Ski Clubs: In the House of the White Mules
By rights, a mulemeister should be writing this, or else a kid who grew up as a White Mule. He’d know the history because he’d have lived it. Me, I learned to ski at Pinnacle, a family rope-tow-and-T-bar area among the low hills of southwestern New Hampshire. I grew up taking Labor Day weekend trips to North Conway — my family’s one vacation each year — and the real mountains of the White Mountain National Forest. We occasionally noticed houses up there with crossed skis on them, or signs bearing strange names like “Skidaddlers” and “S-Kimos.”
I could tell they were ski houses of some kind, but there was an air of mystery about them, the way exclusive clubs have, a world away from little Pinnacle.
One of those houses was a barn-red Victorian with a long wraparound porch, set up and back from Route 16 in the intervale above North Conway. I never saw it on those Labor Day trips; before the recent widening of 16, a thick stand of pine trees had screened the house from view. But as it happened, it was the house of the White Mules, and not long after I’d started a family of my own, old friends of ours who’d been members for years (who knew?) invited Kristen and me to join, and it became our house, too.
Officially, the club is known as the White Mountain Ski Runners, founded in 1933. No one knows for sure how we got our nickname, but “white mule” was another name for bathtub gin, popular during Prohibition and the Great Depression. It had a pretty good kick, and, well, high on one side of the house now, a white mule stands on its hind legs and skis shakily downhill. I like the name and the image — it fits the club, which doesn’t take many things seriously, other than the ski conditions at Wildcat.
Like most of the ski clubs in New Hampshire, this one started back in the days when skiers — mostly men, mostly bachelors — rode the ski train north from Boston every Friday night in winter. For years, early club members stayed in bed-and-breakfasts or short-term rental houses, but by the mid-’50s many of them had started families and wanted something more stable for their winter digs. What they found became typical of these retreats: a drafty, spartan old place with room for 50 bunks and a commercial-size kitchen that could provide for huge, family-style meals.
Midweek, all these decades later, the club’s oldest members (known affectionately as “Mulemeisters”) still get together here on their own. Visible signs of the lineage are everywhere, from the old black-and-white photos in the main hallway to the amazing display of the skis used over five decades by Fearing Pratt — showing the evolution from long, rough wooden skis with leather strap bindings to the classic Head Masters, one of the earliest metal skis. In the late afternoons and early evenings on winter weekends, members still raise a glass around the fireplace in the living room, though there’s wine or beer in the glasses now, instead of white mule.
Over time, the club has grown to include more than 200 families and a fairly sophisticated system to accommodate the use of the house. Weekend “chairmen” — usually a family, or a pair of families — volunteer to serve as hosts, providing cooking and room assignments and collecting the nominal lodging fees. Other ski houses hire outside cooks, or leave it to individual members to fend for themselves. Many still have adults- or singles-only memberships and are geared toward privacy and après-ski, while the boisterous, family-oriented Mules club is decidedly not, which for me is part of its charm.
The last time we were up here, Kristen and I hosted the club’s annual “race weekend.” The skiing at Wildcat was terrific. Our shy 8-year-old daughter, Ursula, got to run the gates of a course set up especially for the club. Miraculously, even the food, including the Saturday night meal — spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and Italian sausage, tossed salad, and loaves and loaves of garlic bread — worked out exactly right, again, and we managed to find beds for everyone.
But what I most remember was the “awards ceremony” following dinner. Our irrepressible emcee, Bruce Bowers, announced tales of embarrassment, and wives’ times that were faster than their husbands’, and the fastest times of all by the up-and-coming teenagers — all accompanied by silly prizes and gales of laughter.