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N.E. Ski Museum expands to North Conway

Special to the Sunday News

February 16. 2018 6:08PM
Manager Brian Fowler places a sign above the gas fireplace in the browsing library prior to the opening of the Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum in North Conway. (MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL)
New Hampshire skiing trivia
CONSISTENCY: New Hampshire is the only state to have had at least one skier in each Winter Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924.

BLAZING THE TRAIL: The Taft trail on Cannon Mountain was the first trail cut (in 1933) for downhill skiing in the U.S.

RACING FIRSTS: New Hampshire boasts the first slalom event in the country, held in Hanover in 1925; the first modern downhill, on Mount Moosilauke in 1927; and the first giant slalom, in Tuckerman Ravine in 1937.

SKY RIDE: The first passenger aerial tramway in North America opened at Cannon Mountain in 1938.

MORE FIRSTS: New Hampshire also had the first:
-- professional ski patrol in the country (at Cannon)
-- ski slope grooming (at Cranmore)
-- World Cup races to be held in North America - in 1967 at Cannon, where the world's top men and women competed in slalom, giant slalom, and downhill over three days. French skiers won the weekend, with the legendary Jean-Claude Killy winning all three disciplines on the men's side.

BY THE NUMBERS: New Hampshire has 3,472 acres of lift-serviced skiing, at 19 alpine ski areas.

NORTH CONWAY -- Where can you find ski meister Hannes Schneider's typewriter, Penny Pitou's Olympic medals, and Edward Tuckerman's microscope? Starting this week, you'll find them in North Conway.

Visitors to the Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum will be able to check out all three of those items, along with a plethora of other engaging articles showcasing the region's skiing history.

The new branch of the Franconia-based museum, a $1.7 million undertaking which has been about three years in the making, will open with an official ribbon cutting ceremony Saturday at 3 p.m.

"Each of our locations is in an early ski town that remains a skiers' destination," said Jeff Leich, who has been executive director of the NESM for 20 years. "We had the chance to expand the reach of our mission, and it has developed momentum."

Founded in 1977, the NESM opened its first exhibit space in 1982 in a refurbished vehicle maintenance garage at the base of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. The museum has evolved considerably in the years since and has outgrown its original space. The Franconia museum features a permanent exhibit of ski history as well as temporary exhibits - currently "Skiing in the Granite State" - updated each June.

Since its inception, the NESM has built a membership of 1,500 people from 35 states and 11 countries. About 25,000 people visit the Franconia museum each year. Leich expects those numbers will grow exponentially with the new location in North Conway.

"We hope the Eastern Slope Branch will attract more visitors and more members, who will bring vitality, collections donations, and their stories and interests," he said.

That seemed to be the case even before the new branch opened, with local skiers stopping by to talk with Eastern Slope Branch manager Brian Fowler about their own ski history in the Mount Washington Valley.

Leich said the museum's board of directors has long considered expanding. The Franconia location has a compact exhibit space of about 2,300 square feet, plus a small office area. Just down the road from the museum is the NESM's 4,600-square-foot Paumgarten Family Archival Building, which houses over 1,000 items of ski clothing, 2,600 reels of film, 1,200 pairs of skis, and more than 1,300 books, along with other ski history paraphernalia.

The Eastern Slope exhibit space will showcase 46 skis in chronological order, from early wooden skis from central Asia to the cross-country planks New Hampshire skier John Carleton used in the 1924 Olympics to modern skis.

Other highlights include information on the myriad skiing and snowboarding Olympians from New England, a 10th Mountain Division display, and an exhibit of Eastern Slope trails cut in the 1930s by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Some of those trails, abandoned long ago, are seeing renewed interest as more skiers look for below-treeline backcountry skiing options.

Four large relief maps - of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and the southern New England states combined - will depict ski areas in each region. The interactive maps will allow visitors to slide through time and see when ski areas were established, when several of them were abandoned, and a when a few "lost" areas were resurrected years after closing.

There will also be displays related directly to the Mount Washington Valley's rich ski history. A refurbished car from Cranmore Mountain's famed Skimobile sits near the entrance, and one entire wall of the museum contains a mural of Tuckerman Ravine, complete with steps built into the corner so people can see how steep the climb into "Tuck's" really is.

The Eastern Slope Branch is located in the refurbished former North Conway Community Center, which was built in 1950 and is owned by the Gibson/Woodbury Charitable Foundation. The NESM has a 20-year lease on the building, which sits in the heart of downtown next door to Schouler Park.

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Helen Riegle of HER Design, whose past work includes displays at the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Institution, was the program manager for creating the exhibits and the flow of the museum. She worked with a team that included content developer Jack Pittenger and 3-D exhibit designer Dan Wallis. The team collaborated closely with Leich to determine which artifacts in the NESM collection should be displayed and how to tell the story of these items and the ski history they're a part of.

"I had been to the museum in Franconia, but I didn't realize how large the collection was," said Wallis, who passes some of New England's ski history landmarks between his home in western Massachusetts and North Conway. "It's been a really great experience and has given me a much better sense of place."

In deciding what to include in the exhibits at the new branch, Leich said, they considered local and regional ski history, as well as what items in the NESM collection were both visibly appealing and informative. The collection has grown significantly since the museum's founding.

"We never could have done this 20 years ago," he said. "The crux was waiting for the right potential location, the right proposal to appear, and maybe having the patience not to jump into something that was not perfect too quickly."

Funding for the Eastern Slope Branch has included a $100,000 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission and donations from individuals, foundations, and organizations. Local architect Michael Couture of Conway was project manager, and L.A. Drew of Intervale was general contractor for the renovation of the building.

Beyond its exhibit space, the Eastern Slope branch also has a welcoming browsing library and a small museum shop. It will be open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m

For more information about the New England Ski Museum, visit

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