It is said by the residents of Ellicottville, N.Y.-perhaps too often but always with a sense of pride-that their town is the "Aspen of the East." Don't laugh. In many ways this western New York ski outpost is a Lilliputian version of America's most famous mountain town.
About an hour's drive south of Buffalo in the far western tip that juts from New York State's belly, Ellicottville boasts two ski areas, one for the masses-Holiday Valley, the state's most popular, averaging 450,000 visitors a winter-and the other exclusive, private HoliMont.
Like Aspen, Ellicottville claims to be a cradle of regional ski civilization. When Doc Northrup and friends strung a ropetow along the telephone poles that climbed 200 feet up Fish's Hill in 1936, it was the first in the state and one of a handful in the nation. In 1938, the Ellicottville Ski Club was formed, and two years later a full-fledged ski area was built on nearby Greer Hill, where HoliMont now stands. Holiday Valley was founded in 1957 at the leading edge of the ski boom. Both areas offer a surprising breadth of terrain despite their modest vertical rises, 700- and 750-foot respectively.
Like Aspen, Ellicottville was a hub of commerce long before skiing came to town. Situated on a plateau of rolling hills just north of the Allegheny Mountains, it grew into a major hardwood timbering center, still a key industry today. From HoliMont's summit, skiers gaze down on giant stacks of logs waiting to be whittled into furniture and kitchen cabinets at the 105-year-old Fitzpatrick and Weller Mill in the center of town. On the town's outskirts, slabs of ash are piled high, ready to be turned and branded into the nearly 700,000 Louisville Slugger baseball bats Larimer & Norton turns out each year. Fittingly, about half that production run is miniature souvenir bats.
The village lies at one apex of a roughly three-mile equilateral triangle. The ski areas are minutes away at the others. Ellicottville's downtown is a three-block strip with hip restaurants, bars and boutiques radiating a block or two in each direction. The architecture is a mix of old and older. Parts of Washington Street, the town's main thoroughfare, are lined with pastel-painted storefronts and sheltered sidewalks.
Like many successful ski towns, Ellicottville is struggling with growth issues. Neat single-family homes on tree-lined streets surround the commercial core, giving the place a cozy feel, but that's no more than an illusion most weekdays. More than half the homes are dark, their absentee owners in Buffalo, Toronto or Cleveland, sweating out a living before returning to Ellicottville for the weekend. "Back in the Fifties the place was teeming with families," recalls Vicki Emke, a real estate agent who grew up in the village. "Now there are virtually no children around," she says. Families seek more affordable housing in outlying areas such as five-mile-distant Great Valley. That's not because in-town homes are expensive. It has more to do with the average annual personal income, which in Cataraguas County is only $12,000. The economy is still a mix of old-school manufacturing and new-school tourism, neither of which creates high-paying jobs. In addition, Ellicottville has been through rough times and only began a stutter-step rebound to good fortune in the late Eighties. That trend continues today with eight regional golf courses that make the place a year-round destination. Interestingly, Ellicottville is still an affordable place to buy a home, according to Century 21 realtor Patti Crist. Despite a recent comeback in the real estate market, "prices are still about 30 percent below their 1995 peak," when the Canadian dollar began its tumble and many Ontarians who had bought up nearly half the town were squeezed out of the game.
While some Ellicottville locals like to play up the Aspen comparison, others just don't see it. Bill Brown, a tough-talking former Marine who converted a turn-of-the-cenry farmhouse into the tastefully elegant Ilex Inn in 1991, enjoys Ellicottville's renaissance, but bristles at the "Aspen of the East" handle. "It doesn't work for me," sniffs Brown. "This is more of a working stiff kind of place. We don't have near the number of jerks that Aspen has."
Truth be told, Ellicottville is a down-to-earth, Mayberry kind of town. Few lock their doors in Ellicottville. "After all," says 74-year-old town scion Edna Northrup, "I never know when someone might need to get something from my house."
The Northrup family, which traces its Ellicottville roots to 1863, is still a most prominent clan here. Matriarch Edna is revered through town and an enviable example that age is just a state of mind. In the past six years she has climbed the 100 highest peaks in the Northeast and hiked the entire 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Civic-minded, she is a former mayor and helped found the Alley Cats, a group of local women who beautify village streets by planting and maintaining flower beds. And, of course, she's also an accomplished skier.
While Holiday Valley and HoliMont offer a surprising diversity of terrain, ski bums don't come cold calling Ellicottville as they do better-known resorts such as Stowe. Those who spend a season skiing and serving visitors often vacationed here as kids. They hail mostly from Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Empire State, seeking the ski life without straying too far from their roots. Jim Nau is typical. A 28-year-old transplant from Rochester, N.Y., and brewmeister at the Ellicottville Brewing Co., he came for the job but stays for the slopes.
With Holiday Valley cranking its lifts most nights until 10:30, there's no shortage of opportunities to slide. The terrain at Holiday rambles across a single ridge, but distinctive folds and drainages give it surprising variety. In fact, the only thing Holiday Valley lacks is real steeps. Even the black trails that spill down to the Yodeler Lodge aren't long enough or tilted enough to generate thigh-burn. It's clear that a rare neighborhood spirit is what keeps better skiers from straying.
Ellicottville is a town where world-class characters are accepted, indeed embraced, for their eccentricities. An ex-pat Canadian who would probably be deported in less tolerant places, Ken Brown owns the Winter Sports Depot ski shop and brings bus loads of skiers from his native Toronto to Ellicottville.
I first meet Brown through a haze of smoke wafting from the barbecue he's manning for his guests outside Holiday Valley's Yodeler Lodge. He's wearing a mix-and-match pair of ski boots, a sorely faded neon ski jacket, a big beaded necklace and jeweled baseball cap. Brown is acknowledged as "The King of Ellicottville," an honest-to-goodness title he's earned eight consecutive years during the town's big bash Mardi Gras parade. He obviously revels in the role but is self-deprecating about the award, which is proclaimed by voice vote from the crowd. "I know all the drunks in town so they cheer for me," Brown says. "I also 'buy' votes by throwing out beaded necklaces to the crowd." It no doubt helps that Brown marches the parade route while holding a generator that powers hundreds of colored lights that wrap his body like a Disney float in the Main Street Electrical Parade. Like every world-class ski town, Ellicottville has groomed local skiers for the U.S. Ski Team. Doc and Edna's daughter Penny was a U.S. Ski Team stalwart in the Sixties. Another homegrown USST racer, Cindy Oak, has resettled to raise her family near HoliMont, where her dad still patrols the hill. The private club area attracts mostly families who want a place where they can let their kids roam at will when freeskiing but also sample the challenge and discipline that comes with being part of a premier racing program.
The region continues to churn out top skiers, such as current USST mogul stars Alex Wilson, Cory Hacker and Jill Vogtli, and runs a pipeline to many of the nation's better ski academies with seven locals currently enrolled in Vermont's Stratton Mountain School alone. But beyond ski stars and characters, what makes Ellicottville a special place to live and visit are its residents, who seem naturally predisposed to commit random acts of kindness. At the behest of the chamber director, local Annie Widger graciously agreed to take my daughters horseback riding around her farm. That was no doubt done to impress a writer from SKI Magazine. But the fact that we hung out at her house for nearly two hours afterward as I comfortably chatted with her and husband Mike while our daughters bonded over computer games demonstrates that like most Ellicottvillians, they're just good people. to many of the nation's better ski academies with seven locals currently enrolled in Vermont's Stratton Mountain School alone. But beyond ski stars and characters, what makes Ellicottville a special place to live and visit are its residents, who seem naturally predisposed to commit random acts of kindness. At the behest of the chamber director, local Annie Widger graciously agreed to take my daughters horseback riding around her farm. That was no doubt done to impress a writer from SKI Magazine. But the fact that we hung out at her house for nearly two hours afterward as I comfortably chatted with her and husband Mike while our daughters bonded over computer games demonstrates that like most Ellicottvillians, they're just good people.