Skip to main content

Vermont's phenomenal snow man

Walter Schoenknecht has parlayed a rope tow and a chicken coop into a vast and gaudy ski empire called Mt. Snow

On Oct. 2, 1946, a date he is prepared to equate with Oct. 12, 1492, Walter Robert Schoenknecht (pronounced Shawn-connect) hopped a barbed-wire fence and half ran, half floundered to the summit of a snow-covered mountain in southern Vermont. "I stood at the top of that mountain—Mt. Pisgah they called her then—and I looked all around me," Schoenknecht says richly, savoring the historical moment. "I looked down at the snow at my feet—October snow 18 inches deep. I looked out over that broad and beautiful valley falling away below me. And most of all I looked far off into the future. And there, just waiting for me, I saw the ski resort of my dreams: it would be the largest in the world, it would be second to none, it would be absolutely fabulous."

Nowadays when Walt Schoenknecht ascends to the summit of Mt. Pisgah, which, with the blessing of a Madison Avenue friend, he has renamed Mt. Snow, he rides a quarter-million-dollar double chair lift ("one of the longest in the world"), and what he sees below him is no Vision of Tomorrow. He sees instead, exactly as he intended, a pulsing, throbbing, commercial empire which is, by count of customers (up to 11,000 a day), the largest ski resort in the world; which is, by any other count, second to none, for there is none other like it; and which is, if not absolutely fabulous, bordering on fantastic.

Uncanny knack

To Schoenknecht, a tall, slope-shouldered man with a frantic look on his face, none of this seems surprising. Extraordinarily extroverted, fully convinced of his own worth, and not beyond admitting it to friend or stranger, he does not marvel at his success but takes it as his due. "In the ski business I admire myself above all others," he says heartily. "I've skied nearly all my life and I've promoted ski areas for 15 years of my life. I've got an uncanny knack for sensing what skiers want and the imagination and resolute drive to produce it."

What skiers want by Schoenknecht's measure is not only a sufficiency of trails easily accessible by lifts and tows, but also the extras most other resort operators deny them; specifically: a heated outdoor swimming pool, a heated indoor ice rink, block-long cafeterias with block-long lines, walk-in fireplaces, a resort-wear shop with a $100,000 inventory, ski lectures, Hollywood movies in the base lodge, dog-sled rides, dances, cheese-fondue parties on Wednesday and church services on Sunday. "I also know," says Schoenknecht, "that a skier won't let you stand still, that you must provide something new, something tremendously exciting every year to get him back." To that end, Schoenknecht peers into the future again, and with eyes watering, reels off the details of expanding Mt. Snow almost three times beyond its present size, until it includes a four-story motel, a 12-story hotel, an amphitheater beside a man-made lake, an Alpine village and lifts and trails beyond number. He also schemes of a summer activity program featuring everything from Bavarian tea dances to boatless water skiing. Pulling the whole together in one tidy package will be an "unbelievable" aerial tramway seven miles long.

The shape of the future may be large and beautiful to Walter Schoenknecht; but among his detractors, there exists an even stronger conviction that Mt. Snow and its proprietor are already too much. "Go to Mt. Snow," says one of the less charitable critics, "and meet the Abominable Snowman." "See his Disneyland and Coney Island of the Snow Belt," says another. Says Walt Schoenknecht with a smile as cold as a Mt. Snow's tip: "When competitors hear my name they shudder, and I'm not surprised. History is in the making here, for when it comes to developing a vacation spot second to none, Schoenknecht is second to none."

Presumably, the last time Schoenknecht was second to anybody was that day 41 years ago when he was born in New Haven, Conn., the second child (but first son) of Henry and Meta Schoenknecht. His first pair of skis came 10 years later, and no sooner had he graduated beyond the slopes of a neighborhood golf course than he became a critic of the facilities available (or, more usually, not available) to dedicated skiers like himself. "There was simply no one around then astute enough to guess what was happening to the sport," says Schoenknecht. He means there was no Schoenknecht.

Private's dream

After high school, Schoenknecht helped organize the first sizable ski club in New Haven and became its tour director with the responsibility of finding new and better areas for the club's outings. His overriding fret, Schoenknecht remembers, was that if he were in the ski business, things would be a lot better for skiers.

"But by now war clouds were gathering and the handwriting was on the wall," Schoenknecht says, utilizing two of the many clichés that flavor his speech. The young man got the message and went to work for an aircraft factory. Later he was obliged, he says, "to move heaven and earth" to get out of his essential job and into the Marines. In that career he principally distinguished himself by organizing a ski club in Florida: "We didn't go skiing, exactly; we just thought about it." Transferred to Washington, D.C., Schoenknecht did go skiing (driving time: 33 hours, skiing time: 3 hours), was eventually broken from corporal to private for being consistently late returning. But his plans for the future were taking shape, and Schoenknecht already knew he wanted to build a ski resort someday "that would be perfection in every detail." He had just been separated from the service and had just married Peggy Moss of New Haven when he chanced upon the sleeping face of Mt. Pisgah.

Scream in the night

Though Schoenknecht, in the manner of great men, sometimes deprecates himself as "a real weird crackpot," he has built his business with cool care. Short of both capital and experience necessary to develop Pisgah in 1946, he and his bride leased a small ski area near Pittsfield, Mass. While Peggy kept house in a converted chicken coop, Walt ran the area, which consisted of a rope tow and three undernourished trails, one of which plummeted toward a barbed-wire fence that the owner would not move. The weather—and business—that first winter were terrible, and he gave up the lease. But, as Schoenknecht likes to remind one, "skiing can be feast or famine, depending on the breaks." Convinced he could help the breaks fall his way, Schoenknecht next manipulated the lease of state-owned lands ($100 a year for 500 acres) in northwestern Connecticut near Cornwall. While wise old bankers clutched their money and laughed themselves silly, he spent $80,000 of his family's money clearing trails and building tows in the heart of skiing's tropical zone. After the first season succeeded with natural snow and the second failed without it, Schoenknecht and three engineering friends spent the following summer developing an artificial snow-making apparatus that mixed water and air piped to the trails under pressure. Early experiments with the nozzle produced some bizarre results. The first model, put to a test at 3 a.m. one cold November night, emitted such a fearful scream that the Cornwall fire department motored out to investigate. Modified, the nozzle was tested again a few nights later. And while to the human ear it made no more noise than a lawn sprinkler, an ultrasonic whistle set to barking every dog for miles around. But it made snow, and then it made money. The wise old bankers perked up their ears too.

One day in 1953 Schoenknecht drove again to Mt. Pisgah, took another admiring turn around the grounds and presented himself at the front door of the owner's farmhouse. Schoenknecht outlined his proposal briefly ("You've got to go easy with those Vermonters"), and the price agreed upon for 500 acres was $15,000. In those days the land was so little regarded that the tax assessor's appraisal was a mere $1,500. Today Mt. Snow's real estate tax alone exceeds $15,000, Schoenknecht's investments total around $5 million, and shareholders in the Mt. Snow Development Corp. will possibly receive a modest dividend some time next year. The dividend might have been paid this year except for New England's hot-and-cold running winter that, before a storm last week, had forced a temporary shutdown of some resorts. Typically, Mt. Snow stayed open through the worst of it, with Schoenknecht, ankle-deep in slush, still proclaiming he was in "a miracle belt of snow, with the best skiing anywhere around." Says Winston Lauder, Mt. Snow's general manager: "I've never even heard of a ski resort paying a dividend. That we may be able to do it after only seven seasons speaks for itself."

The language of the dividend will be well understood by the once-reluctant financiers. For 10% of the assets of nine New England and New York state banks are propping up the mountain. Banks are so deeply involved in the resort, indeed, that the president of Brattleboro's Vermont National and Savings Bank recently commissioned an artist to portray Mt. Snow in oils. When finished, the picture will occupy a prominent area in the bank's board room and, says Schoenknecht, "They'll always have that, no matter what." But if the banks provided a good-sized chunk of the operating capital for Mt. Snow, Schoenknecht has supplied about everything else.

He has studied architecture (by correspondence), and the design of the buildings at Mt. Snow are his. The style, he says, is Schoenknecht-Swiss—splattered liberally with Howard Johnson orange—and "by doing it myself I save money and feed my ego at the same time."

A system of double chair lifts, supported by monorail tracks is his design, and he claims it to be the fastest yet devised. He takes pride in his lifts, but he complains about the clattering noise they make, thus joining a chorus of hundreds of other skiers, who have christened the original chair "The Lift Designed by a Deaf Engineer." The idea and execution of the heated outdoor pool is also his. And while he admits it will never pay for itself, he counts it a most valuable asset, "crowd-drawingwise." One reason the kidney-shaped pool cannot be made to pay is that its heating plant consumes 6,000 gallons of fuel oil every week, enough to heat 100 five-room houses, and enough to prompt Standard Oil to feature the pool in five of its company publications.

Finally—and this dismays conservative members of his board of directors—60% of the corporation's stock is either his or his family's. Without his control it is unlikely Mt. Snow would be the curiosity it is today, even more unlikely that its future, as Schoenknecht sees it, would ever be realized. "The new motel, for instance," he rhapsodizes, "is going to be really weird. It will have a trampoline in the lobby next to a 140° Japanese bath with a little Japanese girl scrubbing people's backs. Soon as we get that going, we'll start on a 12-story hotel next door. That will have a bowling alley in the basement, an eight-foot flame and a waterfall in the lobby, a real mountain stream running through the middle of the dining room and a tropical garden in the corner."

Summer guests of these two establishments who weary of the frenzy on the inside can step outside to a 13-acre lake, Schoenknecht-made this past summer. There, they may take their pick of the Passion play ("on a par with Oberammergau and box office second to none")., the symphony orchestra or the ballet company. Or, perhaps, they may choose a turn on water skis drawn around the lake by an overhead trolley. Surmounting all will be a 350-foot-high fountain, which in winter will build itself into a 350-foot icicle. "You can believe it or not," says Schoenknecht. "Of course, these are merely representative of my ideas, some others of which are a little screwball. And, of course, we'll be careful as we go to avoid the Miami Beach look. I really detest Miami Beach."

Eye to the future

At the rate Schoenknecht promises to spend and grow, he will not get rich quick. But, as he says, that is the furthest thing from his mind. "If it were money I was after, I'd never be here in the first place," he says, and proves it fairly well by paying himself only $5,000 annually as president and chairman of the board.

On the other hand, Schoenknecht is not really sure what he does want. "Mostly I'm indulging an overactive creative urge," he says. "If I were not able to plan, to imagine, to construct, I'd wither up. All I really want to do is make Mt. Snow the last word in a resort. The ski boom is on now, suddenly all kinds of people want to ski for pure pleasure. Mt. Snow is going to grow with the crowd. And, one day, it will also be a year-round resort with nothing but fun for everybody, for 40,000 people every day. Even then there'll be no crowding. The atmosphere will be intimate and warm. Prestige plus people, that's what it will be."

And where will it all end? "It will end in about 25 years from now," says Schoenkneckt, dizzy with the prospect. "By then we figure we'll have poured about $75 million into this place, and that will be the time to start tearing down. We'll tear it down and we'll start over. Everything will be brand-new again. It'll be weird and tremendous and second to none. It will be absolutely fabulous."




SKIER-SWIMMERS soak in heated pool, one of Schoenknecht's "little extras."