Powderhouse Hill Ski Area is located on Agamenticus Road where it intersects with Route 4 in South Berwick, Maine. It’s open for business and not eligible for membership in The New England Lost Ski Area Project (NELSAP) except as an operational small ski area. The hill has 3 trails and 175-feet of vertical elevation. There is a small lodge at the base with a snack bar and wood stove.
Early Powderhouse Hill History
“Did you ever think that Powderhouse Hill was named because of powdery snow? Guess again! The powder is gunpowder! Ever think Powderhouse Hill was peaceful? You’re wrong. There’s been arson and even a murder!"
Thomas Butler and Elizabeth Butler were two of the first settlers in South Berwick’s town. They arrived here in 1698. They lived near the town hall and they owned Powderhouse Hill. Some people called it Butler Hill.
When North Berwick, South Berwick and Berwick were all one big town, a town meeting called for the construction of a powder house (something where people store gun powder). The people decided that it should be on Butler’s Hill. It’s probably true that they named Powderhouse Hill after the powder house.
In August 1851, several arson fires (a fire made on purpose) were reported in South Berwick. First, arsonists (the people that committed the arsons) burned down Hayes House on Academy Street and [then] the powder house on Butler Hill
The dead body of a young man was found in Hayes Woods on Powderhouse Hill in the fall of 1854. A carpenter named Charles Brewster met up with a transient named William Smith. The two men went into a tavern and were drinking rum and other men at the bar remembered Charles Brewster showing off a five dollar gold piece. On a train to Vermont, William Smith swindled twenty dollars from another man. After Brewster’s body was found, people at the boarding house where the men stayed remembered knowing Brewster had seventy dollars in cash. Smith was arrested for robbery and murder. He was found guilty. He was sentenced to hang, but didn’t because they got rid of the death sentence.”1
The following quoted paragraphs are taken from The Placenames of South Berwick and credited accordingly. There appear to be two minor discrepancies between the books version of hill history and the history as the contributors of this article describe it. These discrepancies include the truck (which is still there) being a 1938 Ford V8, not a Model A, and the Powderhouse Hill Ski Club being incorporated on December 14, 1964 as per state records, and not in the 1970’s as per the book. A most noteworthy piece of information in the book’s history is the year the first “rope tow” was apparently used on Powderhouse Hill. If indeed there was a lift on the hill in “about 1939” as the book states, this makes Powderhouse Hill one of the oldest operating ski areas in the entire country. It should be noted that the present lift is probably not the original lift as it does not seem logical that the originators of the ski hill would have used a virtually new 1938 Ford truck to power a ski lift in “about 1939” and then just leave it there forever. We suppose there could have been a Model A Ford used to power “a lift” prior to the 1938 truck but think it is more likely the writer(s) of the book used “Model A” in a generic sense and details of the first lift remain a mystery. The question remains, if the hill was served by a lift in “about 1939”, what powered it? The contributors of this article will continue to look for answers to this question.
Powderhouse Hill Ski Area History, Placenames of South Berwick
“The town-owned and volunteer managed Powderhouse Hill Ski Area got it’s start about 1939, when 24-year-old ski enthusiast William Hardy built the first rope tow on the slope, then owned by Herbie Day. The first tow was much shorter than today’s, but in the late 1950’s, Hardy “rehabbed” an old Model A truck, parked it farther up the hill, and modified a rear wheel to take the rope. Volunteers including Bob Lane, Ben Hill, Malcom Kenney, and Ed Mossman ran the tow from then on. Later, neighbor Basil Heffren, who worked for the phone company, got some recycled telephone poles and set them to carry the cables.
In the 1970’s, the South Berwick Recreation Committee replaced the Model A with an air-cooled, four cylinder engine. The Powderhouse Hill Ski Club took over the hill in the 1981-1982 ski season, and the ski chalet at the base was rebuilt in 1985. Former member Dave Stansfield recalls the club eventually convinced the town to buy the 15-acre site. The National Guard came in with construction equipment and, as a training exercise, upgraded the entry road and created the parking lot, he said. In the early 21st century the area included a sledding area and a skating rink, and is one of the few remaining rope tows in Maine.”2
Powderhouse Hill Ski Area History, Contributors Version
Two Hardy brothers started the hill back in the 1950’s or early 1960’s. They leased the property from the Day family and tried to make a commercial venture of it. As the story goes, it was these two men who drove the 1938 Ford truck up the hill and rigged it to power the lift. Although it is not a Model A as described in The Placenames of South Berwick, the truck is still there today and is a critical component of the 800-foot rope tow. This first venture wasn't commercially successful.
In an effort to resurrect the operation, Powderhouse Ski Club was born around the mid 1960's. (State of Maine records show an incorporation date of December 14, 1964) Notable early members were Ben Hill and Bob Lane. Bob just passed away last year (2006) and was a faithful supporter of South Berwick youth activities. He loved to stop by to see the tow running with young and old having fun in the outdoors. Bob's passion for the hill spilled over to all that listened to him telling the old stories. In his cellar he collected and distributed used ski equipment for those that didn't have any. During this groups tenure, use of the 1938 Ford truck motor to power the lift was discontinued and the current 37 HP air-cooled Wisconsin engine was installed on the truck frame. The hard rubber, grooved drive wheel off the truck rear end still spins the rope after all these years and is a sight to see!
After the first group of club members disbanded in the 1970’s, the hill lay unused for several years. Around 1982, some motivated citizens resurrected the club and had the non-profit incorporation re-instated. This group may have included but was likely not limited to, Malcolm Kenney, David Stansfield, Harland Goodwin, Ed Mossman, John Stuart, Cy Chase, Jack Shipley, Tom Harmon, and Bruce Martin…who is still an active member.
During this era, the club still leased the hill from the Day family and it took on the look of what we see today. The lodge was transferred from Rollinsford and erected. New poles for lighting and the rope pulleys were installed. The club continued on as a self-supporting operation until the early 1990's when the property was put up for sale and the cost of insurance was getting unaffordable. Fortunately at this point, the Town of South Berwick purchased the property and prevented the hill from becoming eligible for membership in NELSAP!
An agreement was struck between the town and the club for operation of the hill. To this day, the same agreement is in place and the club and town work in harmony to keep the hill open for the public to enjoy. The town is a great supporter of this wonderful recreational activity. In recent years the highway crew replaced the carrying timbers supporting the lodge, installed new night lighting fixtures, and improved the parking areas and driveway.
The hill gets a work out annually not only from skiing and snowboarding, but with the adjacent sledding area and in past years an outdoor skating area was tried. The ski club does not participate in management of the sledding area and the ice rink no longer operates. In warmer weather, Powderhouse Hill offers great hiking opportunities through connection with South Berwick Water District land and Berwick Academy further on. There is even a geo-caching site established by the Girl Scouts at the top of the hill. Berwick Academy has used the convenient loop for cross-country training. A hike or lift ride to the top is rewarded by a view to the North of four towns; South Berwick, Berwick, North Berwick, and Sanford.
Proceeds from lift-ticket sales go to the town to offset expenses. The club maintains a fund generated from snack-bar sales for other on-going expenses. These include relatively minor items like signage, motor oil, and building maintenance major purchases like rope replacement, and a snowmobile for crew and fuel transport from base to summit.
The volunteer members of Powderhouse Ski Club are proud to continue the tradition of providing affordable outdoor recreation opportunities for the youth and citizens of the area. One of the great by-products of the on-going operation is the opportunity for kids to practice social responsibility in sharing the space with one another, shoveling snow to cover the lift track, and older ones setting examples for the younger ones. They all have one thing in common; they had to learn to ride the rope, which is not easy at first and takes a bit of practice. There is something very much New England about the operation and it’s something to be cherished. The hill operates on 100% natural3 snow and in these days of unknown weather, every day the hill operates is a good one.
Lyle Carlson, Jack Kareckas & Bill Page
1. Lyle Carlson, My Research on Powderhouse Hill, (South Berwick, ME, 3rd Grade, Central School, November 29, 2007.)
2. Wendy K. Pirsig & The Old Berwick Historical Society, The Placesnames of South Berwick (Portsmouth, NH, Back Channel Press, 2007), Pages 151-152.
3. In 2008, the club built a “drag type” groomer that is pulled behind a snowmobile. To our knowledge, this is the first time the hill has been consistently groomed since its inception. Results have been good with more days open and the club looks forward to upgrading the equipment in the near future.