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.