The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 24, 2013

Miracle on Huff Knob

The pre-history of Winterplace

Of course, it wasn’t the Sahara. Huff Knob, Flat Top Mountain, Ghent, was well acquainted with snow before Nov. 20, 1983. In fact, the 3,570-foot elevation rightly guaranteed the peak a climate of its own.

Inside the old farmhouse that had transferred as part of the 148-acre first tract property deal to become Jerry Laufer’s temporary home, fresh paint froze before it could dry. But it had never snowed the way it did that day in 1983.

“I was practically in tears,” says Laufer.

Seeing that first elusive snow spray propelled by a snow gun, falling at the hands of men on what had historically been Oakey and Minnie Lilly’s sheep farm, signified the beginning of the end of an exhausting investment of self in order to start a new industry in the region.

“Up to that point,” Laufer stated, “… it was all hopes and dreams and fears.”

 Like Moses on biblical Mount Nemo, Laufer could look out over the Promised Land but couldn’t fully realize the fruits of his and friend Bob Ash’s shared nirvana — the would-be ski resort known as Winterplace. Still, he has one heck of a story to tell.

Twelve years before Laufer was witness to the first manmade blanket of snow to cover southern West Virginia’s highest elevation, he, his dad Sam and ski-enthusiast Ash invested a $100 option to buy the property, finding themselves among the originators of the southern West Virginia tourist trade. Laufer and the man he refers to today as a true genius — Ash — fought a total 13-year uphill battle to bring the downhill industry to the Mountain State.

Neither was a man of extravagent means, as some might suppose. Laufer’s intentions in telling his story are honorable.

“I would like people to know that no coal baron came in and built this place; it was just two local people and my dad that had the dream. Bob just wanted to bring skiing back home, and we were the first, even before Snowshoe, to bring the whole concept.”

In 1970, Laufer was a student at then-Concord College, finishing his B.S. in business administration after six years of traveling and attending other schools post-graduation. His family was originally from New Jersey, but had relocated to Princeton for his father’s industry management position before Laufer was born.

Laufer met Ash at a Princeton Jaycees event, admiring the man of many talents for his map of the world, an intricate rendering he had hand-painted onto a dunking booth for charity. The pair of adventurers instantly hit it off. In conversation, Laufer described a dude ranch out West that at its highest elevation boasted a ski area; he’d worked the lifts.

Ash, who had whittled his first pair of skis at age 6, had a long-standing love affair with skiing, having also worked at a ski resort in North Carolina.

Laufer’s mention of skiing struck a chord with Ash, who revealed he was determined to get back into the ski industry. According to Laufer, Ash took him to a place where he had once asked for permission to ski, in Raleigh County, a location with naturally perfect ski conditions. That was Laufer’s first time at Huff Knob, Flat Top Mountain.

Laufer caught Ash’s contagious enthusiasm, more for the location and its potential than for the sport in general.

“I was an enthusiast of changing the culture of the area,” said Laufer.

Money? Yes, there was money to be made, but there was also the chance to bring commerce and tourism to a region that might otherwise be overlooked. To him, it was “the hook” for bigger fish to come. “Bob told me the reason IBM chose North Carolina (for its corporation) was they liked the snow skiing there. I thought it would change business culture and bring industry and opportunity here.”

1971 was the year of the trinity: right place, right opportunity and right time for a ski resort to be born in southern West Virginia. Together with Laufer’s father, Sam, they purchased a $100 option to buy the property on Flat Top Mountain, officially taking possession of it in January 1972. Their partnership was named Sugar Camp Developers.

January on Huff’s Knob is cold, and Laufer felt every plummeting degree, inside and out. That the site couldn’t have been closer to the planned I-77 interchange had it been on wheels kept Laufer’s determination going through the lean times. Skepticism brought on by Snowshoe Ski Resort’s initial financial struggles allowed skepticism over the industry’s viability to accumulate, faster than a flurry.

Call him anything but lax —so fixed was Laufer to this singular vision that he spent down to his last dime and then some, in between industrious ideas to bring the ski resort to life.

A non-skier with an MG hardtop and an empty ski rack, Laufer and Ash had a century of recorded temperatures from the Huff's Knob fire tower. They obtained elevation maps, a feasibility study, proposals, pictures and temporary signage, initially reading “Flat Top Mountain Ski Area.” One of the original elevation maps bears the code-name Nirvana, printed in the lower right corner, among the first monikers of many that were discarded. On a sheet where Laufer and his dad scribbled some 20 names down in a brainstorming session, four names down were the words “Winter Place.”

There is no fear like that created by following a dream with no guarantees, a fear that sticks in the back of your throat. He may not have been a skier like Ash, but Laufer sufficiently risked a face-plant on the advanced slopes of financial jeopardy and public ridicule. “I remember the Bluefield Daily ran a cartoon. It showed the Ski Area sign crossed out, with Hang Gliding written in.”

About the hang gliding ... and the strip mining, and the restaurant, and the timbering and coal mining — he had earned a few knocks honestly, but it was all for the sake of buying time.

He organized the first and last Invitational Hang Gliding Meet in Flat Top Mountain history.

“It was late October, 1974. The cold air pushed them right into the trees,” said Laufer, remembering the feeling of desperation. Without a penny in the bank and $600 in bills for the event, he fortunately recouped $700 in hot dog sales. Following the food trail out of circumstance he said, “We took two electric hibachis and opened a restaurant called ‘The Farmhouse.’ They don’t even sell (the hibachis) anymore; they’re a fire hazard.”

Help from family sustained him.

“My brother, Edward, and his wife Sandy were sending me money to make the mortgage payments for many years. There was no guarantee that they would ever be reimbursed.”

Laufer also bought time for earning the investors he needed by teaching himself to strip mine, exercising the coal rights he had bought to the property. He leased $20,000 equipment to move coal from the seams beneath the mountaintop where 36 condos stand today.

“People would buy into coal. They wouldn’t buy into the idea of skiing, but they bought coal.”

He lived in the lone house on the property that had running water, but lacked indoor plumbing. Frequently, he’d make the trip to Princeton to thaw.

“I’m up here by myself on this mountain trying to knock on doors during the coal boom, trying to find the coal barons to invest. They didn’t relate to the sport or the business opportunity.”

In spite of the resistance and bare subsistence, 13 years of struggle earned the partnership 47 investors, mostly physicians enticed by the promise of unlimited skiing for their families and the potential for a tax-sheltered investment. Ski lifts installed, snow ready to be made, there was added pressure to open in 1983 for the tax credits available to the initial investors. Everything pointed to Ash, Laufer and his dad selling their interest over to Winterplace’s first official developers.

“If the mountain didn’t open before the end of December 1983, the investor consortium would lose not only their money but the investment tax shelter that came with the opportunity.” Given everything that stood solidly against success, said Laufer, “It is a miracle that the ski area is there today.”

While a lucrative enough deal to feel rewarded, Laufer didn’t have the chance to create the long-term resort-based future he sought for himself. He stayed on with Winterplace for three years, taking a couple of years off after to recuperate from his more than decade of sustained panic. The reward that money couldn’t buy was satisfaction that his and Ash’s vision, along with his family’s support, brought the ski industry to southern West Virginia.

Robert “Bob” Ash, the man Laufer lauds as “a brilliant Renaissance Man,” passed away at his home in Ghent on March 30, 2004, at the age of 64. Following their purchase of the Huff’s Knob area, Ash’s extensive knowledge of the industry and his visits to Sugar Mountain, N.C., led to his becoming the mountain manager of the resort there, and later to becoming CEO of Beech Mountain Resort, N.C.

According to an April 8, 2004, story in The Register-Herald, Ash had more than a half-dozen patents for snowmaking to his credit and, at the time of his death, was working on a “snow fountain” that would literally precipitate in the middle of the desert.

Although he finally learned to ski, an old orthopedic injury keeps Laufer off the slopes. In his late 50s, he returned to college and is today a special education math and science teacher for Greenbrier East High School. He has taught for eight years. Back in 1985, he met longtime love Marianne Brewster, whom he supported through two runs for Congress. The couple resides in Lewisburg.

There are little reminders of the piece of Laufer’s life invested on the mountain, a time most would assume he would want to forget. The main number to Winterplace was his old farmhouse phone number; his old address, 100 Old Flat Top Mountain Road, and the “new” Winterplace address are one and the same.

Returning for a friendly visit to the lofty location that cultivated his wildest imaginations is enough to bring tears to his eyes still today. There is also the undeniable confirmation of an idea few believed in, the silent “I told you so” of 30 year’s worth of employees, families, investors and skiers reaping the benefits of the dream.

“I was sitting in Jacksonville, Fla., and I heard this girl say, I’m going to West Virginia, to a place called Winterplace. I didn’t say a word,” Laufer described. ”I just sat there and smiled.”

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