Articles

Forty Million Dollars Worth of Snow

KEN JOHNSTONE January 1 1955
Articles

Forty Million Dollars Worth of Snow

KEN JOHNSTONE January 1 1955

Forty Million Dollars Worth of Snow

Just an hour north of Montreal lies the ski heaven of the Laurentians where you’re likely to rub shoulders with Rockefellers or your next-door neighbors. But if it doesn’t snow, there won’t be anybody there but the waiters

KEN JOHNSTONE

IN MOST AREAS of Canada a heavy snowfall is rated all the way from a bit of a nuisance to a traffic-snarling calamity. But in the Laurentians, a sixty-mile jumble of ancient low mountains and small glacial lakes that begins just thirty miles north of Montreal, the inhabitants file solemnly into their pretty village churches and pray earnestly for snow. When it’s up to the eaves of the district’s hundreds of hotels, chalets, lodges, pensions and motels they’re as happy as larks.

For the fact is that when it snows in the Laurentians at the right time a surging tide of winter sports enthusiasts jams the hills and spends somewhere around forty million dollars. When it does not snow, the waiters in the hotel dining rooms outnumber the guests, the Montreal bank managers start writing pointed letters, and the habitants dig reluctantly into their savings sock under the mattress.

Last winter—like most wintersit did snow and more than one million people reveled on the Laurentians’ ski slopes, its skating rinks and toboggan slides, or sat in steam-heated comfort at picture windows with a bracing glass watching others disport themselves. They ranged from Montreal teen-agers in modest boardinghouses for budget week ends to American millionaires like the Rockefellers and Toppings in luxury suites at places like Alpine Inn, Mont Tremblant Lodge and the Chantecler at Ste. Adele.

Right now the season is at its height again. All day from dawn to dark the cleared slopes with their hack-saving tows and the winding trails through the bush hum with the whine of waxed skis against snow, the faint cries of “track,” the encouraging shouts of the ski instructors and the thuds as the tyros tumble to leave those telltale “bathtubs” in the smooth snow. At night there’s the gentle music of bells and the soft clop of hooves as sleighing parties tour the frost-bound roads, and the boisterous blare of noise from square dancing or round-the-piano singsongs in the lodges.

For those who have fallen victim to the Laurentian charm the names of St. Sauveur, Ste. Adele, Ste. Marguerite, Mont Gabriel, Val Morin and Val David, Ste. Agathe, St. Donat, St. Jovite and Mont Tremblant will conjure up such mamones. For these are the main centres devoted to the pleasures of the winter holidaymaker.

Yet thirty years ago the Laurentians were known chiefly to a few hardy Montrealers and a handful

of Americans who braved the mosquitoes and black flies in summer, and an even smaller group of cross-country ski enthusiasts who cut their own trails and endured the crude comforts of village inns and boardinghouses during winter. Most vacation hotels closed in winter when deep snow blocked the roads between the Laurentians and Montreal and spur lines of the CNR and CPR maintained the only link with the outside world.

The conversion of these six hundred square miles of rocky country from a district that barely supported its sparse population with farming in summer and logging in winter to one of America’s most fabulous year-round resort areas was made in part by the growth in popularity of downhill skiing in Canada and the United States during the late Thirties and in part by the vision and persistence of a few men who worked with tenacity to achieve their vision of a year-round vacationland.

Senior among these is big ruddy-faced Tom Wheeler, who came to St. Jovite as a two-monthold baby in 1894. His father, George Wheeler, a lumberman from Chazy, N.Y., built a home at Lake Ouimet, at that time in the wilderness. At first the lumber business went well but in 1902 fire destroyed George Wheeler’s timber holdings and his wife, Lucille, suggested that they “take in a few hoarders” during the summer and the hunting season to eke out the family budget. Lake Ouimet teemed with speckled trout and game was plentiful. The “boardinghouse” soon became a haven for hunters and fishermen and eventually grew into the large rambling Gray Rocks Inn of today.

Young Tom Wheeler was caught by the novel sport of flying and joined the U. S. Air Corps in World War I. In 1921 he bought a Curtis Jenny and it became the first of what is now a sixteenplane fleet that makes up Wheeler Airlines, the country’s oldest continuously operating airline.

The old Jenny brought publicity to Gray Rocks. During the winter Tom removed its wings and used it for ski-joring, the winter equivalent of aquaplaning. Because of it two movie companies that needed snow and a plane for their respective plots came to Gray Rocks in the Thirties. One film starred Lionel Barrymore and Seena Owen. Wheeler recalls Barrymore pacing the floor all night, unable to sleep. “The days are fine, but the nights are hell,” he told Tom. The other film featured the dapper Conrad Nagel.

As manager of Gray Rocks, Wheeler’s personal charm and knowledge of hunting drew sportsmen from all over the United States. Today with his planes ranging all over the northeastern part of the country he is -along with the Brewsters of Banffone of the Continued on page 34

Continued on page 34

E STARTED IT ALL TEY MADE IT BOOM

Forty Million Dollars Worth of Snow

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 12

best-known hunting outfitters in Canada. Guests often came in unexpected numbers, but Wheeler always found room for them.

One puzzled latecomer asked: “How many people does this place hold anyway?”

Wheeler replied: “It depends on how friendly you are.”

A few years ago Harry Wheeler took over the management of Gray Rocks and brother Tom withdrew to his airline and built a smaller hotel, Lake Ouimet Club, across the lake.

Until 1911 Gray Rocks was the only hotel in the Laurentians devoted to holidayers. In that year at Ste. Agathe, about twenty miles closer to Montreal, Lome McGibbon, a wealthy Montreal businessman, built the Laurentide Inn as the first winter resort in America. The Swiss manager, Ernest Desbaillets, imported the reigning Swiss ski champion, young Emile Cochand, to organize winter sports and to teach skiing.

Cochand built a bobsled run and gave ski lessons and exhibitions. Most of the patrons were Montrealers. Photos of the day show them skiing in leather jackets and leggings and clinging desperately to the instructor when they went down the slightest grade. When World War I began McGibbon gave the Laurentide Inn to the government as a war hospital.

Cochand tried a summer of farming in Manitoba then finally secured a small farm near Ste. Marguerite, about forty-five miles from Montreal, and began to build his own vacation resort. With his growing family, he milked cows, chopped wood, butchered his own sheep, did his own carpentry and plumbing, and when customers finally appeared he helped in the kitchen and waited on the table.

In 1922 he expanded the hotel but in the middle of reconstruction the whole place burned to the ground and he had to start over. This time he installed the first central heating with hot and cold running water of any Laurentian resort hotel.

Other Laurentian pioneers paralleled the struggle to establish Chalet Cochand and in the mid-Twenties the Laurentian Resorts Association was formed to boost the Laurentians as a holiday resort. At the same time the Quebec government started to advertise the Laurentians in the United States, and the flow of tourists began.

But it was still a summer business. Few hotels were equipped for the winter. Cochand remembers that, before his place had central heating, in winter the family and guests used to warm up in front of the big stove and and then bundle into fur coats before retiring. Temperatures of forty below zero were not unusual.

In the Thirties the Laurentians really started to become a winter vacationland. In 1932 and in 1933 the Resorts Association was represented at a winter sports show held in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Cochand gave an exhibition of skiing at Saks Fifth Avenue at the same time and young Louis Cochand, at fifteen, competed in the sports show with European skijumping champions. Louis has now

taken over management of Chalet Cochand.

The association hired wiry little Smith (Jack Rabbit) Johanneson from Lake Placid to cut cross-country ski trails between Ste. Agathe and Shawbridge. Well over seventy today, he is still an active cross-country skier in the Laurentians. Last year he laid out a cross-country run for the McGill Carnival competition at Mont Gabriel. The winner covered the trail in 14 minutes. Johanneson made it in 16 minutes.

“What happened, Mr. Johanneson?” asked Mont Gabriel’s manager Stan Ferguson solicitously. “Did you stop somewhere for lunch?”

It was in the early Thirties that broad-shouldered Ken Harrison burst into the Laurentian scene. His parents owned a modest summer hotel, Shady Nook Inn, at Lac Mercier, near Mont Tremblant. Ken’s first summer job at 17 was to row guests across the lake from the railway station to the hotel and to clean the coal-oil lamps each day. The following winter he worked in Montreal for the Northern Electric Company to get a fifty percent, discount on an electric plant that eliminated the coal-oil lamps. He also sold Henry Birks, the jewelers, on the idea of paying him fifteen dollars a day to operate a bonded delivery service for Christmas gifts. Then he hired a deliveryman at twenty-five a week and pocketed a neat profit.. The job lasted until the end of February and he cleared enough money to buy a motorboat that ended the rowing chore. He also bought up about twenty old beatup canoes around Montreal, shipped them to Lac Mercier, re-covered them and rented them to guests at five dollars a week. He cleared fifty cents a person on the motorboat for trips from the station and another fifty cents for a tour of the lake. The profit from all this in one season was enough to send him to the University of Grenoble in France for two years. But he couldn’t stay away from the Laurentians.

He Moved a Whole Hotel

In 1934 Louis Stoner, an American businessman who owned Murray’s Inn at Ste. Agathe, invited Harrison to become manager. Harrison hesitated, for it was a commercial hotel in the centre of the village. He took the job with misgivings that were soon realized by the balance sheet. Then he got the idea of moving the sixty-room hotel from the centre of the village to the shore of nearby Lac des Sables, where it would be unquestionably a resort hotel. N

An architect said it was impossible, but Harrison hired an expert from Montreal who cut the building in two and moved it to its present location. At one point it was found that the eave of another building projected over the route of the moving hotel. The owner of the building raced to the courthouse for an injunction. But Harrison seized a saw and cut off the projecting eave. The owner returned too late with his injunction and Harrison mollified him with a hundred dollars to cover the damage.

The move cost $8,000 and Harrison sold the old site for $6,500. Business at the new location under the new name of Laurentide Inn rose from an annual $25,000 to last year’s figure of $270,000.

At Lac Mercier Harrison had joined

In tight leather leggings they learned to ski, clinging to a Swiss instructor

with Father Georges Deslaurier of the Mont Tremblant parish in forming the Mont Tremblant Ski Club and in Ste. Agathe he promoted winter sports for he saw that a year-round operation was the only way the hotel could be successfully run. The greatest obstacle was winter snowdrifts on the main highway between St. Jerome and St. Jovite.

Harrison discussed the problem with Tom Wheeler. The provincial highway department did not think it possible or feasible to open the road in winter, and the railways were strongly opposed. But the provincial government offered a subsidy of $75 per mile should they make the attempt.

Harrison and Wheeler, after a hard look at their finances, borrowed money to buy a thirteen-thousand-dollar snowplow, hoping that other resort owners and businessmen would chip in. They ran the plow as a private enterprise with the active support of Emile Cochand and Clarence Honey at Ste. Marguerite and Lucien Ponoteau at Mont Tremblant. The government subsidy and the contributions which they secured enabled them to make a success of the project.

One of their strongest supporters was the late Monseigneur J. B. Bazinet who gave twenty-five dollars a year to the fund. Wheeler and Harrison usually hesitated before dropping in to collect his donation for it invariably meant a long session of bridge. Bazinet had blessed and christened the plow “the Hector" after the provincial member of parliament, Hector Perrier, now a judge. Bazinet also originated the custom of the Skiers’ Mass during winter when the skis are brought into church to be blessed.

Opening the winter road gave a great impetus to expansion in the Laurentians. The Alpine Inn, managed by Clarence Honey and owned by the late Tom Potter, became a winter as well as a summer resort. Potter also opened the Ste. Adele Lodge. A Montreal syndicate built the new stone Chantecler at Ste. Adele.

One day in 1938 a Philadelphia millionaire named Joe Ryan, on a visit to Gray Rocks, flew over Mont Tremblant with Tom Wheeler and Lowell Thomas and became excited by its possibilities as a site for a ski resort. At 3,200 feet Mont Tremblant is the highest peak in the Laurentian chain, gets the first snow of the season, retains it the longest in spring. Ryan poured most of his fortune into Mont Tremblant, making it the most important ski development in eastern America, rivaled only by Sun Valley in Idaho. The investment stands today at more than four million dollars. Ryan built a complete ski village in Swiss style, with an inn, a luxurious lodge, the dormitory-style Brook House, a boutique, a beauty shop, a large staff house, a beautiful little church, a large restaurant for transients, and a series of bungalows and cottages.

He introduced the Laurentians’ first ski chair lift on the south side of the mountain along with an alpine lift and then erected another and longer chair lift on the north side of the mountain, where the snow is deeper, together with two temporary rope tows that are being replaced with an alpine lift this year. He built forty miles of downhill trails and on the north side of the mountain he built a smaller hotel and a dormitory where skiers providing their

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own bedding could stay overnight for a dollar each. He built a road around the mountain and several bridges.

Joe Ryan had a hair-trigger temper and he managed to quarrel with practically everyone: his guests, his staff,

his associates in the hotel business. He rarely held a grievance for long, however, and was surprised when others were not as forgiving. One season, after firing a succession of managers, he decided to act as his own manager, remarking: “It works out better this

way. I can hire myself, fire myself and hire myself back again, and no matter

how angry 1 get at myself, 1 don’t hold a grudge.”

One day when his lodge was being built Ryan turned up on the job in old clothes, mingling with the workers. He seethed when he saw a lot of lead-swinging.

“You’re fired, the whole bunch of you!” he finally burst out. “Go on up and draw your pay.”

But the next day he hired most of them back, weeding out the worst malingerers after discussing them with Father Deslaurier. “He could have put more than one in jail if he had wished,”

Deslaurier observes today, “but Joe wasn’t that kind of person.”

Snow and cold weather put Ryan into the best of humor, but rain or a thaw sent his spirits plunging. One day in early January with a thaw in full flood he entered the big dining room to find a solitary foursome at one table. They were laughing and chatting gaily. Ryan couldn’t stand it. He went over to their table: “I’m sorry,

but you’ll have to leave,” he told the bewildered guests, “I want you to leave right after lunch.”

Afterwards he confessed cheerfully:

“Now I feel better. Now there’s nobody in the place.”

Ilyan’s stormy and troubled career came to an abrupt end whenhe fell from a New York hotel windowljn 1950. But he left an impressive monument at Mont Tremblant. Last year, under the able direction of his widow Mary, the lodge enjoyed the best season in its history.

Ryan’s example spurred other developments. At nearby St. Donat, lawyer George Fusey built Jasper-inQuebec and erected the Laurentians’ third chair lift. The Manoir Pinoteau

competed for Mont Tremblant custom. The Chantecler at Ste. Adele, in the enterprising hands of a vigorous young man called Dick Thompson, expanded from a twenty-room to a hundred-room hotel, one of the best appointed in the Laurentians. Last year Thompson built a $300,000 curling rink, the first in the Laurentians. His total investment today is around one and a half million dollars.

So well did Thompson create a congenial atmosphere in his hotel that when retired Montreal businessman George Peterson came there ten years

ago for a week end he settled down and is still there. For diplomats like Lester Pearson, stage celebrities like Faye Emerson, or tycoons like the Rockefellers it is a place where they can escape publicity. Last season no fewer than fifteen Rockefellers spent vacations at the Chantecler without a photo ever appearing in the Press.

At Alpine Inn another elegant yearround hotel is being developed by astute hotelman Vernon Cardy. It caters to the carriage trade, with more than eighty percent American custom. Cardy believes that the new fast diesel

service on the CPR which takes only one hour from Montreal may develop a year-round commuter resident at Ste. Marguerite, and he anticipates a growth in private residences as a result.

Another newcomer to the Laurentian scene who has given an impetus to winter sports development is contractor Herb O’Connell. Four years ago he decided he would like a winter home in the Laurentians. In his search he stopped overnight at Mont Gabriel Club and heard that it was for sale. Ho bought it the same day. Like Cardy he sees the area as a place for private homes with people living within easy commuting distance of Montreal.

O’Connell, a sturdy curly-haired man in his early fifties, likes to catch happyfeeling guests on Saturday nights and invite them to go to church with him in the morning in his open sleigh. They invariably agree and at eight the next morning their phone rings and a remorseless O’Connell voice reminds them of their lighthearted engagement. In summer he likes to drive a handsome four-in-hand that dates back to 1894,

Money from Champagne Corks

Manager at Mont Gabriel Club is Stan Ferguson who in his early thirties is one of the brightest personalities in Canadian hotel business. He started off peeling potatoes at fifty cents a barrel for a fried-potato vendor in Ste. Agathe. He attracted the attention of Ste. Agathe hotelman Louis Stoner when he entered a ski-jumping contest wearing barrel staves for skis. Stoner bought young Ferguson a pair of real skis and gave him a daily allowance of twenty-five cents. Ferguson went to work for Stoner washing floors and dishes “for the experience,” but Stoner gave him five dollars a week and loaned him the money lo take a commercial course in Montreal. Young Ferguson worked at nights as a bus boy at the Mount Royal Hotel and at night clubs and succeeded, much to Stoner’s amazement, in paying back the loan. Back at Stoner’s Laurentide Inn in summer he became a zealous bus boy. He bought a bicycle and learned to balance a tray while riding the bicycle delivering meals to Stoner’s cottage from the hotel. He also learned to collect the corks from champagne bottles; Gooderham & Worts was encouraging the sale of champagne by paying bartenders twenty-five cents for each cork. Today he is president of the Laurentian Resorts Association.

The bugbear of all hotels is a death on the premises and resort hotels are particularly sensitive to this calamity. Early one evening at the Laurentide a guest died of a heart attack in his bed.

Ferguson went through all the legal formalities and then, so the guests would be unaware of the tragedy, smuggled the corpse out by the fire escape. Someone reported burglars. Stan returned to quiet the alarm, and then went on about his task. Next

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noon a woman guest fainted at lunch when she read in the Montreal morning paper of the death of a man who had chatted with her the previous evening.

Although the Laurentians present a posh and plush scene today, with elegant bars, orchestras, fine food and hotels competing with each other to provide the best accommodation and service, it’s still a scene sensitive to every wind that blows. Around Christmas and New Year, when the influx is primarily American, rates are at the top, ranging from $6 in the cheaper hotels to $8 and $10 upward per day, including meals, in the better hotels. January is a slow month and “learnto-ski” weeks provide a rate of $59 a week in most places, including the cost of ski lessons and the ski tow. In February the regular rates return with a new influx of Americans. In March it’s back to the “learn-to-ski” weeks. In summer “learn-t.o-golf” rates help to fill out the off season.

Coping with appetites whetted by outdoor sports is a challenge to the Laurentian chefs and the first-class French cooking is aimed to satisfy both gourmand and gourmet. One of the outstanding eating places in the resort area is La Chaumine, tucked away on Lake Montmorency, near St. Hippolyte. It’s a small, unimpressive but comfortable inn run by Pierre (Pépé) Delcombel. In a dining room that seats about twenty people, his wife Denise1 and daughter Micheline serve truly mouth-watering meals.

On Sundays at La Chaumine as many as two hundred people choose from a menu that includes chicken, duckling, rabbit, pheasant, guinea hen, squab and lobster. A typical meal starts off with a Dubonnet, then after a modest hors d'oeuvre served with a white wine copies the pâté—a smooth and subtle blending of goose liver with herbs and other ingredients not revealed by Denise. The pâté, eaten with a bit of French bread, is followed by a delicately spiced soup made with a purée of fresh vegetables. Then comes the caneton à la Provençale, golden-brown roast duckling prepared with tomatoes and garlic. If Pépé decides his guest really appreciates wine, he may produce from his modest cellar a dusty bottle of Chateauneuf de Pape and open it carefully to prevent stirring up the deposit at the bottom of the bottle. The rich flavor of the duckling, succulent and juicy, blends perfectly with the mellow soft flavor of the wine. Finally, a creamy French Brie cheese, filtered chickory-blended French coffee and a Remy-Martin cognac finish off what Pépé refers to as a simple meal of “bourgeois cooking.”

No method of luring tourists to the Laurentians is overlooked. Ste. Agathe has long held a celebrated winter carnival for ten days in February that attracts thousands of visitors. Processions, ski contests, dances, people in old-time habitant garb and a dog race help to make it one of the most colorful events in the Laurentians, and its example is now being followed by other villages. Ste. Adele will have its winter carnival this year.

Ste. Agathe is also the centre of the Jewish resorts which for a long time in the Thirties and early Forties had a rough time with anti-Semitism. Jews were burnt in effigy on the streets of Ste. Agathe and anti-Jewish demonstrations there received world-wide attention, to the discredit of Canada. The dozen Jewish resorts, organized in the Northern Resorts Association, cooperate closely with the Laurentian Resorts Association and only a minority of the latter boast they’re “restricted.”

Stan Ferguson wisely observed: “Just a small depression soon makes the whole hotel world kin.” ★