When Megan Roberts was a teenager, Titcomb Mountain ski area changed her life.
Her mother became seriously ill, and Roberts, one of five children, came to the mountain as a refuge. And it became a family to her.
“Everyone here helped me,” she said. “And that’s what we still do. Everyone wants it to be a safe place and a friendly place.”
Roberts, now a co-manager of the small club-operated area, can look around and find others who feel the same sense of community.
Like Jody Farmer, who’s been skiing the mountain since he was 5, and now brings his 7-year-old son Nathan.
Farmer, 40, of Farmington, said his parents skied there, too.
The tradition of coming to the mountain is something that is handed down though families since the slope opened 75 years ago, and Roberts said she knows families who’ve skied the mountain for four generations.
Managers of other small ski areas say community relationships are what keep locally run slopes open, and industry experts say a growing overall sense of community has led to a resurgence of the small ski areas in Maine.
Staying open is not easy. Over the past 40 years, more than 70 Maine ski areas, many of them small like Titcomb, have gone out of business.
Increased competition, along with insurances hikes, warm winters and community apathy closed hundreds of ski areas, mostly small community ones, across New England over the past couple decades, according to ski historian Jeremy Davis.
But he said it’s possible Maine has “seen the end of the hemorrhaging.”
Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Maine Ski Association, agrees.
“Community ski areas are currently strong, with a strong membership base and awareness of the importance of kids getting outdoors, especially in winter months,” he said.
This year the largest ski resorts in the state opened earlier than ever with millions invested in the latest snowmaking equipment.
Maine’s ski areas attracted about 1.36 million visitors last year, up 10 percent from the previous season’s 1.24 million visitors.
The small ski areas that make up the rest of the state ski industry, some of which don’t have any snowmaking equipment at all, survived in the ’70s and ’80s and are making it work now because of community relationships, experts say.
“These communities have taken ownership of the ski area and are driven by pride for the area,” Davis said.
All about family
Titcomb Mountain skiers say they feel a sense of ownership toward the area that’s a family tradition for many members.
Small mountains like Titcomb are club-owned and rely on community support. Club-owned ski areas are nonprofit organizations, so they can get grants for things like promoting skiing in the region, sustainable equipment and after-school programs.
But it takes more than grants and local skiers paying membership fees to keep the area running. It takes volunteers from the 400 member families willing to donate time to run a ski lift, cook burgers at a snack bar or operate a groomer.
Even in the off-season, residents volunteer their time painting the buildings, chopping wood and mowing the slope.
“They become important parts of family history, especially in rural communities where you can’t drive three hours all the time to go skiing,” said Davis, a New York historian and author who researches lost New England ski areas.
Davis said the drive to support remaining ski areas usually comes from skiers’ personal history with the site.
Farmer is an example of that. He used to volunteer at Titcomb as a ski instructor and also donated his time to do yard work and cut trails.
“And most parents in the community have. It’s a club owned by the members, and the members do the work,” he said. “You’re benefiting the generation to come.”
Whether there for the tradition of alpine skiing, or branching out into the terrain park or Nordic skiing, Titcomb patrons say they are all drawn to the mountain area because of the family environment.
Pete Roberts, who has snowboarded “since it became a thing,” said he has patronized Titcomb since the early ’90s and continues with his daughters.
“This is a great local area resource that can’t be beat,” said Roberts, no relation to Megan.
Co-director Megan Roberts, 58, turned to the area for refuge as her busy professor father tried to manage his family of five kids as his wife was ill, requiring frequent trips to Boston and eventually a kidney transplant. She said it gave her a community to be part of and a meditative outlet.
After high school she skied Division I at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, and after graduating worked in different ski areas in the west before coming back in 2000 to manage at Titcomb. She took a break in 2004 to care for her dad, who was sick, and came back last year as a co-manager with Jaime Ranger.
“People come back because they have such fond memories,” she said. “It’s in your heart. The friendliness, the feeling of ownership.”
Skiing came to Maine around the late 1930s and had its start in small slopes maintained by families and clubs, said ski historian Davis.
Among these early ski areas were Titcomb Mountain, founded in 1939 by the ski club and ran its first rope tow using the engine from a Model T Ford. Baker Mountain was started in 1937 by a family from Aroostook County that moved to Moscow and wanted a place for their sons to alpine ski.
There was minor falloff in the fledgling sport during World War II, and some of the operations never reopened after the war effort ceased, said Davis. Most large resorts, including Sugarloaf, opened in the 1950s and ’60s. The Carrabassett Valley resort had its roots in a 1951 trail cut by a ski club, and started to substantially expand in the early ’60s.
“And the ’70s is when small ski areas started falling off a cliff,” he said.
Davis’ research shows more than 70 small ski areas have disappeared from Maine in the last 40 years, and “that’s a lot more than most people would have ever guessed.”
For instance, New Hampshire has lost more than 175 ski areas. Through Davis’s New England Lost Ski Area Project, he’s also so far cataloged 116 lost ski areas in Vermont, 64 in Massachusetts, 59 in Connecticut and four in Rhode Island.
Davis said in the ’70s and ’80s a lot of factors led to the decline in small ski operations, including a jump in insurance costs, gas shortages, increased competition with western resorts, growing New England resorts and other vacation destinations.
He said baby boomers also were getting older, and the generation left a smaller youth population in its wake.
But he said community habits also began to change and people were less involved in community groups like the ones that often operated ski areas.
But those in the industry say that trend is changing.
The Ski Maine Association lists 12 small ski areas still operating in Maine.
Executive Director Sweetser said that 1,361,661 individual skier visits were made to Maine slopes last winter, though he doesn’t have a breakdown by mountain. The smaller areas are supported, said Sweetser, because communities value having a convenient, locally owned ski area.
Davis said individual successes are most likely because of the connections individual places make with the community.
He said people’s desire to preserve small ski areas seems to partly be spurred by a broader “Americana” preservation movement of places like drive-in movie theaters and diners.
“Once the pendulum swings so far it starts to swing back,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ve really seen the end of the hemorrhaging of small ski areas.”
Roberts said Titcomb Mountain, founded in 1939, was almost lost in the 1980s when the directors wanted to sell it.
“They had bad years and enthusiasm was low. Fortunately for us, nobody wanted to buy it,” she said.
With no business wanting it, and the University of Maine in Farmington unwilling to take it over, the members came together, “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps” and rebuilt enthusiasm for the area, Roberts said.
Davis said a handful of lost ski areas in the area were reopened when interest rebounded, but people aren’t often successful in restarting an operation.
“The knowledge to run a rope tow is not a common knowledge set,” he said.
Despite the support of a motivated community, it can be difficult for small ski areas to break even.
At Eaton Mountain, the revival has come in fits and starts. As a family-owned business, and not a club, David Beers, president of the resort, said Eaton can’t get grant money a club-owned ski mountain can.
Eaton mountain first offered lift-assisted skiing in 1961, closed in 2005, was bought by Beers in his wife in 2007 for $400,000.
While still slowly reopening the mountain with limited borrowing in December 2011, Beers was seriously injured in a grooming accident.
He said debt can destroy a ski area, and they scaled back their efforts to open ski lifts until he is more able to help with the expansion and new equipment.
For now, the mountain offers snow tubing down 500-foot-long trails at a 60 feet vertical drop, and they are saving up to invest in ski lifts and open a novice and intermediate trail next year.
The smaller ski areas also have limited snowmaking and grooming lifts, and still depend on nature-made snow to cover their slopes, something that larger areas rely on less and less.
This year Sugarloaf opened Nov. 21 using $1.75 million in new snowmaking equipment. The 135 new snowmakers use 90 percent less compressed air, which is the major reoccurring cost associated with the equipment. The resort has 1,153 developed, skiable acres and 618 acres of snowmaking coverage.
Sunday River opened Oct. 26. this year and is installing 224 of the same new low energy snow guns. They have 820 acres of developed trails and glades, and 552 acres of snowmaking coverage.
Titcomb has limited snowmaking for its 350-foot vertical drop and 16 kilometers of cross country trails, and opens around Christmas and stays open as long as weather permits.
Baker Mountain, a small club-owned mountain in Moscow, has no snowmaking equipment, and the club is at the mercy of Maine’s fickle weather, said Rachel Tremblay, a director with the club’s governing board.
“One year we just couldn’t open and another we opened maybe only four weekends,” she said.
The downhill ski area with a 460-foot vertical drop gets between 30 and 90 skiers a day, said Tremblay.
The family-owned mountain mostly caters to local families. Once their skiers get to high school, they start to get more interested in larger resorts, like Sunday River, in Newry, and Sugarloaf, in Carrabassett Valley, that have more than 2,000-foot vertical drops, hundreds of trails and seasons that last from mid-November through early May.
Tremblay said Baker isn’t necessarily in competition with the large areas. In fact, she said Sugarloaf helps with mowing during the off season.
“They know we are where families take their kids to get their start in skiing,” she said.
It costs $10 for an adult day pass at Baker, $5 to $20 at Titcomb depending on the day and lift and $13 for a three-hour session at Eaton Mountain in Skowhegan. An adult day pass costs $83 at Sugarloaf and at $87 Sunday River.
It’s not just the equipment and dealing with conditions that cost money.
Insurance alone can break a ski area, said Titcomb’s Roberts. Titcomb’s insurance costs about $30,000 per year.
Beers said the ski industry is a tight-knit community and he said they’re less worried about losing business to each other than they are losing business to lack of interest in skiing.
Beers said he’ll reach out to larger ski areas for help with technical support and advice.
“Our competition is the Internet, and people just not getting into the activity anymore,” he said.
Beers said he wanted to work at a ski area since he was a child and the setbacks are part of the giant game of chess that is the ski industry.
He and his wife searched for years for a local ski area to take over, fulfilling his high school dream.
“If you’re in it to make money, just about any other business might be a better idea,” he said.
He said small ski areas are important to the community and local recreation culture, and he and the other managers will work to keep the ones that are left despite the challenges.
“When winter comes, it’s showtime and you either reap the rewards or lick your wounds and then go back at it.”
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252[email protected]This is a corrected version of this story