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?"