Love and sorrow for Big Tupper

Ski memories emerge at photo exhibit opening

Cindy Lewis looks for family members in a photo taken by Kathleen Bigrow at Big Tupper Ski Area. She is holding a sheet of paper given by Tupper Arts to submit her identifications to their records. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Love was in the air on Valentine’s Day at the Tupper Arts Center.

More than 50 people milled around the new exhibit, studying photos of skiers for faces they recognized, sharing stories from their childhoods on the mountain and speaking sorrowfully of the love they have for the now-shuttered ski area.

The skiing legends around town who built and operated the Big Tupper Ski Area from the 1960s until recently were at the gallery for showing of more than 100 black-and-white photos of the ski area in its heyday, taken by Tupper Lake photographer Kathleen Bigrow over a 39-year period.

The admirers reminisced on the love they have for the mountain the grew up skiing on, but also on the loss they now feel, as its lifts have not carried skiers up the slopes for many years now.

“This is really nice,” Sue Virostek said. “It’s sad and nice.”

From left, Sue Virostek, Debbie Gaudet and Cindy Lewis share a laugh while reminiscing on their days skiing at Big Tupper. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Many of them carried clipboards, supplied by Tupper Arts, to identify people they know and submit them to the center’s historical record. Jim Lanthier, who spent weeks sifting through Bigrow’s catalogue to find all the ski photos on display this month, said the clipboards will also be available all month for people to contribute their IDs.

Fond memories

Jim Frenette Sr. is possibly the most well-known skier in Tupper Lake. He developed the cross-country trails on the golf course, which are now the most popular place to ski in town and which now bear his name. He said he got out on the trails for an hour or so last week.

Now in his 90s, Frenette remembers more skiing than almost any other person in Tupper Lake. He remembers skiing Big Tupper’s predecessor, Sugarloaf Mountain, and even further back at Manning’s Hill, which started it all for the Tupper Lake ski scene.

Frenette said Manning’s Hill was open for just one year in 1939.

“The hill wasn’t that challenging, but the concept was there,” Frenette said.

The next year, skiers working with the Oval Wood Dish Company got the company to donate Sugarloaf, and the ski industry kept growing from there.

Ed Fletcher, the longtime manager of Big Tupper, said the plan at the mountain was always expansion. While he was there, he said the ski area added chairs 2 and 3, the lodge addition and the ski shop.

The employees

It took an entire village to operate the ski mountain, and many of the key members of that team attended the gallery opening Friday.

One person who was not there was Betty Jay, who Frenette said is responsible for the skiing skills of most of Tupper Lake.

“She taught more people to ski than anybody,” Frenette said.

Several of the people who got their start in the ski industry at Big Tupper have continued their careers at other mountains.

Ski instructor Kitty Villeneuve said she started working at Big Tupper because it was a five-minute commute from her house and because her kids spent all their free time there.

“All my kids skied there,” Villeneuve said. “They literally grew up there. They ate breakfast, lunch and dinner there.”

Now she commutes to Malone to work at Titus Mountain. The ski spirit is still strong in her.

Trail groomer Bill Mozdzier said skiing and grooming got in his blood at Big Tupper. A photo on the wall shows a younger version of him standing on the large vehicle used to groom the trails from 1969 to 1984.

Mozdzier now grooms at Gore Mountain in North Creek but said he would come back to Big Tupper if the mountain opens back up.

“It was heaven,” Mozdzier said. “Actually the word I want to use is ‘orgasmic.'”

Looking around at the photos, Mozdzier explained the feelings the images evoked in him: “Heart-warming. Good memories. Fantastic memories. Sorrow.”

Mozdzier said a series of bad situations and decisions has led the ski area to where it is now: closed and at a standstill. Others at the opening expressed similar sadness over the current state of the mountain.

Big Tupper was a town fixture from when it was built in 1960, back when the town was the town of Altamont until it was sold in 1987 for around half a million dollars. It changed hands as a privately owned ski center a couple of times before current owners and developers Foxman and Lawson purchased the ski area in the early 2000s.

There was trouble, though. After a false start of review in 2007, the project did not receive Adirondack Park Agency approval until 2012. Though Preserve Associates won in court, the environmental groups may have fatally stalled the project.

A team of 200 volunteers from Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy have opened the ski area several times in the past decade, but it has not been operational for several years now.

In October Tupper Arts Director Louise McNally’s husband Mike McNally and Stanley Rumbough purchased the land around the mountain and foreclosed on the property, hoping to spur some action and get the whole project into the hands of someone who can get it back in operation.

The photo exhibit “Thru the Lens of Kathleen Bigrow: Ski Big Tupper” will be on display at the Tupper Arts Center through the spring.


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