FARMINGTON — When Megan Roberts was a teenager, Titcomb Mountain ski area changed her life.
As her mother got sick, then died, Roberts, one of five children, came to the mountain as a refuge. And it became a family to her.
“Everyone here helped me,” she said. “And that’s what we still do. Everyone wants it to be a safe place and a friendly place.”
Roberts, now a co-manager of the small club-operated area, can look around and find others who feel the same sense of community.
Like Jody Farmer, who’s been skiing the mountain since he was 5, and now brings his 7-year-old son, Nathan.
Farmer, 40, of Farmington, said his parents skied there, too.
The tradition of coming to the mountain is something that is handed down though families since the slope opened 75 years ago, and Roberts said she knows families who’ve skied the mountain for four generations.
Managers of other small ski areas say community relationships are what keep locally run slopes open, and industry experts say a growing overall sense of community has led to a resurgence of the small ski areas in Maine.
Staying open is not easy. Over the past 40 years, more than 70 Maine ski areas, many of them small like Titcomb, have gone out of business.
Increased competition, along with insurances increases, warm winters and community apathy, closed hundreds of ski areas, mostly small community ones, across New England over the past couple of decades, according to ski historian Jeremy Davis.
But he said it’s possible Maine has “seen the end of the hemorrhaging.”
Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Maine Ski Association, agrees.
“Community ski areas are currently strong, with a strong membership base and awareness of the importance of kids getting outdoors, especially in winter months,” he said.
This year, the largest ski resorts in the state opened earlier than ever, with millions of dollars invested in the latest snowmaking equipment.
Maine’s ski areas attracted about 1.36 million visitors last year, up 10 percent from the previous season’s 1.24 million visitors.
The small ski areas that make up the rest of the state ski industry, some of which don’t have any snowmaking equipment at all, survived in the ’70s and ’80s and are making it work now because of community relationships, experts say.
“These communities have taken ownership of the ski area and are driven by pride for the area,” Davis said.
Titcomb Mountain skiers say they feel a sense of ownership toward the area that’s a family tradition for many members.
Small mountains like Titcomb are club-owned and rely on community support. Club-owned ski areas are nonprofit organizations, so they can get grants for things such as promoting skiing in the region, sustainable equipment and after-school programs.
But it takes more than grants and local skiers paying membership fees to keep the area running. It takes volunteers from the 400 member families willing to donate time to run a ski lift, cook burgers at a snack bar or operate a groomer.
Even in the off-season, residents volunteer their time painting buildings, chopping wood and mowing the slope.
“They become important parts of family history, especially in rural communities where you can’t drive three hours all the time to go skiing,” said Davis, a New York historian and author who researches lost New England ski areas.
Davis said the drive to support remaining ski areas usually comes from skiers’ personal history with the site.
Farmer is an example of that. He used to volunteer at Titcomb as a ski instructor and also donated his time to do yard work and cut trails.
“And most parents in the community have. It’s a club owned by the members, and the members do the work,” he said. “You’re benefiting the generation to come.”
Whether there for the tradition of alpine skiing, or branching out into the terrain park or Nordic skiing, Titcomb patrons say they are all drawn to the mountain area because of the family environment.
Pete Roberts, who has snowmobiled “since it became a thing,” said he has patronized Titcomb since the early ’90s and continues with his daughters.
“This is a great local area resource that can’t be beat,” said Roberts, no relation to Megan.
Co-director Megan Roberts, 58, turned to the area for refuge as her busy professor father tried to manage his family of five kids when his wife was ill, then died. She said it gave her a community to be part of and a meditative outlet.
After high school, she skied Division I at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, and after graduating worked in different ski areas in the West before coming back in 2000 to manage at Titcomb. She took a break in 2004 to care for her dad, who was sick, and came back last year as a co-manager with Jaime Ranger.
“People come back because they have such fond memories,” she said. “It’s in your heart. The friendliness, the feeling of ownership.”
Skiing came to Maine around the late 1930s and had its start in small slopes maintained by families and clubs, said ski historian Davis.
Among these early ski areas was Titcomb Mountain, founded in 1939 by the ski club, which ran its first rope tow using the engine from a Model T Ford.
Davis’ research shows more than 70 small ski areas have disappeared from Maine in the last 40 years, and “that’s a lot more than most people would have ever guessed.”
He said in the ’70s and ’80s a lot of factors led to the decline in small ski operations, including a jump in insurance costs, gas shortages, increased competition with western resorts, growing New England resorts and other vacation destinations.
But those in the industry say that trend is changing. The Ski Maine Association lists 12 small ski areas still operating in Maine.
Executive Director Sweetser said that 1,361,661 individual skier visits were made to Maine slopes last winter. The smaller areas are supported, Sweetser said, because communities value having a convenient, locally owned ski area.
Kaitlin Schroeder can be contacted at 861-9252 or at: