following year the Morning Star triple chair was installed and the Mardi Gras quad chair and SnowPine double chair were installed in 1984. Also that year, the Middle Chalet was expanded and the Holiday Valley Rental Management Office opened.
In 1985, the resort purchased the Holiday Valley Motel and opened the Holiday Valley Realty Office. In 1986, the School Haus double chair was installed and the Slippery Streets Clubhouse opened. The next year, the second nine holes of golf opened, the Clubhouse was again enlarged and the Tannenbaum triple chair opened.
The next 30 years saw similar feats — mostly the opening of various chair lifts, including the Mardi Gras Xpress Hi Speed quad chair lift in 1996. There was also the opening of the pool complex and day care center in 1990, the construction of Tannenbaum Lodge and the iconic clock tower in 1992 and the opening of Yodeler Lodge in 2000.
Holiday Valley Tubing Company opened in 2003, Tannenbaum Lodge was expanded in 2004 and the Spruce Lake reservoir for snowmaking was completed in 2006. The last decade has been marked by continued improvements in snowmaking, the opening of Sky High Aerial Park and the Mountain Coaster in 2011 and the opening of the Holiday Valley Lodge in late 2012.
Eshbaugh said baby boomers have been a significant part of Holiday Valley’s growth over the last six decades, but as that generation continues to “age out” of skiing, it’s up to the upcoming generations — notably millennials and Generation Z — to fill the pipeline.
“We need to continue to appeal to every generation, and each one changes a little bit,” she said. “People are starting to be a little more risk-averse, and there are risks with skiing. We need to keep convincing people it really is worth it.”
Eshbaugh credits the night programs like local school ski clubs as a major part of keeping the interest in skiing going long into the future.
“It’s a great way to get new people started because they come with their friends — they don’t have to be with their parents for a short period of time — and take lessons,” Eshbaugh said. “It’s really our main way to trying to keep that pipeline full.”
What does the future have in store for Holiday Valley when it celebrates its milestone anniversaries in years to come?
“We want to continue to be successful and we want people to continue to want to have exciting, outdoor activities,” Eshbaugh said. “We also want to continue to grow our summer business because more activities then fill in our ‘gap seasons.’”
In addition to cake and champagne from 1 to 3 p.m. Jan. 6 at the Champagne Sundeck at Yodeler, the resort will also have an anniversary video playing in the lodge and available for viewing on its Facebook page this month.