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A Brewer's Good Old Mountain Brew: Big Bromley

Fred Pabst Jr. turned his back on beer and cheese and Wisconsin society to make a business out of recreational skiing

Fred Pabst Jr. is a pale, mountainous, cantankerous fellow with a white mustache and a habit of massaging his bald head with his fingertips when he talks, which he does most of the time. He is, in all likelihood, the only man who ever built, owned and operated 17 different ski areas, with all of them going broke at the same time. He is certainly the only man who ever washed his hands of a family fortune in beer to do so. For the last 20 years he has owned and operated a large, obstinate mountain named Big Bromley in southern Vermont. But his obsession with skiing goes back further than that.

For most of his 63 years Pabst has been looking at, climbing up and sliding down mountains on planks—from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado to Norway, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Vermont.

Pabst is for skiing what Dr. Spock is for babies, but his prose style is more robust—it is profane and, often, waspish. He came to skiing by way of Oconomowoc, Wis., a region known for beer, Belgian horses and Holsteins, all of which the Pabst family produced in abundance. They also produced children. "Sister was first," says Pabst. "Then mother and father got to chewing on bicarbonate of soda and had six boys in a row, all of us over six feet, which was pretty good because we lived on a farm. On the edge of the lake, right? I had everything you do in the country. Had a string of 300 traps and a couple of beagles. Rabbit hunting. More riding britches in the family than beer. Fourteen thousand chickens. Fourteen hundred acres. Corn, alfalfa, grain. Shropshire sheep, Berkshire hogs, Hackneys. Three, four years old, I was skiing in toe-straps, competing with the chauffeur's kid. The coachman would drive a sleigh into town for groceries; we'd hitch on a rope and hang on. They finally called it skijoring. Age 12, I was jumping off bumps, landing flat, almost breaking my arches and my pants rattling like a Gatling gun. No downhill then, right?"

By age 18 he had built his first ski jump, at Nashotah, Wis., and had begun Marine aviation training. ("I hate the government, with their give us 52%, but by God, I'm for my country and my flag, right?") His training was cut short by the Armistice, and so were the Pabst fortunes; in October 1919 Prohibition came into being. The brewery went to near beer, and the farm went to dairy production in a big way. Pabst went to the University of Wisconsin, where he organized the first midwestern intercollegiate ski team, the Badger Ski Club. He took them east to Lake Placid and won the Marshal Foch jumping trophy. "Didn't have snow-making machines in those days," he says. "There wasn't enough snow on the big jump; we had to use the small one. Then the Easterners wouldn't give us the trophy. That's the trouble with the Easterners: the East is all there is to the country. Here's a Bostonian, knows every bottle of gin in Europe, but he doesn't know the United States west of Worcester. I'm still a Midwesterner. I wasn't accepted here in Vermont. Gotta be third generation, here, and 12 kids won't do it. So I gave up after I had three, right?"

Pabst finished up at Wisconsin, spent a year at Harvard Business School and went back to Wisconsin to set up a statistical department in the brewery, and whet the edge of a surprisingly keen, analytical mind. "Plotted a curve on everything from coal and oil costs to number of trips a beer case took in and out of the plant," he says. "Got so I was saving fifty-a-hundred thousand bucks every time I picked up a pencil. Gee, that was fun, right? Helped out later on, too. You never get rich in the ski business."

Pabst, rich or not, was Milwaukee society, and the strictures of that society were becoming oppressive. In 1926 he packed off to Norway on the pretext of learning to ski-jump.

Pabst was a big man, an outdoors-man, and the confines of an office were too much. Finally, seven years later in 1933, he left the company completely, went back to Europe, and got an idea. "Why not build my own ski area, right?" he says, "Hell, lots of reasons why not, but nobody knew them at the time." He packed up again, this time to Alaska, then down through the Rockies, and along the West Coast. He was looking, but what he found was a problem he wishes he had today. "Too much snow," Pabst says now. "Didn't have the equipment to move it; the stuff hadn't been invented yet."

Pabst swung east, through the Laurentians. "The most difficult task," he says, "was deciding where to look." An area, if it was to succeed, had to be near a population center, and it had to be accessible by rail. Mountain roads, in those days in the '30s, were either next to impassable or nonexistent. An area had to have snow, and there had to be accommodations for skiers near by. Hotels and inns throughout the Northeast were plentiful enough, for the area had always been filled with summer tourists. But skiing was entirely new, untested, and unheated hotels closed up at the first autumn frost. "It's easy enough to criticize my choice of areas now," Pabst says. "But when you're 15 years ahead of skiing, that's another story." At St. Sauveur, Que. Pabst found what he was looking for.

"It was as good as any place else," he says. "The railroad came in and Henri, the sleigh driver, took you to your hotel, half an hour away. It was very much like Europe, where they heated hotels. It was close to Montreal and it got snow." Pabst founded Ski Tows, Ltd. An 1,800-foot rope tow able to handle 50 skiers at 14 miles an hour was built on Hill 70. "Had to design it myself," Pabst claims. "It was the first decent rope tow in the bloody Western Hemisphere, but the hill was only 400 feet in vertical descent. Nowadays, people wouldn't bother with a hill that size, but even then, it made money. The Canadians were ahead of us, taking up skiing."

Three more tows went in and from his four Canadian hills, Pabst looked south into New England. He founded Ski Tows, Inc. He laid out maps and charted the distance from Boston and New York to every area he examined. And he examined them all. "I'd go into a town and try to find cooperation, only usually there was very little," he said. "I was selling something people didn't understand. The hard-back Yankees didn't trust me, a Midwesterner, either. So maybe I could get some trucks, or get them to do some bulldozing, or maybe I'd have to do the whole shiboodle myself, right?"

The tools at his disposal, however, were primitive by today's standards. There were no helicopters to lift towers into position; no four-wheel drive trucks to haul great loads into rugged, unbroken land; no Sno-Cats to pack the slopes, or move men and supplies across the surface.

One-man gang

Pabst cleared his own timber, blasted his own rocks out, did his own surveying and profiling, his own trucking, hauling, bulldozing, gully-filling and even designed his own lifts. One year from Pabst's first look south, Intervale and Plymouth, N.H. boasted 1,800-foot J bars. A 2,500-foot J went in at Mt. Aeolus, Vt. and Lake Placid, N.Y. Back in Wisconsin, Pabst erected still another 2,400-foot J bar at Wausau. "It was hard work, building a place to ski in those days," Pabst says. "At Intervale I went out with a chain saw, cut 110 cords of wood myself; at Plymouth I blasted the face off the hill with a little gas-driven jackhammer. Today the big equipment's available; a million-dollar installation can go up in a year. Look at them all: more areas than fleas on a dog's back, right?"

Ski Tows, Inc., however, forged ahead. By 1937 five more Pabst lifts had gone up in Vermont, including a rope tow at a town named Stowe. Two more went up in New York State; two in Michigan—one of them, Iron Mountain—and still another in Minnesota.

Then Pabst got busy creating the skiers to use them. He stumped, lectured and cajoled people from Milwaukee to Maine to come out and ski. "Come ski for yourself," he quips, grins loudly and massages his scalp. His ski trains, complete with restaurant car, bar car, dancing car with live orchestra and tap dancers, left Chicago each weekend for the six-hour trip to Wausau and Iron Mountain. Still more trains were leaving Boston and New York, pulling into depots at Manchester, Vt., Ticonderoga, N.Y., Plymouth and Intervale, N.H. The Otto Schniebs American ski school, teaching Swiss technique, had an instructor at each of Pabst's areas demonstrating counter-rotation and the uphill stem. And very quietly, within three years, it all melted away like the spring thaw. "There just weren't enough skiers," Pabst says. "And the hills I'd built were strung out too far apart to supervise properly. I decided to concentrate on one place."

From head to tows

He got out his maps again, did some fast calculations and put his finger on a hump named Bromley Mountain near the Vermont village of Peru. He already had a rope tow on Little Bromley, across a cow path that would later be paved and named Route 11; he also had a J bar on a leased tract called Bromley's West Meadow, but to expand the way he wanted Pabst had to own the 165 acres between the cow path and the top of the mountain. "Local farmer owned the land and didn't want to sell," Pabst says. "He and his wife were born in Peru, next to the mountain, lived in Peru and were going to die in Peru, dammit." Pabst found him another tract in Peru and swapped Walker even.

He didn't waste any time. He moved into Chanticleer, the 18th-century farm house at the foot of the mountain, added rooms upstairs for skiers and put in a vegetable garden to feed them. One of the skiers was a slim, blonde beauty named Sally Litchfield from Auburn, Me. by way of Bennington College near by. Her brother was a member of the 1940 U.S. Olympic ski team (the Games were not held that year); her father owned the first pair of skis in Auburn; she herself would rather have raced than read John Dewey and Pabst found himself following her around the mountain. He offered her a job running the Bromley booking service and, he says, "I kept selling her on the idea that I was 43 and she was 21, and the thing was ridiculous, but she had other ideas. She's stubborn; English—with a good Irish jaw, and that settled that."

Married, Pabst went back to mountain building. More than a thousand cedars went in as a windbreak on West Meadow; with a transit and plumb bob, Pabst took his own profile of the mountain. He dismantled his J bars at Mt. Aeolus in East Dorset, Vt. and at Lake George, trucked them to Bromley and put them end to end to reach the summit. The J bar at Plymouth came down and went up again on the east side. Later, the rope tow came off Little Bromley, and in its place went the J bar from Wausau. The old Walker barn, next door to the Chanticleer, was converted into a restaurant and plush, leather-cushioned lounge. Opening date was set for New Year's Day, 1943, and on New Year's Eve the restaurant burned to the ground. "We came up the next morning," Sally reflects, "and the coal in the basement was still smoldering. All the preserved vegetables had exploded. The fire department was eight miles away."

Pabst moved out of Chanticleer; the bathroom became a public rest room; his tiny living and dining rooms were converted into a one-cook restaurant which, that winter, fed 1,500 skiers. A year later a wing was built on the house, providing them with a seating capacity of 250. By 1946, when the restaurant was rebuilt and named the Wild Boar (after its owner, one employee claims), traffic was so badly congested that skiers waiting to eat would get in the wrong line and end up in the rest rooms. Today, the Wild Boar seats almost 1,200 skiers, with three cafeterias on two levels.

Up until 1947 Bromley was considered an area for experts and good intermediates; there were no novice trails. The relatively light snowfall in southern Vermont harshly limited the length of their season. Sitting with Pabst in Chanticleer one evening, Hannes Schneider, the late Austrian ski great, predicted: "The first area In the East to make its hills smooth so they can be skied on light snowfall will have it."

What Schneider had said made sense, and Pabst went ahead. He waited for the driest months, late summer, and took a good look at the shrubs growing on his mountain: the green turned yellow near the ground; the soil needed fertilizer; the mountain needed grass. On a novice slope named Lord's Prayer he planted a catch crop of oats and winter rye, red top and timothy, and a year later the slope lay smooth as a golf green under a scant four inches of snow—and people were actually skiing on it. Each year, then, for the next five years, one more trail received the same treatment, and today Pabst can boast, "We're the only mountain in the East you can ski on four inches of packed snow."

The mountain grows

Whatever they did, on the mountain or below it, there was an interrelationship. Improved trails brought more skiers. The more skiers, the more food, and the more people to serve the food, were needed. And then still more facilities were needed for the added employees. Bromley is still growing; Pabst is still complaining and Sally is still patient. The chair lift is in, a result of incorporation In 1954 and stock sales four years later. A new parking area is going In across Route 11. Glade and Spring, two new trails, were added on the west side of the mountain, an S curve was cut from Blue Ribbon and Pushover was pushed wider and more level. An annoying gully has been eliminated at the mountain top. In all, Bromley will use up close to $160,000 this year alone.

Pabst, sitting in his pine-paneled press room, looking out on the workmen moving earth across the lower part of Lord's Prayer teaching slope, recalls a day many years ago, when his parents visited the mountain. "Frederick!" his mother said, watching flushed skiers sweep down the broad hills and flash to a stop, laughing, breathing steam. "I think it's wonderful! You're rebuilding the health of the nation!" "That may be," said his father, who could never understand the investment of money in something as changeable as the weather. "But let's make it pay."