“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”

Skiing comes to the “Maryland Alps” in 1940

By Francis “Champ” Zumbrun

Poplar Lick Road, New Germany State Park, 1941Newspaper reporters in the 1940’s and 1950’s called this area “The Maryland Alps,” the place where winter was king - “Maryland’s first genuine winter sports area.” Can you identify this place?

Here are a few more clues: “The first ski event south of the Mason and Dixon Line”, occurred here in 1941. In the 1950’s, this locale was called Maryland’s skiing mecca.” Give up?

These accolades refer to present day New Germany State Park and Savage River State Forest, where in 1940, recreational skiing was as new and fresh as the first snowfall of that winter.

Skiing originated more than 5,000 years ago in Scandinavian countries, so why did it take so long for the sport of skiing to come to Maryland? In countries like Norway and Switzerland, skiing first developed as a means for transportation, hunting, working, exploring, and conducting warfare. It has been only recently that skiing evolved into a popular winter recreational activity.

In the United States, the first ski club was formed in 1872, and the National Ski Association was organized in 1904. In1936, at the winter Olympic games in Austria, the alpine ski event was introduced for the first time and added to the established slalom event. It seems that soon after the winter Olympic games, the sport of skiing in the United States exploded in popularity.

Spectators at cross-country ski race, 1941The timing of the growing popularity of recreational skiing couldn’t have been better for Fred W. Besley, Maryland’s legendary first state forester. During his administration from 1906-1942, Maryland’s state forests and parks grew from zero acres to more than 100,000 acres. By 1940, Garrett County had more than half of the State’s public lands, with about 50,000 acres of state forests.

In Maryland, Besley pioneered the concept of linking scientific forestry with outdoor recreation. He was always looking for ways to gain public support and funding for forestry conservation and acquisition of additional lands. He believed that by promoting outdoor recreation on public lands, the public would be more likely to support the State in their efforts to purchase additional lands to practice scientific forestry.

Fred W. Besley’s daughter, Helen Besley Overington, told me: “Father believed that forests should not only be conserved, but that they should be used… [He] was very interested in getting the public to use the land… [He] thought this would bring more public support for conservation.”

A well-known summer resort, Garrett County was visited by thousands of campers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts each year. However, in winter it was a different story - visitors were rarely seen. Folks that lived in the area had a saying, “when the mercury slid down the cider hole, the natives hibernated.” Besley believed that skiing would provide outdoor recreational opportunities to bring more winter visitors to Garrett County and thereby help the local economy.

Beginning around 1938, a number of different organizations began writing letters to Besley and other state officials requesting a place to ski in Maryland. Letters came from ski clubs in Cumberland, Baltimore, and Washington. Requests also came from members of the Maryland Mountain Club and the Western Maryland Ski Club led by Dr. and Mrs. Royce Hodges, and Graydon “Ace” Dunlap from Cumberland. Henry C. Buckingham, the district forester in western Maryland for the State Forestry Department, reported that requests were piling up on his desk in Cumberland to develop a skiing center.

Construction of the Ski Resort Begins

Joe Davis - tapped by Fred Besley to create ski slopes at New Germany in 1939I had the opportunity to meet and interview Joe Davis, one of the foresters who helped construct the ski slopes in Garrett County. In 1938, Besley asked Davis, a forester at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp S-57 at Fishing Creek near Gambrill State Park in Frederick, Maryland to transfer to Garrett County. Davis told me about the day Besley called him down to his office at the Fidelity building on Charles Street in Baltimore to discuss this matter in person.

Besley said to Joe, “Davis, you have done a good job at the Gambrill watershed. I know you just got married, but we need you at Meadow Mountain. It’s the largest state forest and we would like to have you there.”

Davis replied: “O.K. Mr. Besley!” Joe told me that his visit with Mr. Besley was “a command performance.” He went home and discussed it with his new bride, and soon thereafter, they moved to Garrett County.

By 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps buildings were abandoned at New Germany. That same year, Buckingham brought two consultants to New Germany State Park to meet with Joe Davis and Mathew E. Martin, the Superintendent of Savage River State Forest, to discuss building a skiing area.

As it turned out, Buckingham, Martin, and Davis were the primary field people involved in developing the ski resort. They planned and oversaw the construction of three different types of ski areas at New Germany State Park and Savage River State Forest between the years 1939-1941: a beginner's slalom ski course, an expert's alpine downhill ski trail, and an endurance-based cross-country ski course.

Davis told me, “One consultant was Charles Effinger Smoot, a Dartmouth graduate and lawyer in Washington. He was quite an outdoorsman. The other was Frank Ballard who came from the Department of the Interior.”

Davis continued, “At this meeting, they talked about 'ski touring' where we would construct ski trails so skiers could tour them. They also talked about building a slalom course on the hillside overlooking New Germany Lake. That particular parcel of land was owned by Sam Otto.” Mr. Otto was a neighboring farmer at New Germany who supported the State Forestry conservation programs.

The consultants and Buckingham then talked about building an expert ski course. Before the consultants left, Davis humbly asked them: “Gentlemen, is there a book or a pamphlet that I could read to get a vicarious feeling about this skiing?” Davis admitted he had little experience as a skier. He came from a part of New York State where the land was flat. “The little skiing I did as a kid was on barrel staves,” he explained.

Davis continued his story: “Smoot looked up at me after my question and said, 'Joe, the best pamphlet you can find on the subject would be the Boy Scout merit badge pamphlet on skiing.'

Buckingham’s parting words when the meeting ended was: "Now Davis, don’t build that trail too wide! Erosion you know." Davis replied back, "Yes sir, Mr. Buckingham!"

“So I dashed down to Cumberland to the Boy Scout Council office and I bought a brown-covered merit badge pamphlet on skiing,” Joe explained. “I read it. I used it to learn about skiing.”

Davis continued talking about the challenges of building the expert ski course: “The concept Mr. Buckingham and I both had was to just cut a straight line from the top of the mountain down to Savage River. After reading the Boy Scout merit badge pamphlet, I got the feeling that our original concept was wrong.”

Whiskey Hollow Ski Trail, Savage State Forest, 1941“The expert trail was not a straight shoot down the mountain," Joe explained. “It wound down like a snake.” This ski slope became ‘the Whiskey Hollow Ski Trail,’ located about four miles from New Germany Lake on Meadow Mountain, a ridge that rises 2,800 feet above sea level. When complete, the expert ski course dropped 800 feet over a distance of 3,300 feet, with turning pitches of 30-35 degrees.

“The building of the expert course had me down on my knees praying for divine guidance,” Joe said. “I did find an area that had the best exposure, where snow seemed to lie the longest in the winter. I had walked up and down that mountainside a dozen times until I found the exact location where I wanted to start working.”

Joe explained, “There was a woods road on top that went out about 50 yards. From there I ran a string line through the rhododendron and hemlock down to the bottom and we began clearing, removing stumps and everything. I didn’t use a transit or compass.” Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Washington Ski Club helped Davis build the Whiskey Hollow trail ski slope in the summer of 1939.

“Of course, Buckingham told me not to build the trail too wide, so at the curves it was almost 50 yards at the turn-around.”

“I realized after we cleared the slopes at the curves that if there was a low snow-pack, skiers would wear it down to bare soil where there were pebbles, rocks, and so on. The pastureland along Savage River had been pastured for decades, so we cut sod there, and sodded all the curves of the trail.”

Offutt Johnson, retired employee of the Maryland Park Service and Program Open Space program, told me his impressions of the Whiskey Hollow Trail: “My Dad took me to see the Whiskey Hollow Ski trail when I was about 14. It would have been around 1955. The trail would have been 15 years old and it looked fantastic! My first reaction was WOW! There is just no way people can ski down that! That trail was a real gem!”

Ready for a day of winter sports, photo by Proctor Rodgers“It really was beautiful! This serpentine trail cutting through the wooded slope of the mountain was softened by green sod,” Offutt continued. “The borders of the trail were defined by a lush border of rhododendron and Canadian hemlock. Just the site of it conveyed the promise of an exhilarating outdoor experience, no matter what the season.”

The design and construction of the slalom and the ski touring trail were less challenging in contrast to the Whiskey Hollow expert course. The slalom course was located next to New Germany Lake on 30-acres of the Sam Otto and Floyd Broadwater farms. Both of these farmers cooperated and supported the Forestry Department’s efforts to bring skiing to Maryland and agreed to open up their land in the winter to the public. Under Mathew Martin’s supervision, a crew from the National Youth Administration opened these fields by removing rocks, stumps, and fencing. The gentle slopes on Otto’ s farm were ideal for beginning skiers.

The ski-touring cross-country ski trail that was developed followed a 4-mile course along Meadow Mountain that varied in width from 30 to 50 feet.

The Ski Resort Opens to the Public

Crossing the finish line, Whiskey Hollow Ski Trail, 1941 On the first weekend of January 1940, the ski resort informally opened with about 200 people present. Appropriately, Henry C. Buckingham, District Forester, and Mathew E. Martin, Superintendent of Savage River State Forest, were present to greet the crowd. A reporter from the Baltimore Sun covered this event for the newspaper.

In addition to praising the efforts of the Maryland Forestry Department for bringing skiing to Maryland, the reporter noted comments made by Mr. Martin about one memorable Garrett County winter storm that had occurred several years earlier in 1936. Martin recalled, “snow drifts so deep that the telephone poles were invisible and a temperature that occasionally hung around 36 below.” Indeed, winter was truly king in Garrett County.

One year later in 1941 on February 22nd and 23rd, the first ski event held south of the Mason and Dixon line took place at New Germany State Park and Savage River State Forest. About sixty skiers participated and 300 spectators were present to cheer on the skiers. Reporters from the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun newspapers were also there.

Miss Anne Marie Nunn skiing Otto's Slope, photo by Proctor RodgersIn a way, this was an international meet as some of the more skilled and experience skiers present were natives from Germany and other Scandinavian countries. People came from Cumberland, Washington, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. This was a notable crowd in those days. Back then, depending on the weather, the drive from Washington and Baltimore could take from seven to ten hours over two-lane roads.

The temperatures that weekend ranged from zero to fifteen degrees and the snow conditions were ideal. Joe Davis remembered, “They set up a slalom course and a downhill race. “There was a skier named Jones from Baltimore who made it down in 48 seconds!”

“There was a Norwegian girl, Ann Marie Nunn, from the Norwegian embassy,” Joe recalled. “I can still remember her. She was tall and had a white ski outfit. She looked beautiful in that outfit. She made it down the slope in 52 seconds!”

Many photographs taken of the events that weekend still survive. Buckingham served that day as  timekeeper at the finish line at the alpine event on the Whiskey Hollow Trail. A photograph shows him holding a stopwatch in each hand, standing at the finish line next to a telephone mounted on a pole. With the telephone, Buckingham could communicate to officials on top of the hill at the start line.

Timekeeper H.C. Buckingham (Maryland's 3rd State Forester) phoning in results from finish line. 1941 Fred W. Besley with his camera at New Germany, 1941

Another photograph taken that weekend shows Fred Besley standing quietly on the sidelines as a spectator. Wearing a long winter overcoat, scarf, and hat, the photograph shows Mr. Besley holding a camera,  apparently documenting the event with photographs for posterity.

New Germany State Park and Savage River State Forest Ski Resort (1940-1960)

Bill Martin, the son of Savage River State Forest superintendent Mathew Martin, with his scrapbook of Maryland State Forest & Park history.Local youth took a big interest in skiing. Although many of them couldn’t afford the cost for new skis, that didn’t stop them. How some of them obtained their first skies shows Garrett County innovation and creativeness at its best. Bill Martin, the son of Savage River superintendent Mathew Martin, told me this story.

“Many of our skis came from hickory bows that supported canvas covers on CCC transport trucks. We sawed the wooden bows off at the edges from the truck and took the pieces to Mr. Swauger, a CCC carpenter and local barber. The boards were built up so a foot strap could be placed through it. For binding, we sometimes used leather harness straps; at other times we used springs from the screen doors of the CCC camp. There were no grooves in them, but they were fast enough.”

Mr. Swauger also made skis using an old ski for a pattern. Bill Martin described how he made them: “We’d take to him hickory or ash boards, about 2-inches thick rough-cut and 3-inches wide. Mr. Swauger sanded the boards. He then placed the boards in a boiling kettle all day. In a couple of hours the boards became so pliable that they flapped when shaken. Next, he put the boards in a form and then in a vise. He would place a weight on the end of the board and get a perfect bend in it.”

On the Otto Farm, a ski rope tow was constructed, powered by 1935 dodge pick-up truck. “The Resettlement Administration donated it to the State,” Bill Martin told me. “The bed was taken off on the rear end and jacked up and a drum was used on one wheel for the rope tow. A shack was built around the cab of the vehicle. Heat from the engine warmed the interior of the shack, providing some comfort for the operator.”

Apparently, the design of the Otto rope tow was very similar to the first rope tow used in America in 1934 at Woodstock, Vermont. The original design, like the one used at the Otto farm, also used an old automobile to power the towing system, using a rope looped around a wheel rim.

“There was also a warming hut on the Otto farm,” Bill explained. “Kerosene was used to heat the building and to cook. Soft drinks and snacks were available. Loraine Otto and Bill Martin operated the business."

Unloading for a good ski run, 1941“They bought hamburger meat for 29 cents per pound,” Bill continued. “Each pound was divided into four burgers that sold for 20 cents each. For an extra nickel you could get it topped with cheese and/or a fried egg. Who said McDonalds made the first quarter pounder! Soft drinks were five cents and coffee was free.”

“Whiskey Hollow was not a ski trail for beginners, as many skiers found out too late,” Bill recalled. Since a motorized rope tow wasn’t available at Whisky Hollow, a car shuttle service was offered. “Some skiers would pay 10 cents to be taken by car or pickup truck from the bottom of the trail back to the top.” On several occasions, after a day’s work of shuttling skiers, Bill recalls coming home with a pocketful of quarters, dimes, and nickels.

Construction of New Germany Road occurred sometime between the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The road signaled the demise of the slalom ski course on the Otto farm as it cut right through the property.

Bill Martin thought that one of key things that went against the long term survival of the ski resort at New Germany and Savage River was that the nearest hotels were thirty miles away. In the beginning, skiers stayed at the Martin House at New Germany for $1.50 per night. “Most just threw their sleeping bags on the floor and crawled in. People who came in groups such as this took their meals at a local farm house- three meals for $2.00 a day,” Bill remembered.

Cross Country Skier at New germany - 2007, photo by Jeffrey CoatsSki courses were developed in the 1960’s at nearby skiing resorts that offered improved facilities and amenities. Joe Davis believed that “the advent of Wisp at Deep Creek Lake and its artificial snow making capability” contributed to the decline in popularity at the New Germany ski resort. In addition, another ski resort established near Davis, West Virginia, where the snow was heavier also contributed to its disuse.

Nature slowly reclaimed the land where expert skiers once demonstrated their skills on Maryland’s first developed ski trails. Even so, the legacy and spirit of Maryland’s first ski resort, begun in 1940, still continues at Savage River State Forest and New Germany State Park.  The original network of cross-country trails over the years has expanded from the original 4-miles to about 12-miles. Tremendous backcountry skiing and snowshoeing opportunities also are available at Savage River State Forest.

Today, the ski resorts at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland and near Davis, West Virginia bring skiers to the area in large numbers. “However,” Joe Davis wrote in his autobiography, “the trail at New Germany, built by the CCC for the State of Maryland, still has the distinction of being the first.”


Francis "Champ" Zumbrun is the forest manager at Green Ridge State Forest. He has worked as a professional forester for DNR since 1978. He serves on the Forestry and Parks Centennial Committee.

The author would like to thank the following individuals for providing information for this article: Joe Davis, Eric Creeter, Bill Martin, Offutt Johnson, Kirk Rodgers, Helen Besley Overington, Larry Maxim, Mike Gregory, Robb Schoeberlein (Maryland State Archives), Ross Kimmel, Robert Bailey, and Linda Wiley.

Photographs (top to bottom)

  • Poplar Lick Road, New Germany State Park, 1941
  • Spectators at cross-country ski race, 1941
  • Joe Davis was tapped by Fred Besley to create ski slopes at New Germany in 1939
  • Whiskey Hollow Ski Trail, Savage State Forest, 1941
  • Ready for a day of winter sports, photo by Proctor Rodgers
  • Crossing the finish line, Whiskey Hollow Ski Trail, 1941
  • Bud Little, downhill champion, New Germany, Savage River State Forest, Garrett County, 1941.
  • Miss Anne Marie Nunn skiing Otto's Slope, photo by Proctor Rodgers
  • Timekeeper H.C. Buckingham (Maryland's 3rd State Forester) phoning in results from finish line. 1941
  • Fred W. Besley with his camera at New Germany, 1941
  • Bill Martin, son of Savage River State Forest superintendent Mathew Martin, with his scrapbook of Maryland State Forest & Park history.
  • Unloading for a good ski run, 1941
  • Cross Country Skier at New Germany - 2007, photo courtesy of Jeff Coates