The Wissahickon Ski Club of Philadelphia owns a nine-acre hill which boasts a 520-foot elevation with a vertical drop of 250 feet, a 1,200-foot ski run, a 500-foot beginners' slope, several half-mile trails, warming shack, electric tow and lights for night skiing. The only hitch is—it seldom snows in William Penn's "greene countrie towne." Six or seven skiing days a year are the best that can be expected. For winter sports' purposes, Philadelphia is practically in the tropics. New Englanders refer to the Wissahickon crowd as "banana-belt skiers." (This despite the fact that there are many ski clubs and resorts farther south. Strangely enough, many of them can boast of better skiing than Philadelphia.)
It takes very little snow to quicken the pulse of a banana-belt skier. A healthy flurry will bring 100 of them hurrying to their hill. Recently a club member rushed a visiting New Englander out to the hill after a minor precipitation which deposited about three-sixteenths of an inch of snow on the ground. "Why, it's nothing but snow-sprinkled grass," the New Englander jeered. "Oh, but we've got real slippery grass," his hostess insisted indignantly.
Slippery it is, so slippery that a mere whisper of snow provides skiing—a somewhat tame variety, perhaps, but skiing nonetheless. This happy arrangement is thanks to the club's volunteer labor battalion, which manicures the slope's terrain as tenderly as the turf on the center court at Wimbledon. This snow-hungry hill is no whim of a ski-happy millionaire, but the result of work, sweat and blisters contributed by its membership. In exchange for half a dozen days of skiing per year, members devote an annual total of 600 hours of labor to keep the hill and equipment in shape. Seldom has so much been done by so many for so little.
Founded in 1945 by J. A. Poley and M. J. Wilburger, the club started with a membership of 70 and annual dues of $5. The group put a down payment on a hill on the edge of the city limits overlooking the Schuylkill River. At that time the neighborhood was mainly rustic in character, but since then suburbia has expanded into the area. If the present rate of building continues, banana-belt skiers can soon make the unenviable claim of having their ski operation completely surrounded by split-level ranch houses and traffic arteries.
This presents rather special problems. During the first scant skiing of this season, a skier was crowded out of his turn as he tried to halt at the bottom of the slope. Sailing over the retaining wall, he landed on the snowless road, barely missing an auto heading west and almost being hit by one traveling east. "Driver said at least I might have given a hand signal," he reported when he made his disgruntled way back to the slope.
Despite its submarginal snow conditions, the club has grown to a membership of 300, with newcomers reaping the benefits of the pioneering performed by charter members. When purchased, the hill was covered with 6-foot-high brush. Equipped with only sickles, scythes, axes, and a jeep for pulling out stumps, work parties cleared the 1,200-foot slope to a width of 300 feet; hacked out a half-mile trail 10 feet wide. They not only cut down the brush, but also dug out all roots and stones. There wasn't a clean fingernail in the crowd for months.
Then, insolvent but unbowed, they started dreaming of a ski tow. Three mechanically inclined members picked up an old model-T Ford motor for a few dollars and spent the winter converting it into a tow engine. A dozen of them toiled weekends all winter and spring setting it up on the hill. They made a cash outlay for rope, but poles they got gratis by haunting utility company work crews and latching onto discards. Installing the poles, with the jeep their only mechanical aid, was their toughest job. Wives of the installers still shiver at the recollection. "We women huddled at the bottom of the hill and prayed," one of them recalls.
The womenfolk had other duties besides praying. Along with the poles, the group had acquired several hundred crossarms, left over from the dismantling of the New York-to- Philadelphia Postal Telegraph system. Wielding sledge hammers, the able ladies stripped the insulators and pegs off the crossarms. With these the men built a 10-by-20-foot shack to house the motor, adding a pot-bellied stove to thaw skiers between runs. "And the pegs off the crossarms kept us in firewood for years," a dainty blonde hammer wielder reports proudly.
For a year the tow functioned flawlessly. Then after one busy Sunday's usage, the motor exploded, almost leveling the shack and strewing wreckage halfway down the slope. Heaven apparently protects skiers, as well as fools and drunks, for everybody was at the bottom of the hill at the time. "And we were awfully lucky," an optimistic member adds. "It was the last snow of the year."