Willoughby: Early ski manufacturers – more makers than customers
The ad posted with this column was one of many attempting to attract skiers to their products. Skis then were all made of wood and manufacturers added skis to their line of other products. I was surprised Flexible flyer was one of them.
If you grew up in snow country you are aware of Flexible Flyer as a sled making company. I spent many hours of my youth on mine and also used it to haul stuff pulling the sled along Aspen’s snow packed streets. I used Little Nell for sledding and the Flexible Flyer was not always as flexible as needed. While it is designed so you can make it turn, the lower hundred yards of Little Nell were too steep and had too many moguls for the sled to turn fast enough resulting in many spills.
According to Wikipedia Samuel Leeds Allen patented his sled in 1889.
Allen’s New Jersey major business was farm equipment but in 1915 his plant produced 120,000 of them. An ad from that period claims, “saves shoes, prevents colds, and save’s doctor’s bills because you don’t drag your feet in steering”. The ad was intended to show its advantage to the alternative, toboggans.
Flexible Flyer did not appear to penetrate the Aspen market until 1927 when Tomkins Hardware began selling them. Tomkins did not advertise them preventing colds, but pitched, “don’t let your boy or girl miss all the fun for what good is snow without a Flexible Flyer.” They also sold an accessory, a sled back that, ’makes a dandy baby sled.’
Flexible Flyer sold many skis especially during World War II but went out of the ski business around 1950. Like many skis during most of that period they did not have metal edges. Without those hard and sharp edges skis did not turn as easily, and they also wore out quickly.
Flexible Flyer’s hickory skis were not advertised in Aspen, but in 1938 Tomkins snow sports customers were choosing between Flexible Flyer sleds ranging in price from $2.75 to $4.00 and Groswold Skis at $8.95 ($138 in today’s dollars) and up.
Thor Groswold’s plant was in Denver, opening in 1932. Groswold was invited to be a partner in the Highland Bavarian, Aspen’s first foray into skiing, and he was one of the early investors in the Aspen Skiing Company. His company was the first to be an official ski supplier for America’s Olympic team in 1948 when Gretchen Fraser won America’s first skiing gold medal. Groswold stopped making skis in 1952. Like many of the early ski manufacturers they did not make the transition to metal skis.
There were many early ski manufacturers. Even if you grew up at the time of wood skis you will not recognize most of the manufacture names. It was not a large market and it appears some of them were regional businesses. Go to: http://www.woodenskis.com/classic_brands.htm, a site that compiled information and photos of dozens of brands from the early days of skiing.
My father fashioned his first skis as did most locals in the 1920s. His first pair of manufactured skis were Groswold’s, the favorite of nearly everyone in Aspen. Since he knew Groswold personally he would not have any other brand. I had a hand-me-down Flexible Flyer sled and hand-me-down skis, but none of them were Groswold. By the time I began skiing Northland skis with metal edges dominated Aspen’s children’s used and new ski market.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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