It’s Christmas Eve, 1949, and Boston Globe skiing columnist Pat Harty has news of seven new winter sports development areas opening in Massachusetts.
Hardy’s “Stem Turns” column gave the details from that winter’s Massachusetts Ski Guide, which listed 68 areas dedicated to skiing use in the commonwealth.
Among the newbies was the new Blue Hills area, complete with a floodlighted 2,100-foot trail for night use. Those seeing improvements included Jiminy Peak, which offered the only T-bar lift in the state, along with three new rope tows. Catamount, in South Egremont, added to its massive arsenal to enter the winter with 11 tows, the “largest rope tow haulage in the East.”
There also were new tow setups to inspect closer to Boston, including the Chestnut Hill Farm in West Newbury, Sea View Ski Area in Rowley, Tempo G Ski Tows in Amesbury (“just alongside the well-known Lockes Hill”), and the Whipernon Club in Russell.
Also, “just two miles out of Haverhill” was the new Bradford Ski Tow.
Seventy years later, Massachusetts can claim only 11 ski areas within state lines. That, of course, still includes the aforementioned Blue Hills, Jiminy Peak and Catamount, three of the state’s most popular wintertime destinations.
It also includes Bradford, which is celebrating its anniversary by sticking close to the values that have kept it in business for 70 years, and the responsibility of being a community-based ski area, a feeder hill that molds slope rookies into trainees ready to flee the coop for higher elevations.
“We’ve taught lots of people how to ski,” Ski Bradford owner Neil Sawyer said. “That’s basically our business, getting you ready to go somewhere else.”
The Sawyer family has been intertwined with the ski area since 1956, when Neil’s father, Roger, purchased the ski tow. It had originated seven winters earlier, when Roger’s cousin, Hugh Pearson, and Ken Boyd, a fellow Air Force pal from World War II, cut the first trail.
At that time, Sawyer was busy running the Willow Cottage Farm, a dairy farm in Atkinson, N.H., that had been passed down for generations. In fact, in the 1922 edition of the publication Granite State Monthly, the farm is described as everything an ideal farm would want to be in profiling the Sawyers and their active community lives.
But by the time it was passed down to Roger’s generation, he didn’t want much to do with cows.
“My father got tired of farming and wanted to do something on his own,” Sawyer said.
That something turned out to be “a rope tow and a hill.” By the late 1950s, he ended up selling the dairy farm. (Today, the same land calls the Atkinson Resort and Country Club its tenant.)
From there, Bradford remained mainly indebted to the rope tow, which it had three of through the ’60s. But in 1972, Neil and his brother, Bradley, formed Sawyer Enterprises and incorporated the transfer of the ski areas ownership as their parents got older, for liability reasons.
That same year, Bradford installed its first T-bar. Today, the T-bar is one of nine lifts at the ski area.
“There are about 100 acres that we own now,” Sawyer said. “We just kept developing as old Yankees farmers, I guess. If we had the money then we developed more.”
Such development isn’t possible today, leaving Bradford to limit its development to making its operation more efficient with new equipment each season.
“We can’t make anything bigger,” Sawyer said. “All we can do is try and stay up with the industry and be on top of the latest equipment that we can use. That’s about the only thing we can do here. We’ve expanded as much as we can do.”
Bradford installed its first chairlift in 1983 and indirectly discovered something that may have helped keep the place’s reputation as a top learning resource. “We found out that people couldn’t ski as well as we thought they could,” Sawyer said. “We could get them to the top on a chair and they couldn’t ski.”
That’s because when taking a T-bar or rope tow, there’s still a certain amount of inherent level of skill needed to get up the hill, particularly with skis already touching the surface. The chairlift took that pregame ritual out of the equation, so to speak, leading to what Sawyer called, “a lot of corrections.”
“I think that’s what drove us into the ski school a lot more than before,” he said.
The commitment to a lack of expansion goes for the ski school as well, where Sawyer is proud of the limits the area has put in place with a maximum of four students in a walk-in lesson.
“We have some pretty strict rules about how we’re going to run our ski school,” he said. “We try to keep classes small. We’ve done that for a long time. We just teach a lot of people how to ski.”
That includes most of the Haverhill school system, which populates the ski areas most weekday afternoons. The ski area also employs a lot of people from the community — about 400 full-and-part-time workers, according to Sawyer. Bradford keeps the mayor happy as the biggest water customer in town in order to operate snowmaking. “We’re part of the whole community,” Sawyer said.
But even being part of a tight-knit atmosphere doesn’t make it easy street for a ski area, particularly one of the little guys. Bradford spends about 10 percent of its gross on advertising, Sawyer said, ferociously marketing its prime learn-to-ski facilities that happen to be right around the corner for North Shore families.
“Ski close to home. That’s what we are. We get you ready to go skiing and prepared to go north, or west, or wherever else you want to go,” he said.
That recognition can be increasingly difficult to do in an age of multi-mountain passes and some general overlooking of feeder areas. That contrast is glaring considering the 68 listed when Bradford began in 1949.
“There’s not many of us left,” Sawyer said. “Our little feeder areas are disappearing, which is going to hurt the industry. We have to figure out how to keep the skiers coming.”
It’s something that Bradford has managed for 70 years now. Sawyer figures that some of the bigger heads in the ski industry are about a decade behind recognizing the importance of feeder areas and what they mean to developing the skiers and riders that the sports need to sustain themselves.
Ski Bradford has managed that, unlike the likes of Sea View and Tempo G, which can only be found among the others listed in the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, a website preserving the history of more than 600 former ski areas in New England. There are almost 200 mentioned in the state of Massachusetts alone.
The fact that Bradford has endured is special upon itself.