Thetford carpenter may have crafted the first skis made in the US

In 1979, William’s pair of brown ash skis were presented to the Thetford Historical Society. 

Thetford carpenter may have crafted the first skis made in the US
Vintage ski photo; royalty free stock image

After an on-and-off start to winter, we are finally rejoicing in decent snow. Residents are out and about skiing and snowshoeing like there’s no tomorrow.

We take skis for granted — hasn’t there always been skiing in Vermont? An old Vermont Life edition tells the story as related by long-time Thetford resident, William E. Worcester, to the Thetford Historical Society in 1979.

At the heart of William’s tale is a man named Fred Garey, who worked as the head carpenter at Dartmouth College. His commute to his job was long — eleven miles. He left his Thetford Hill home on Sunday night and walked to Hanover, arriving at work by 7:00 am on Monday, and did not return home until his wife drove in with their horse on Saturday to pick him up for the weekend. 

The story of the skis started with a Swedish student (name not given) who arrived as a freshman at Dartmouth in 1900. His luggage included two long, narrow planks with a curved end that were dutifully put in the dormitory storage area. No one thought more of it until it snowed that November. Then the curiosity of the other students was aroused by a pair of strange linear tracks. They followed them until they came upon the Swedish student swooping down a small hill with the narrow planks attached to his feet. While he’d found no information about Hanover except as the location of Dartmouth College, he had brought the skis with him “just in case.” The next day a whole crowd of students watched as he put the skis through their paces on a much bigger hill, amazing the onlookers with his speed and ability to maneuver. 

That started a Dartmouth ski craze or, at least, a crazed search for skis. The Hanover sporting goods shop was besieged by students seeking skis but coming up empty-handed. According to Willian Worcester, nobody had heard of such a thing.  Letters from students to parents in the city similarly failed to locate any skis or even knowledge of them.  Interestingly, the Vermont Life article makes no mention of  the Nansen Ski Club, the oldest continuously operating skiing club in North America. It was founded in 1872 in Berlin, NH. According to the story, the college students and their parents were unaware of this. 

The next avenue of inquiry by three or four determined students was the carpenters’ shop. Surely, if Swedes could make these things, so could any woodworker. Indeed, Fred Garey was interested and intrigued, but his work did not allow the time to take on a side project such as this. His hours, from 7 a.m. until noon and 1:00 to 6:00 p.m., were all accounted for. And the skis, at 8 feet long, were too big to work on in his small shop.

But Fred didn’t give up. He called on the Paterson family, who owned a sawmill and furniture production shop. But they were very busy and couldn’t help. Nor would they let him use their steam bender, which would be needed to soften the ski tips so they could be shaped into a curve. 

His next inquiry was with the Worcester family on Thetford Hill. He knew they had a stack of nice brown ash planks that were too good to burn for firewood. He borrowed a couple and sawed them to the right dimensions. Then — in a stroke of genius — he soaked the tips in the hot water reservoir attached to his home’s wood-fired cookstove to soften them. His son, George, and William, the Worcester boy, were instructed to take them out after a few days since Fred would be away at Dartmouth. They were told to bend the tips by forcing them into a curve in a template he had fashioned from a sturdy block of wood. A few days later, George, at his father’s direction, took the planks out of the template, smoothed the bottom and edges, and rubbed in a very hard wax. 

When Fred came home he attached leather footpieces he had fashioned. On his return to Hanover, he brought the skis — two pairs — and invited many among the 300 Dartmouth students to come look at them. They were sold immediately. And thus began a ski business, from brown ash planks grown in Thetford. 

Since  the boys George and William did much of the bending and finishing work, they were soon rewarded with their own pairs of skis, becoming, in 1900, perhaps the first skiing Vermonters. According to the historic timeline given by the  New England Ski Museum, skis first developed in Vermont. “around 1902 to 1905 when a few (in Stowe) took hardwood boards and bent up one end, nailed on a toe strap and thought we were ready to ski .... Skiing consisted of straight running down a slope near the present Stowe public school … But the spills without the thrills was not really skiing, and all of us lost interest.” Also “In the (eighteen) nineties and in the first decade of the twentieth century, snowshoeing, skating, sleighing, and tobogganing were the reigning sports.“

Back in Thetford, William’s tale continued with a notable incident that happened when he had owned his skis for less than a week. A huge snowstorm hit the region. The local doctor, Dr. Weymouth, had a very sick patient by the name of Ernest Bond. His throat was badly swollen, and he was running a high fever. The doctor barely made it home from tending to Mr Bond; he could not see in the blizzard and relied on his horse to find the way. Though life was simple, there was phone service operated by a local company, so Dr. Weymouth called the next day to check on his patient, only to find things worse. He could not swallow at all, and thus could not take his medicine. He needed a drinking tube.

This was before mechanization and snow plows. Thetford relied on Lyme to use its big, horse-drawn snow roller to pack the roads, in particular the “stage road” from East Thetford to the West Fairlee line. But after the big storm, the horses could not pull the roller beyond the church on Thetford Hill. The drifts on Union Village road were also seven to eight feet deep. There was no hope that the doctor could get through to Mr. Bond. 

That’s when William was entrusted to take the drinking tube and medicine to the patient. With his new skis, he could walk on top of the snowdrifts with no trouble. And so he did, and he also forced the drinking tube down Mr Bond’s throat. The doctor had ordered that the patient was only to receive liquid foods. On his skis, William was able to reach the Bond’s barn where cows were overdue to be milked. He returned with milk for the patient and came back for the next few days to do the barn chores. Dr. Weymouth swore that the skis saved the patient’s life.

At the turn of the twentieth century, many people were farmers as well as being educated. Ernest Bond farmed in Thetford for 65 years and was also the deacon of the Congregational Church and the head trustee and Chair of the Board at Thetford Academy. William Worcester was still farming at age 92, and in 1979 he had been milking cows for 84 years. In addition he was a graduate of the University of Michigan and a distinguished engineer.

In 1979, William’s pair of brown ash skis were presented to the Thetford Historical Society. 

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