In 1946, a guy named Hans Winbauer opened upstate New York’s Hickory Ski Center by hooking the drive train of an old Packard to a rope tow to pull skiers up the mountain. For years, $45 lift tickets and 1,200 vertical feet have made upstate New York’s Hickory Ski Center one the steepest and the cheapest in New York. But then in 2004, Hickory went broke. Due to a failing financial structure and consecutive bad snow years, the mountain ran out of money. Three years passed before Bill Van Pelt, a Schenectady native and now Houston businessman, came along with an interested group seeking to develop it. Part owned by local shareholders, Hickory is like a smaller Mad River Glen, which runs as a co-op. When Van Pelt showed up, the local shareholders were still present, but the money was not.
The mountain and the community vibe Van Pelt got from the shareholders charmed him, and he realized that Hickory’s terrain was competitive with other mountains and respected by skiers all over the country. He and his partners considered making Hickory a private ski area, but thought it had more potential as a public mountain. For years, many thought Hickory was only open to its shareholders—a perception that hurt the mountain, and something the locals are trying to set straight. “People thought Hickory was just a private club,” Van Pelt says.
Van Pelt and volunteers are now working to modernize the place (although they are still running two Pomas and a T-bar). They’ve refurbished the old lodge and installed Wi-Fi and a lift-line ticketing system that scans skiers as they pass through the gate. Van Pelt says that this system could, in the future, give the mountain the ability to only charge skiers for the number of times they used the lift.
To rebuild the place, they’re relying heavily on volunteers, who are working weekends to cut back the overgrowth and get the trails ready for winter. Patroller Steve Hoover has even volunteered to head up ski patrol at Hickory for free for the next two years. Peggy Knowles, a 77-year old-who has been skiing Hickory since the 60s, brought her own weed whacker up to the trails on weekends. She says the sense of community she gets by helping out around the mountain is what sends her up on the rocks and steeps cutting down the overgrowth.
It may have taken a corporate restructure and a capital infusion to get the mountain financially sound, but in the end it will take the sweat and pride of volunteers and hopefully some blessings from mother nature to reopen it this winter for the first time in four years.