Goshen fixture marks 40 years in business
GOSHEN — Even on a quiet weekday with the forecast for snow, the entry hallway at Blueberry Hill Inn smelled like soup, and owner and innkeeper Tony Clark was rolling mascarpone cheese and pears into pastry dough for the next day’s breakfast.
Clark appeared unhurried, his actions effortless — a tribute to his four decades running the inn and Nordic ski center on Goshen-Ripton Road.
The business, which this year is marking its 40th anniversary, evokes an earlier era. The house boasts low ceilings, old-fashioned latches on the doors, and lofts made from the beams of an old barn. But since Clark and his ex-wife, Martha, opened the doors at the Blueberry Hill Inn in 1971, the ski shop and inn have both seen a great deal of change.
The land already had a skiing history. In the 1940s, there had been a small downhill skiing area, with a tow rope and just a few trails. A trail pass cost a quarter, Clark said.
In 1971, Nordic skiing was experiencing a renaissance, both as part of a surge of enthusiasm for physical fitness and as a result of skyrocketing gasoline prices.
“It was somewhat of a rebellion against the price of alpine tickets,” said Clark, who learned to ski growing up in Bordeaux, France.
In 1971, the original ski shop — in an old blacksmith’s shop next to the inn — rented skis, but did not sell trail passes. The rudimentary trail system was a succession of ribbons tied around trees in the woods behind the inn.
“We had no clue whose land we were skiing on, the trails were narrow, and there were logs on the trail,” Clark recalled. “We muddled our way through that first year.”
At the end of that year, Clark discovered that the trails were on national forest land, so he applied for a special use permit and began developing the paths. The permit allowed him to clear trees to create the trails, though the alleyways were less than half the width of a groomed trail today.
Blueberry Hill had luck on its side. At the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, American Bill Koch won silver in the 30-km cross-country skiing event. The Brattleboro native was the first American to win a medal in cross-country skiing, boosting enthusiasm for the sport both across the nation and in his home state.
This brought the pressure for change in the business.
“(Koch) kind of revolutionized trail maintenance,” Clark said. “Trails got wider because people saw the tracks at the Olympics.”
This meant new work on the Goshen trail system, which included buying a grooming machine that would make trails smooth enough for the wide kick of skate skiers as well as the narrow gauge of classic cross-country skiing.
And though the groomer added overhead and extra time to the business of maintaining trails, the rising popularity of the sports was also bringing droves of people, both locals and out-of-staters, to Goshen. The ski shop moved across the road to accommodate rising demand, then added more rentals and lessons.
A natural outgrowth was the creation of the Bill Koch League, a ski program at Blueberry Hill for children in Goshen. One of the members, Tammy Walsh, made the junior national Nordic ski team.
“If you were to ask me what was the high point,” Clark said, “that really put us on the map in the competitive world.”
The late 1970s and early 1980s were peak times for the business.
“In those days, we would do 8,000, 10,000 skier days,” in a season, Clark said.
As the ’80s wore on, enthusiasm for Nordic skiing dropped off some. The students in the Bill Koch program graduated and moved on, and no children joined to take their place. Then came a few years during the 1980s when there was no snow at all.
“We had some really difficult times,” Clark said. “That’s when we opened up for the summer.”
Today, the inn is still a year-round establishment, offering its guests hiking in the summer and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. From its original size, which accommodated only 12 guests, the inn has expanded to a capacity of 30.
And cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are both experiencing a resurgence, though Clark said traffic tops out at 4,000 per season — less than half the peak during the early 1980s.
More schools are bringing students up to ski, and there’s added energy around youth programming at the nearby Rikert Ski Center in Ripton.
THE FUTURE OF NORDIC
It’s harder today to run a cross-country ski center than it was in 1971, Clark said.
“The demands on a Nordic center by the general public are much more,” he explained. “Now, if there’s one trail that’s not been groomed, you hear about it.”
Though the ski center has enabled the 66-year-old to make many connections in the skiing world, as well as the chance to marathon ski in Europe while helping one of his sons train, Clark said he is ready to give it up. He is looking for new management for the ski center starting next season.
But Clark said he worries about succession. Many of the state’s cross-country ski centers are run by owners nearing retirement, and said he has not seen a great deal of enthusiasm from younger generations wanting to pick up the torch.
Part of the difficulty in finding a successor at Blueberry Hill is the job description itself: During the season, it requires long hours of work that don’t always have a huge payoff.
“You can’t get rich in this industry,” Clark said.
Still, what he sees as rising energy for the sport gives Clark hope. He said he plans to keep running the inn for at least four more years, until his youngest son, Oliver, has graduated from high school.
“It’s been an interesting 40-year ride,” he said. “Would I do it again? I think so.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].