On Ben's Farm

Winter's Peak

Skier Jere Chase '36 shows his stuff.

The air is still and cold on Beech Hill in winter, quiet now but for the rumble of cars on the distant highway. A modest, mostly wooded hill, it overlooks the yet smaller, rolling hills of Durham. Few current students have ever reached this spot or even know it exists, though it lies less than a mile from campus. Near the top of the hill an old shed makes its last stand, its roof collapsed and floor in ruins. The rusted tire rim mounted on the shed's side and fallen poles scattered along the overgrown slope hint of days gone by.

Fifty years ago, on this very hill, Wildcat skiers in blue sweaters and woolen knickers strapped on heavy, board-like skis to race against the Big Green of Dartmouth, the Bates Bobcats and the Polar Bears of Bowdoin, while huge crowds of students in long heavy coats gathered to cheer on their teams. It was here, too, that fraternities built a long wooden ski jump, and where the best skiers, to the roar of the crowd, ripped through the crisp air for up to 80 feet.

Beech Hill was the training ground for great UNH athletes like Ernest Pederson '30, Gunnar Michelson '26, Jere Chase '36 and Ed Blood '35, who went on to compete on the U.S. Olympic ski team. The hill hosted the premier sporting events of what was once the University of New Hampshire's biggest festival of the year—Winter Carnival.

Begun in 1922 by the Forestry Club and later taken over by the Outing Club, Winter Carnival was the highlight of the year for the University's Winter Sports team, which, along with skiing, competed in skating, hockey, boxing and basketball. The Winter Sports team members were the "elite" athletes in those days, says Malcolm Chase '32, a champion speed-skater whose old leather skates still hang above his desk in his Durham Point home, along with the many ribbons and plagues he garnered. "I once scored more points than the whole Dartmouth team," he recalls.

"We were very sports-minded back then," says Charlotte Boothroyd Chase '38, whose eyes light up as she talks about her college days. "There weren't many women who skied, but we were expected to be there to watch the men compete," she adds, a bit ruefully. Carnival also offered a chance to participate for fun and prizes for those less serious about sports. Students, and even some faculty members, competed in games of baseball on snowshoes, toboggan races down the campus ravine, and skijoring, a bizarre event in which women on horseback, pulling male skiers behind them, raced from Durham's center down Main Street to the old gymnasium.

Competition was also fierce in the snow sculpture contest, an event that inspired surprising creativity among the residents of fraternities, sororities and the dormitories. Students worked until late in the night to put finishing touches on elaborate renditions of castles, Viking ships and Wildcats, which they often festooned with twinkling colored lights.

"It was a big joint effort," says Dick Dewing '53, who remembers arguing with his Acacia brothers on the snow-covered lawn about the best way to improve their sculptures. "We'd all be out there at one in the morning when we heard the judges were about to make their grand tour."

The high point of every carnival, at least in its first two decades, was the carnival ball, for which the gymnasium was transformed into a cozy Swiss village or a fairy-tale land of children's nursery rhymes, according to that year's carnival theme. Big bands such as the Harry James and the Newt Perry orchestras arrived on campus to entertain the students and their chaperones, who turned out in their best suits and most elegant gowns to waltz and fox-trot into early morning.

Winter Carnival lost much of its sparkle during World War II, when many students were called away and some never returned to campus. Those who did come back showed less enthusiasm for the festival, says Charlotte Chase, who attended carnival for many years after her graduation. "A lot of the spirit was lost after the war," she says. "It must have seemed frivolous to them because they were older and they'd seen too much."

Today the carnival tradition continues, albeit as a smaller, less well-attended event. More recent graduates recall only snow sculpture contests or the occasional outdoor movie in winter. Their predecessors who remember Winter Carnival in its heyday, with its thrilling days and nights full of sweat and romance and glamour, still savor the memories.

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