Like most everyone living or working near the ski resorts of West Virginia, The Ski Barn anxiously awaits opening day of ski season each year. But this year -2010-2011 - is a special year. This season marks The Ski Barn's 30th year celebration of providing ski and snowboard rentals to outdoor enthusiasts.
When Mike Owen first had the vision of a ski rental shop at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, the year was 1980 and the resort was still a fledgling operation.
The Ski Barn began in a building rented from Pauline Galford at the base of Snowshoe Mountain.
NOT EASILY FORGOTTEN — Mike Owen, the original owner/founder of The Ski Barn, returns to the business he’s loved for most of his life. At the beginning of The Ski Barn’s 30th season, Owen set the first pair of rentals.
Owen remembers some of the early times for the Ski Barn. "I took over the lease on July 1, 1980. We leased the 'old' Ski Barn from Pauline Galford. She had Black Bear Construction, Skip and Curtis Walker, convert the building from a working barn to a retail store downstairs and two apartments upstairs.
"She had originally intended to open a liquor store in the building," Owen said. "At the last minute, she was informed by the state of West Virginia that she could not open the liquor store and she leased it to me."
With lots to do and just a few short months, Owen began getting ready for the winter ahead.
"I needed to order the rental equipment. Since I didn't have any credit in the ski industry this presented a problem," he said. "Sepp Kober came to our rescue. Sepp was the director of skiing at the Homestead as well as a ski rep.
"We worked out a deal and ordered 400 sets of adult and junior ski equipment," he said.
In 1980, snowboarding hadn't quite reached the popularity it has today, so that wasn't a worry for Owen. With shipments of ski equipment on the way, Owen said his next project was to build all the ski, boot and pole racks as well as counters and more.
The first two employees hired were Jerry Mace and Jeff Howe.
"We leased half on the downstairs to Pam and David Ladd. They opened a real estate company called Montvale in the building. They rented the lodging and we rented the skis," Owen said.
But it wasn't long before Montvale closed, just after three seasons.
"It worked out well for The Ski Barn because by then the barn had grown and needed the extra space. This allowed us to increase our retail offerings," Owen said.
In the early years, Owen said The Ski Barn was almost entirely rental, but each year more retail items were added.
"We focused on the necessities, accessories and souvenirs," he said. "It grew until we were able to offer a complete line of clothing and equipment."
That first season was a lucky one, Owen said, as Snowshoe received a lot of early snow and cold weather and was able to open early and with more terrain than expected.
"Snowshoe's rental shop did not have their new skis mounted and actually ran out of equipment for the Thanksgiving weekend," Owen said. "This meant people came to us to get skis. We also had the new 'step-in bindings with ski brakes.' Snowshoe still had Spademan bindings.
"This made us instantly popular and really helped us get business," he said.
If the barn had not opened that week, Owen said he wasn't sure what he was going to do. "I had run out of available money for payroll," he said.
With Snowshoe Mountain Resort having its own rental shop, Owen said it was considered competition, "but in a friendly manner."
"We always got along with the resort management. ... I think this also helped us grow. I realized that without the resort, no one needed our ski equipment," Owen said.
During the first two years in business, Owen said The Ski Barn was heated primarily with a wood stove. He remembers running out of firewood in the middle of winter and having to go out into the snowy woods with Howe to cut more logs.
"After a couple of years, we installed a major furnace. It might have cost more, but it was a luxury," he said.
While sitting in his office one day, Owen said Kathy Bennett, one of the barn's early employees, came in and asked about group discounts.
"There was a group of around 30 people asking," he said. "She mentioned them as the Earnhardt group. Yes - it was the NASCAR driver and his group, but at that time I didn't know what NASCAR was or who Dale Earnhardt was. Kathy was amazed, not that Earnharht was there, but that I didn't know who he was."
Another time while in the office, Owen said Carol Smallridge, another early Ski Barn employee, was talking to some customers. Owen said they asked her if she skied, to which she replied that "not only did she not ski but anyone whom did had to be crazy.
"I ran out of the office with the attitude to explain to Carol that her paycheck depended on people skiing. As I came around the corner, the people she was talking to were all laughing and smiling, so I went back to my office. Maybe it was a little crazy to ski back then," Owen said.
After several years of closing in the summer, Owen said The Ski Barn finally stayed open one summer. He said a group leader came into the store to get information about the following winter.
Although it was summer, The Ski Barn was able to book that large group, and from that point on, "it made sense to stay open all year. We lost money every summer, but if we could get several groups, families and individuals to come back in the winter, it would work out in the long run."
Growing up in Boone, North Carolina, Owen said he worked at several ski resorts as a kid. He worked in the rental shop at Hound Ears and Beech Mountain.
Owen's father ran the ski patrol at Beech Mountain, so Owen also patrolled and taught skiing.
"When it came time to open The Ski Barn, I went back to the Boone area to look at how all of the other ski shops were organized," he said. "I remember copying a lot of good ideas from other shops. We wanted to be the fastest rental shop without losing any quality.
In the beginning, Owen said The Ski Barn would open at 7 a.m. But one year, one of the employees, Doris Doyle, was scheduled for the opening shift but couldn't get her children on the school bus and get to the store by 7, so opening time was changed to 7:30.
The Ski Barn has grown from that first shop at Snowshoe to now include a Ski Barn location at all ski resorts in West Virginia (Winterplace, Canaan Valley, Timberline and Snowshoe) and at the Wintergreen Resort in Virginia. In 2004, a sister-shop called SnowCreek Mountain Sports was built on top of Snowshoe Mountain at the entrance to the Silver Creek ski area.
By the time 2006 rolled around, Owen was ready to hand over the reigns of The Ski Barn and hit the road of retirement. In March 2007, The Ski Barn was purchased by R&R Sports, a company headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Ski Barn remains, for the most part, the same as it was. With a focus on top-notch customer service and offering the latest in ski and snowboard products, The Ski Barn continues to be the largest independent ski and snowboard rental company in the East. With a rental fleet of skis, snowboards and skiboards, The Ski Barn shops are ready to outfit both groups and individual skiers and riders.
All Ski Barn shops an SnowCreek Mountain Sports carry a complete line of ski and snowboard clothing, equipment and accessories from names such as Burton, Oakley, K2, Nordica, Ride, 686, The North Face, Columbia, Spyder, Scott, Ugg and many more. The Ski Barn shops stay open all year and offer outdoor wear, accessories and resort souvenirs during the "off-season."
The Ski Barn shops are active members of local communities. From sponsorships for schools and sports teams to providing both seasonal and year-round employment for the local areas, The Ski Barn has become a fixture in the communities in which it serves.
During peak season, The Ski Barn provides 75-plus jobs for local areas and more than 20 year-round positions.