Establishing a Ski Area at Swain
Bina Aitchison was raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, within walking distance (for her) of Bousquet's Ski Center, one of the early ones in the USA. She was an accomplished and enthusiastic skier by the time she came to the University of Rochester, which was unusual then. I was more or less brought up at Aunt Nell's cottage in Vine Valley on Canandaigua Lake, and my post graduate goal while in college was to spend "Summers on the Lake" at Aunt Nell's cottage for the rest of my life. Teaching did not appeal at that time because of low pay.
At the university we both had cubicles in the stack in the library, but it was not until I saw Bina one day trying to change the lighting arrangement in her cubicle and I helped her that we became acquainted. Luckily, I had the sense to ask her out. If I hadn't, there would be no Swain Ski Center today.
We were married on her graduation day, 14 May, 1944. During the next year Bina agreed that after the war we would work at something that would give us summers off. Later the idea struck me that: Bina was a skier, Rochester had few ski areas, but had a lot of snow, so we should look for a hill near Rochester, buy it, and put up a rope tow, which I had heard Bina describe. We'd be working outdoors, for ourselves, and it seemed, we would have summers off.
So that is one scenario for getting the idea of starting a ski area. The only trouble with it is that a classmate tells me that he remembers my talking in college, and this was before I went out with Bina, about starting a ski area. This rings a bell, too. At one time, and it may have been then, I had the idea of using the logging roads on South Hill above the Ottley farm in Vine Valley on Canandaigua Lake as ski trails, and shepherding groups of skiers down them. But had Bina not been such an enthusiastic skier, I certainly would not have continued with any ski dream.
Why at Swain?
Bina and I took a leave of mine, a couple of weeks in the winter of 1946, to spend at Aunt Nell's cottage in Vine Valley to look for a hillside to buy. I had done very little skiing before we started the ski area, but Bina knew what was required in the way of skiable pitches for all classes of skiers. What we learned from that two weeks was that there was not enough natural snow in that region to support a ski area.
Following that, we used a more systematic approach. We bought contour maps of all the area for 60 miles to the east, south, and west of Rochester and marked likely looking slopes and visited them when I was on leave. After my discharge in the summer of 1946, when I was working for Eastman Kodak, we devoted weekends, holidays, and evenings to the search.
We talked to the owners of many parcels of land around Western New York State, and tried to buy several. We learned that to buy farm land at that time you had to be a good listener, and count your time as worth nothing. The farmers were not going to sell to someone they did not know. You had to give them enough time to feel they knew you. And not tell them it was for a ski area, which sounded wealthy. We kept widening the circle from Rochester, and did not overlook anything that looked possible on the contour maps.
It was on one such excursion, this one in the winter of 1946-1947, that we drove past Swain on Route 408-A, now Route 70. Looking at the hill, I remarked that it looked good, but we knew that a north-facing hill would not receive as much snow as one facing east. Bina said, "I don't care. It looks more like a ski area than any other place we have looked at." We turned the car around and drove through Swain, parking about where the town sheds are now, and walked uphill, across the top of what is now the Novice Area and into what is now Middle Brewer Slope, following a logging road that can still be partially traced through the woods. There was a lot of snow. So we withdrew the requirement that the hill must face east, and finally settled on Swain as the place.
How did we put it together?
Somebody told us that to do anything at Swain, we had to see Fred Blakley who "ran" Swain. I remember driving into Swain on a warm Saturday morning in the spring of 1947 and stopping the car to speak to a group of men standing and sitting on the concrete steps in front of what had obviously once been a store (now Maude's Country Store operated by our daughter Challice). I put my head out the window and asked, "Where can I find Fred Blakley?" A stocky man sitting on the steps, wearing a white Stetson, said, "He's gone fishing." But he walked over and introduced himself. He was Fred Blakley, timber and land buyer, snow fence manufacturer, and sawmill owner.
There are several people whose help was vital in the early days at Swain. We could not have survived without the unpaid help of Fred Blakley (and Dick Clark who worked at Kodak in the same division I did).
Fred identified the owners of the land we wanted, Erma Babcock and John Brewer. Each had a "farm" of 20 acres and eventually agreed to sell the land to us, retaining their houses--the first of 15 or 20 such land purchases over 30 years. John Brewer's brother advised us not to buy a hillside, but to "get enough flat land to stand up on." Erma's land included a barn which is still part of the Base Lodge Complex. We paid $400 for each piece of land, $100 down and the balance at 6% spread over several years. A small part of the barn became the first "Warming Hut."
The land purchase made a hole in our assets—$1600 saved during the war. We also had a Jeep Station Wagon and a few clothes. We rented a two-room, furnished apartment on Kenilworth Terrace behind the Dental Dispensary. I was working shifts at Kodak in the dark rooms for about a dollar an hour, the only job I was able to find that would give me weekends off to run a ski area when we finally started one. Bina obtained a job teaching phys. ed. at Brockport Central School which paid about the same.
Despite the kind of difficulties you can imagine, we did manage, with hand tools, to clear a slope, later called "Clark Slope," and install a rope tow. Without a replacement motor, which Fred Blakley loaned us and later financed, we would not have completed the first weekend. There weren't many weekends of skiing in that or the next few years, but we continued to expand. Our rent for the first apartment, the next one on Pierpont Street, and later a small house on Calkins Road cost us $10 a week, a sum that let us continue to put money into Swain. I remember trying at one point to live from Sunday night to Friday noon on $25 a week, exclusive of rent, and even we couldn't do it. In theory, it was enough, but there was always something, a new tire, etc.
In retrospect, it is remarkable that the ski area survived. During most of our 30 year tenure there, it was a shoe-string operation. For ten years Bina and I ran the ski slopes working weekends, holidays and vacations at Swain, while I worked for 40 hours a week at Kodak. The ski area was open only on weekends and school holidays in winter at that time. And, of course, only when there was enough natural snow to run. Bina soon left the Brockport job and taught at Harley School.
For the second ten years we still ran Swain without snowmaking, lived there full time, brought up four children, and had no outside income. It is difficult now to see how we managed, but we were both of stubborn Scottish extraction, penny pinchers, and could Make It Do, Use It up and Go Without. The Depression was a good teacher. It was a very low-overhead operation. We could survive financially on six weekends of skiing. If there were 12 weekends, we'd make money in a tax sense. One year there were 16 weekends.
Weekend operation with pick-up crews was very nice from our standpoint. We'd use Fred Blakley's woods crew to run the lifts, and Bina would employ local women in the cafeteria. Sometimes I'd have one or two men to help outdoors creating new ski trails and installing T-bars in the spring, summer, and fall and sometimes not. One year when we didn't have any money, I redid the interior of the Base Lodge alone. Half way through the job you could stand in the basement and look up past the two floors I had removed to the rafters. Alone, I put in the main steel support beam. I don't really see now how I did it. The posts supporting it were easy, of course. I put in two new floors that badly needed doing to handle the crowds we were getting on occasion. (Before the ski area, I had never used a saw or hammer.)
Our third snow machine, entirely homemade, was the first that worked. It created an entirely different kind of operation, seven days and seven nights a week. So our third decade at Swain became high-overhead years, but were financially more successful. That is another story, and a more mundane one, not worth describing here, I think.
I figure that we have made every mistake it is possible to make except spending too much money, which is probably the greatest mistake of all. And since there was always too much to do in the off-season, we did not enjoy our goal of "Summers At The Lake" until after we sold out and retired in 1977, thirty years after we started. Several years after we retired we bought "WHIPPOORWILL" at the end if the Vine Valley road, two miles south of Aunt Nell's cottage.
© 2000, David D. Robinson