The Grandfather of Randolph Skiing


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Sara Tucker

Dick Drysdale's 1986 portrait of Harold Farr captures a sweet moment in Randolph history

Dick Drysdale was the editor of The White River Valley Herald when the newspaper published the following tribute to Randolph farmer Harold Farr on December 11, 1986. Farr's Hill remains, to this day, a popular subject of conversation among the 2,100-plus members of the "You Know You're From Randolph If . . . " Facebook page. Dick's tribute, which was included in his book Vermont Moments, has been read many times, and the story of Mr. Farr is part of Randolph lore. It is republished here, with the author's permission, on the same day that Randolph resident Perry Armstrong announced his intention to purchase the Elm Street property and revive it as a town recreation center. 

Farrs Hill on Elm Street in Randolph in 1962. Photo courtesy of Steve Ellis.

Requiem for a Lost Childhood

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Published in the White River Valley Herald on December 11, 1986, and reprinted in Vermont Life

M. Dickey Drysdale

Harold J. Farr, whom The Herald once called “the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of skiing in Randolph,” died early Tuesday morning at the Tranquility Nursing Home, where he had been the last few months. He was 90.

For 50 years, Farr ran a dairy farm on Elm Street, now the residence of the John Palmer family. In the summer his cows grazed on the steep and scenic hill which runs up to Randolph’s north reservoir.

But in the winter, the cows went into the barn, the fences came down, and Farr’s farm was transformed into Farr’s Hill, a magic place of thrills and spills for two generations of Randolph children.

It just so happened that the east-facing slope of the hill, the length, breadth, and steepness of it, made it an ideal ski slope, small enough to be served by a small rope tow yet precipitous enough to daunt any but the most daring.

And it just so happened that Harold Farr loved having kids around, loved seeing them active and learning, and cared not a whit for his own time and expense.

As a result, Farr operated for 30 years an extraordinary community resource—a ski hill which was open to everyone, every weekend and during school vacation weeks—all for free. Adults sometimes dropped a contribution in the box—a quarter, maybe—but for the children it was absolutely free.

Harold and Grace Farr, 1957. Photo courtesy of Steve Ellis

Dates are a little indistinct, but it is believed that Farr started his legendary ski lift in 1936—only two years after the first ski lift in North America opened in Woodstock. He ran it until Pinnacle Ski-Ways opened in 1966. In gratitude, Pinnacle named its practice slope after him.

The ski slope was not Harold Farr’s first offering to neighborhood children. For 10 years, a big skating rink was flooded next to the Farr home, and children from all over trouped to it on winter afternoons.

Farr also built a hair-raising toboggan chute all the way from the reservoir past his barn, filling in with rough rock construction where necessary. Toboggans came off that hill so fast, remembers Bob Race, that “we could jump all the way over Elm Street.”

Yet it was the skiing that lingers in the memories of hundreds of former youngsters. Farr drove the tow—about 500 feet long, with a vertical drop of maybe 200 feet—from a gasoline motor housed in a little shed attached to his barn. A skiing day would find him at the engine controls, ready to stop the lift in a moment if necessary, his face uplifted as he watched the upward progress of the skiers—no more than three on the rope, please. Or his twinkly eyes would survey the line of maybe 25 kids shouldering and edging each other in line in a perpetual mini-drama to see who could get through the line most quickly.

All day long he would stand there, almost motionless, from early morning until it was too dark for safety. In the snow with his rubber barn boots, visored hat, and weather-beaten denim jacket all day—all day during the sunny springlike days and all day, too, during the blustery northers when the kids turned blue with the cold.

The kids didn’t think it was unusual for a man to stand there all day and run his creaky engine on his own pasture with his own rope and his own gasoline so that they could learn to ski. The kids thought that that was the usual way of the world.

They know now how wrong they were.

Some days, the gas engine would have problems, and then Mr. Farr would hitch up the rope directly to the power drive of his farm tractor. The kids were in favor of this, because the tractor could move more kids more quickly to the top of the hill. And when he had a rope-full of big, strong skiers, Mr. Farr would touch the accelerator a little, and his eyes would twinkle even ore as the youngsters sped upwards, exulting.

TWO WAYS DOWN

Once you got up to the top of Farr’s Hill, there were generally two ways down. If you were big and brave, you started directly down, on the steepest part of the hill, gingerly watching for the spots where the ice usually built up and turning carefully until you dared take a straight run to the bottom. If you were younger, you took a track southward, along the top of the hill, trotted out your newly learned snowplow turn, ever so slowly and carefully, and headed back on a diagonal to the main part of the hill. Specifically, you headed toward the enormous elm perched a third of the way up the hill. Once you were there, it was easy coasting.

(My mother skied Farr’s Hill only once. Now knowing any better, she pointed her skies over the top and skied straight down, without a turn. She survived.)

The hill in 1962. Photo courtesy of Steve Ellis

There were other ways down, of course, for the experts to ply. There were The Ledges, a rocky, gully-ridden jumble on the north side of the rope which you could ski if you could make two quick turns, in exactly the right place, and ride out the bumps with your knees.

Making The Ledges ski-able, of course, required Mr. Farr to cut his fences in a couple more places. The fences were cut.

And there was the ultimate challenge: straight down, right beside the tow, with a bump in the middle. Only a guy named Peachy Monroe could handle that, and his name still lives in memory for that feat, although unaccompanied by any other biographical notation.

During many of the years that Harold Farr operated his ski tow, lessons were given by the late Eben Brown of South Royalton. Between “Brownie” and Farr’s Hill, Randolph youngsters found themselves well prepared when they ventured out onto the more altitudinous slopes at Mad River Glen or Stowe.

In a nod to the steepness of Farr’s Hill, Brownie told his young charges that if they could ski from top to bottom under control, they could negotiate any ski run in the state. His students found him to be correct.

For 30 years, the winter weekends of many Randolph youngsters were spent on that hill, or trying to bump each other off the rope by thumping it with an elbow, or huddling into the tiny corrugated iron warming hut where a cast iron stove could burn your mittens brown if they touched it.

Born in the infancy of downhill skiing, Farr’s Hill occupied a space in time that seems infinitely removed from today’s $30 lift tickets, million-dollar damage suits, ski areas that are really land developments, and natty ski outfits.

The passing of Farr’s Hill came in 1966; its successor, Pinacle Ski-Ways, closed 10 years later in 1976. The big elm in the middle of the ski slope died last year and casts a skeletal shadow over the hill. Eben Brown died last October 4. Mr. Farr himself died Tuesday. It is not easy to be consoled.

FURTHER READING

Vermont Moments: A Celebration of Place, People, and Everyday Miracles, by M. Dickey Drysdale

Why Perry Ellis Is Excited About Winter: Farr's Hill is large in Vermont ski history; one admirer has a vision for its future.

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