Half a Century and Counting
Hunter Mountain Celebrates 50 Years
By Jonathan Ment
Early in the last century, the northern Catskill Mountaintop town of Hunter, New York which today includes the eponymous village and the village of Tannersville, was a bustling summer destination. Following years of industry here, from the tannery years to the chair-caning workshops and other niche industries, the communities had become host to the tourist trade. Cool mountain air and the belly-busting meal plans kept visitors from the muggy city down below comfortable and well fed.
The “husband” train brought breadwinners up for the weekend to spend time with wives and children planted for the season in upstate’s wild wide open—or at least on the front porches of the grand mountain houses.
But hard times were ahead. Into the 1950s, many of the summer resorts on which the town of Hunter and its neighbors relied after the end of industry here had been shuttered, burned to the ground, otherswize razed or at least fallen sufficiently out of fashion that they may as well have have been.
Summers were still serviceable, but as Orville Slutzky describes it, “Come Labor Day, the place folded up and nothing happened until Memorial Day.”
“We wanted to find something to bring people here in the winter and skiing did it,” he says.
“We” refers to Orville and his brother Israel, known to most during his 92 years as “Izzy,” who created the winter destination known as Hunter Mountain out of solid rock 50 years ago.
Prior to that, just over half a century after the incorporation of the town of Hunter, the Slutzky brothers purchased the land that today makes up the resort with a ski resort in mind, according to Orville.
The state-run Belleayre Mountain Ski Area had opened about a decade earlier, and while it was attracting a fair number of skiers each winter, Slutzky says the state could not be enticed to open a second.
At least two versions of the financial origins of Hunter Mountain exist and while the matter could perhaps be settled, isn’t it more fun to leave a little bit to the imagination? Either the Slutzky brothers placed an ad in the New York Herald Tribune offering the land for a dollar a year to anyone willing to develop it (that’s the story according to the National Ski Areas Association Web site), or the land was sold outright, with the Slutzky’s commercial and civil construction company retained to develop the resort (the version told in the current Hunter Resort Magazine).
This much is agreed, Jimmy Hammerstein, son of Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, responded—and raised the necessary startup funds from friends and associates in his show business circles, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward among them. “I got out of construction and stayed here,” says Slutzky. “Jimmy Hammerstein wasn’t able to cope with it. He went belly-up. We (had done) all the work for him and took it back.”
Orville Slutzky’s love for skiing was discovered early in life, on his father Isaac Slutzky’s farm off Route 23A. Isaac, who relocated to the Greene County Mountaintop after living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side worked here as a farm hand before eventually buying his own parcel. “I used to make my own skis on the farm,” says Orville. “I would walk up the hill and ski down.”
As humble as that hill must have been, just west of the present day Hunter Mountain, in the town of Jewett, the skis were far from the latest high-tech and state-of-the-art gear enjoyed each winter at Hunter. “We got old boards, staves from a barrel and cut them in half to use one for each ski,” says Slutzky. “We went out to the barn and got some leather from a harness and made some tow straps. It was pretty rustic.”
“I was eight to 10 years old, skiing with my brother Israel,” he recalls. “What we thought was a steep hill was a little land - compared to what we have at the mountain.”
The man who moves a mountain begins by
carrying away small stones.
And so it was for the Colonel’s Chair, or Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl as it would come to be known. But the small stones that were moved from this mountain were blasted from its face and carried away by the truck load.
The mountain enjoyed by thousands of skiers, boarders, hikers, bikers and others today (and for the past fifty years) was carved from the 3,200 foot high peak by the Slutzky’s civil engineering firm, run at the time by Orville and Izzy Slutzky, but while an area civic association pitched the idea, not everyone was convinced it was a sound one.
“Too rocky, too steep, not enough natural snow...”
“The state did a feasibility study and said it was no good for a ski area,” recalls Slutzky. “We were a general contracting firm building businesses, roads, schools, hospitals,” he says. “They said the mountain wasn’t suitable. We were a rocky hill. Blasting rock was no trouble for us. I don’t know how many thousands of pounds of dynamite we used—I wish I did.”
“The state didn’t want Hunter Mountain. They didn’t think we were suitable. ... When someone tells me it can’t be done, I say it can be done, it has been done and we shall live,” he says. “We were able to do what we do because we’re the snowmaking capital of the worrrld,” he says rolling the “r” with a Barnumesque showmanship. “The proof of the pudding was in the eating,” says Slutzky.
While Hunter is today a leader in snowmaking—a necessity considering its location and elevation—in 1959 when “…rudimentary snow equipment was charged up and operated … the only thing that happened was that ice was created on the trees,” says Paul Pepe, in The Sleeping Giant: The Story of Hunter Mountain.
They’ve come a long way.
Of course, not just the mountain has changed over the years. The base lodge, once a renovated reincarnation of the abandoned old Star Hotel, has undergone extensive upgrades and renovations, and new buildings have been added.
The real estate and communities around the base of Hunter Mountain have likewise continued to evolve over the past 50 years. “There’s the new hotel, condominiums and growth in the community,” says Slutzky. “I grew up before the automobile was popular and before the highways were good. In the summer, when people came up they were satisfied sitting on the porch with a rocking chair.”
But roads and cars improved.
At the center of it all, though, is one thing that hasn’t changed much: the majesty of the mountain itself, jutting upwards from the rolling hills around it in the great Northern Catskills.
Sure, the trails have been refined and added to. The lifts have been upgraded and the snowmaking improved to a level approaching high art.
And through it all, one other thing has not changed. Orville Slutzky still shows up each morning around 4:30 am, and works until 5:30 in the afternoon. “It’s the way I started life and endured throughout the years,” he says. For most of the first 50 years he has been known as general manager and he continues to oversee many of the daily tasks he’s tended to since day one.
All but a few of the resorts are gone, and the rib sticking meals of the past have been updated to include equally hearty more international fare: Chinese restaurants and Mexican food await visitors from more cosmopolitan environs accustomed to ready availability of more diverse offerings.
Local lodging includes a number of long-operating hotels and inns and a growing number of bed and breakfasts, but also the upscale Kaatskill Mountain Club, which opened at Hunter Mountain in August of 2005. The fractional ownership property doubles as a well-appointed hotel with some of its 109 rooms returned to a rental pool when not needed by their owners.
And in 2009 Hunter Mountain unveiled The Pinnacle, seven luxury condominiums built right atop the base lodge and offered at close to $700,000!
What else has changed?
Ask the man who’s been there every day since what was once known as Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl opened. “The people who were here 50 years ago are gone,” says Slutzky, of a group that since his passing in January 2006 includes Izzy. “We’ve got new blood,” he adds. “The skiers who were here 50 years ago were 20 years old. They’re 70 or 80 now. We’ve got a whole new clientele,” he says.
“They raised Cain having a good time,” he says. “It’s a different world today,” says Slutzky. “When I grew up we were just kids on the farm. Now, when people can travel farther, they compare one place to another. In their own minds, they can rate them. You have to better than your neighbor or the ghosts will eat you alive.”
Slutzky says those new skiers have been brought in through steady advertising and word of mouth, “the best advertising there is,” he adds.
And what do they say about Hunter?
“We’re the snowmaking capital of the worrrld,” says Slutzky. “We’re the closest to the major population, we’re easy to get to,” he says. “They try it and they’re hooked.”
Slutzky, who will turn 92 in February, readily acknowledges that time marches on. “There’s a new flock coming on every day,” he says,” adding, “get them young and you’re have them for quite a while.”
And get them young, Hunter does. In 2002 Hunter unveiled it’s $7.5 million, 33,000-square-foot learning center, home to ski teaching programs, offices, a ticket sales area, child care facilities, equipment rentals and a cafeteria, all with ski-out access to trails for beginners.
But what’s the biggest challenge going forward? “Good snow is the best selling product you can offer and we capitalize on making snow,” says Slutzky. “That’s why we call us the snowmaking capital of the world. 50 years from now? They might be able to improve the technology by adding additives but there’s nothing wrong with the way we add it together now—air and water,” says Slutzky.
“Mother Nature is an ardent adversary. She gives you a little snow today and washes it away tomorrow,” he says. “You’ve got to overcome Mother Nature and she’s no tiny beast. She’s a big beast.”
And of the first 50 years?
“They were a good lesson, how to keep your boat afloat,” says Slutzky. “Build a better mousetrap and you’ll catch mice. Without snowmaking, we couldn’t exist. That’s how we became the snowmaking capital of the worrrrld.”
For more information about Hunter Mountain and events celebrating their anniversary, visit www.huntermtn.com.