Editor’s note: Taos Ski Valley’s co-founder Rhoda Blake died Nov. 3, 2015. See here for her obituary. The following article originally appeared in the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle 1999-2000 Winter Enchantment.
By Ellen Miller-Goins
Had fate not intervened, Rhoda Blake might have lived a life filled with white-gloved tea parties. After all, that’s the genteel New York society in which she was raised. For her, it would have been the equivalent of life in hell. Lucky, then, that she met the late Ernie Blake, while skiing at Stowe, Vermont in 1940.
Lucky, too, that he met her.
Ernie is famous for being the charming, funny, irascible character who founded Taos Ski Valley. Rhoda has often been described as the “silent power behind the throne,” but it’s an image she dismisses as an “exaggeration.”
But in the book “Ski Pioneers” by Rick Richards Ernie said, “Taos Ski Valley succeeded because she was with me…. She thought this idea of a ski area was a good one, this crazy idea which couldn’t make money.”
An adventurous spirit
A war orphan from England, Rhoda was adopted by a New York State Supreme Court judge. It may seem like a stretch for a society girl to be drawn away from Park Avenue to a life of adventure and uncertainty, but it wasn’t for Rhoda. She found a life of social engagements “boring.”
“I can’t say I ever enjoyed it,” Rhoda says. “My sister and I would have to dress up in our Sunday best and accompany our mother as she visited her friends, never ours, praying all the time those ladies wouldn’t be at home. Because if they weren’t, all we had to do was leave our calling cards to let them know we had been there — it was sort of a voice mail of the 1930s.”
As a young lady, Rhoda was already a bit of a free spirit. When she was only 21, Rhoda and her friend Nancy Palmer convinced their parents to allow them to travel to Santa Fe one summer, ostensibly to study art.
“We were supposed to study art, but mostly we went to have a great vacation,” Rhoda says.
While there, they decided to take a road trip to Mexico City, via Laredo, Texas, driving the newly built Pan American highway, a road so vacant, they only encountered one other car.
They decided to swim in the river along the way when a problem presented itself: How do you change back into clothes when you’re driving a convertible?
As fate would have it, Rhoda saw a car gaining on them while Nancy was still changing. She sped up to outrun them and the car sped up to catch her.
When they finally stopped, Rhoda says the driver of the other vehicle pulled up and said, “My you girls drive fast!”
According to Rhoda, their adventures continued when they were robbed in Mexico. She says she hocked her camera to get enough cash to get back to Santa Fe. Back in New Mexico, Rhoda says they didn’t have enough money to sleep in a hotel so they slept in a field.
They met on skis
Rhoda first met Ernie, a Swiss-German immigrant, at Stowe during the Christmas holiday in 1940, but she says, “I wasn’t terribly impressed with him and I don’t think he was terribly impressed with me.”
Despite this inauspicious start, they later hit it off. They went on a ski vacation to Alta, Utah, and later that year hooked up in Santa Fe, following Rhoda’s Mexican adventure. They drove (in separate cars) cross country back east and were engaged along the way.
Rhoda and Ernie were married in February 1942 and honeymooned in Sun Valley, Idaho, where, Rhoda says, they learned not to ski together.
“That’s how we stayed married,” she says.
Finding their way home
Rhoda may be the only one in Northern New Mexico to call Ernie “Ernest.” She explains, “He was Ernest when I met him. I think it was while he was in the Army that people started calling him ‘Ernie,’ but I never did.”
During the early years of World War II, they moved from New York to San Francisco where Ernie worked for Lanz of Austria while Rhoda worked at the Naval Base across the bay in Alameda, working mostly in the wings and tail of amphibious aircraft. She says Ernie eventually went to work at a shipyard because “he didn’t think selling ladies clothing was what he ought to be doing.”
They later went back east and Ernie joined the Army (where he became a United States citizen) serving from 1943 to 1946.
“We lived in Connecticut three years after the war,” Rhoda says. “Ernest had a one-hour commute to New York. He had to take the subway, which he hated.”
Finally, at Rhoda’s urging, they hit the road in search of something better.
“I told him, ‘You spend most of your life working, why not do something you love?’”
They drove all over the country looking for a place to live and ended up in Santa Fe.
“Ernest went to the Chamber of Commerce and asked what business opportunities there were and they said, ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing… Only some crazy people who are trying to start a ski area.’”
Ernie became manager of Santa Fe Ski Basin and when Glenwood Springs ski basin in Colorado bought the area, Ernie began commuting by plane between the two sites. It’s well-documented that it was on these flights that he took notice of an area below Wheeler Peak with bounteous snow.
After working 5 years at Santa Fe, Ernie and Rhoda came to Taos, with three kids in tow, to pursue their dream.
“We just felt that if you’re going to work 16 hours a day, you might as well work for yourself,” Rhoda says. “We had a 16-foot trailer and the five of us lived in it. There was no plumbing, there was an outhouse. I built a bed above our regular bed for Mickey. Wendy and Peter slept on a table.
“When the Skinners, who managed the Hondo Lodge, had rented all their rooms, they’d sleep in our so-called ‘hallway.’ They had to wait until we went to bed to roll out their cots because they occupied every square inch of the passageway. And we had to wait until they got up and out of our way before we got out of our beds!”
According to Rhoda, the trailer door would get frozen shut and on one such occasion she shoved at it so hard she flew out the door and landed in the snow at which point “Peter looks out and says, ‘Mommy, do that again!’”
Rhoda says her mother was less than enthusiastic about their chosen lifestyle because “the ski business wasn’t a business then. Although she would never actually lie to her friends, my mother would imply that we moved out here for Ernest’s health.”
That first winter, 1955–56, they hauled skiers up by snowcat, then built a 300-foot lift in January. In summer 1956, they bought, and rebuilt, a lift from the Taos Winter Ski Club at Tres Ritos.
“That rebuilt lift was funny,” Rhoda says. “That’s how (former longtime ski instructor and ski school supervisor) Chilton Anderson was hired. He was the only one who could lift the cable back onto the sheaves. He couldn’t ski at the time but that was neither here nor there — he could put the lift back.
“The next lift was the Poma that went all the way up Al’s Run. Periodically, the Poma lift manufacturer from France would call to see if the lift was still going because he had never built one on a lift that steep! There was a space where it lifted you off the ground so we’d load two at a time if they didn’t weigh enough.”
One big, happy family
In the summer we had three employees and six or eight in the winter,” Rhoda says. “In the early years, we all did everything. In the fall, all the lodge owners would go out and foot-pack the runs. When Porcupine got too moguled, Walter Widmer (who retired in 1991) and I would go out with infantry spades to knock off the tops and stomp them down. It wasn’t just the skiing. We worked hard, but we had lots of fun and games. Practical jokes were the rule.”
Rhoda remembers one she played on Walter: “There was a woman he couldn’t stand so I told her Walter liked her, but he was very shy.… She stuck to him like a postage stamp!”
It was probably the fun, and the skiing, that kept Taos Ski Valley employees loyal — many of them for years.
“The road was pretty bad so everybody lived up here — and not always under the most comfortable conditions,” Rhoda says. “But nobody really cared.”
A few of the original employees were paid in stock and Rhoda says, “They had no expenses when they were here because they had housing and food. They worked for peanuts.”
Wendy says her mom is an “excellent cook.” Rhoda disagrees, but says she cooked for TSV employees, as well as the occasional summer visitor.
“For many years we didn’t have any restaurants up here summers,” she says, “but Ernest was very hospitable.”
She still isn’t fond of cooking so it’s only natural they’d name the resort’s gourmet restaurant, Rhoda’s, after her!
Rhoda tends toward shy and was therefore content to let Ernie attract all the attention and fame. Still, she had to work with the public, too. According to daughter Wendy, Rhoda’s specialty was helping terrified beginners zig-zag their way to the bottom of Al’s Run.
“I remember one time I had a class of football players and they couldn’t get up. Can you imagine lifting 200 to 300-pound people up for two hours? I was exhausted.”
One of her most memorable classes involved the early operators of the Hondo Lodge.
“Ed Pratt, who ran the Hondo Lodge for many years, was notoriously frugal. His wife Phyllis wanted a Bogner suit so he said if she skied down Al’s Run he’d get her one.”
Rhoda helped Phyllis meet the challenge: “I’d just guide her over the tough spots. It took a long time, but she made it.”
A great team
Besides teaching and grooming trails, Rhoda laid out new trails, helped build the Poma lift, mounted skis in the rental shop, painted, built, ski patrolled… whatever was needed.
“I always said we had a very backward marriage because I did the mechanics and he wrote the letters,” Rhoda says. “He wasn’t good with his hands but he was a genius with people. He made everybody who came here feel they were his long-lost friend. He was also a genius at publicity. In his radio broadcast he’d be absolutely honest and tell people the skiing was terrible. He was extremely funny. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.”
A family business
Even though she was a “working mother” in an era when women didn’t pursue careers, Rhoda says she never had to worry about the children.
“I think they were even on skis in Santa Fe,” she says.
Because of their isolation, the children studied by correspondence. Rhoda says someone asked Ernie what the children did for schooling and he replied, “I use the Bible for religion and TV to teach them about the world.”
“He had a very dry sense of humor and people frequently didn’t realize he was joking.”
Even that first winter, Mickey was involved with the ski business, hauling skiers by snowcat though his dad said Mickey “couldn’t see over the dashboard.”
Ernie passed away in January, 1989. Today, Rhoda still serves on TSV’s board of directors, Mickey is general manager of the family business and his wife Ann is vice president of administration. Wendy operates the ski shop and her husband, Chris Stagg, is vice president of marketing. Peter taught for many years, but, these days, raises cutting horses in Texas and Canada.
And now a new generation is getting involved with the business. Rhoda says all her grandchildren have worked at TSV “at one time or another Mickey’s daughter Adriana still works wherever she is needed, although she is keeping busy these days with three-month-old twins! (Future TSV operators?)
Taos Ski Valley didn’t make money until at least 18 years after it opened — the year the road up to the ski valley was paved. Until that time, Rhoda says, “All the money was plowed back into the area.”
In “Ski Pioneers,” Ernie said they made $1,600 the first winter, with 800 skiers, and $8,000 the second.
Today, although it retains much of its charm, the area has exploded in popularity.
“As you get bigger, you cannot keep the small, intimate atmosphere,” Rhoda says. “It’s nice to see Taos Ski Valley be a success, on the other hand, it was more fun when it was small.”
She muses, “I feel sorry for our kids because they have all the headaches of running a big resort. We got to have all the fun.”
Editor’s note: The Blake family sold Taos Ski Valley to to billionaire conservationist Louis Bacon in December 2013. Chilton Anderson died at age 85 on March 12, 2014.