Higher Education

For over 50 years, thousands of Vermont kids, regardless of ability to pay, have learned to ski and snowboard and race on the Cochran family’s hill in Richmond.

by Janet Essman Franz

cochranIn 1961, Mickey and Ginny Cochran built a ski area in the backyard of their Richmond home, where their children could ski after school. Those children would go on to skiing greatness, and their hill would become the skiing and snowboarding home for generations of Vermont kids. Pictured, clockwise from right, are Mickey and Ginny’s children: Barbara Ann Cochran, Lindy Kelley, Bob Cochran, and Marilyn Brown .

In choosing a Vermont site for children’s ski lessons
parents have many options, but one place stands apart from the others. A down-home focus, inexpensive fees, and a strong core of volunteers make Cochran’s Ski Area popular with families.

But Cochran’s is also a renowned training ground for celebrated athletes. One of two nonprofit ski areas in the state (along with Northeast Slopes), Cochran’s operates with a mission of keeping skiing, snowboarding, and race training affordable for everyone.

Mickey and Ginny Cochran constructed the ski area in the backyard of their Richmond home in 1961. On days off from his engineering job at General Electric, Mickey cleared trails, put up poles for a 500-foot rope tow, and installed an engine to pull the rope. He did this so that his children — Marilyn, Barbara Ann, Bobby, and Lindy — could ski after school.

“Dad said if we were to do the best we could do we needed to train more than just on weekends,” recalls Barbara Ann Cochran, now 62. “He wanted to find a place with a hill behind it so he could put up a rope tow. I remember looking at various properties with him when I was 9.”

Mickey and Ginny had met and married as students at University of Vermont. Before settling in Richmond the Cochran family lived in Brownsville; Cornish, N.H.; and South Burlington. The children attended Richmond Elementary and Mount Mansfield Union High schools.

They were an active bunch: Mickey instructed skiing at Smugglers Notch and coached Little League; Ginny taught swimming; all four kids played sports year-round and raced with the Smugglers Notch Ski Club on winter weekends, practicing after school behind their house.

The backyard training paid off. All four Cochran kids were named to the U.S. Ski Team and achieved top honors in national and international events during the 1960s and ’70s. Marilyn, Barbara Ann, and Bobby competed in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, where Barbara Ann won a gold medal in women’s slalom. Lindy competed in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and was top American in slalom and giant slalom.

Among the four siblings they have 10 children, now in their 20s and 30s, six of whom raced for the U.S. Ski Team and earned prestigious titles after honing their skills in the family’s yard. Two are still on the team: Ryan Cochran-Siegle and Robby Kelley are shooting for this year’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Although Mickey and Ginny have passed on — he in 1998 and she in 2005 — their legacy continues. During the past 50 years, thousands of Vermont kids, regardless of ability to pay, learned to ski and snowboard and race on Cochran’s hill.

From the start, the Cochrans opened their trails to the public, charging 25 cents for an afternoon of skiing. Children who raced for many northern Vermont ski clubs came to Cochran’s after school to practice. The racers did not pay to ski, but chipped in for gas for the towrope and helped prepare the racecourse.

The household kitchen served as a warming hut. “We didn’t serve food, but I remember some of the boys eating the brownies my mom had made for our dessert,” Barbara Ann reminisces.

In 1962, the Richmond PTO asked Ginny to start an afterschool ski program. “She had to recruit other mothers to be instructors. Most of them didn’t know how to ski so she had to teach them,” explains Barbara Ann. Parents who chose not to ski helped in other ways, adds Marilyn. “They kept kids warm, brought snacks, or whatever they could do.”

In the late 1960s the Cochrans expanded their skiable terrain to 600 acres, put up a second rope tow, and built a small lodge with a snack bar. They added a T-bar and handle tow in the ’70s.

“As the ski area expanded so did the clientele. Hundreds of kids came from nearby afterschool programs. We started being open on weekends,” says Barbara Ann. Cochran’s Ski Area formed a race club and hosted races for other ski areas’ teams.

Mickey continued working at GE until retiring in 1978 while operating the ski area. “It became a business. Mom ran the ski school and snack bar, and Dad ran the lifts and maintenance.” They hired a few employees to assist with operations.

The Cochran children also pitched in. “We all did everything — set up and took down the rope tow, packed the snow, and were always the last ones off the hill so we could do the safety sweep,” recalls Barbara Ann. “When I was 10, I remember a couple came and wanted lessons. Dad asked if any of us wanted to teach them how to ski, and I said, ‘I will!’”

Barbara Ann’s propensity to teach stuck with her. After retiring from ski racing at 23, she returned home to give ski lessons and pursue home economics education at UVM, graduating in 1978. She taught home economics and physical education at schools in Winooski, Barre, Vergennes, and Starksboro, retiring from Mount Abraham Union High School in 2009.

For the last 31 years she has managed Cochran’s ski school. She also runs a business from her Starksboro home, coaching aspiring athletes to handle pressures of competition. Her clients include current members of the U.S. Ski Team.

Her siblings also attended UVM and remain nearby. Marilyn, now 63, ski-coached at Hanover High School and Quechee Club. When Ginny died, Marilyn became Cochran’s Ski Area general manager until 2012. She resides in Stockbridge, and is property manager for for Lincoln Peak Properties in Waitsfield.

Bobby, 61, skied professionally for several years before attending medical school and establishing a practice near Keene, N.H. Now semi-retired, he commutes to Keene from his home in Bolton.

Lindy, 60, put down roots in Starksboro and started Cochran’s Ski Tots program (now run by Barbara Ann) to instruct parents in teaching toddlers to ski. She ski-coached her children and others at Cochran’s and Stowe and works with her husband, Steve Kelley, a building supply sales representative.

The next generation of Cochran kids followed suit as devoted skiers. Bobby’s son, Jimmy, a U.S. Ski team medalist, two-time Olympian, and current UVM Alpine coach, lives in the original Cochran home and enjoys making mountain improvements with his collection of construction vehicles.

Kinship for Cochran’s Ski Area extends beyond the family to the community of skiers who feel the Richmond hill is their home, too. “When it was obvious that Dad didn’t have long to live, a group of skiers whose kids came up through the ski club wanted to make Cochran’s last. They decided to make Cochran’s a nonprofit organization,” Barbara Ann explains.

After a two-year planning process, Cochran’s achieved federal tax-exempt status in 1999. A board of directors includes the four Cochran siblings, three of their children, and several nonfamily members whose children participate in the race program.

“When my parents ran the ski area, it was their mom-and-pop operation, but now it’s a community effort,” says Bobby Cochran. “The community provides labor and finances for improvement projects.”

Funding comes from donations and fees for lift passes and lessons. Rates are reputably low: Lift tickets cost $20 for adults and an entire family of any size can ski all winter for $500. Cochran’s employs seasonal paid staff, including general manager Jesse Paul and assistant manager Ian Harrington, both of whom participated in Cochran’s racing program during elementary school.

“It’s an awesome place to work because I grew up skiing there with friends and family,” says Paul. “Everyone helps each other and pitches in. Cochran’s is still in business because of the racing families and volunteers. It’s everyone’s mountain.”

Even with paid staff, volunteers do much of the work. Projects included putting in snowmaking machinery in 2007, constructing a rental equipment room in 2008, expanding the lodge kitchen in 2009, and installing trailside lights in 2010. The lighting venture “was a combination of fundraising and volunteers,” explains Lindy Cochran. “Kids from [Green Mountain Valley School at] Sugarbush wanted to train here on weeknights, and asked, if they could raise money for lights, would we put them in, and we said, ‘Sure.’ Until then we had to end [skiing] when it got dark, around 4:40. Now we stay open until 8:00.”

The lighting project drew the Vazquez family to Cochran’s and made them dedicated volunteers. “Our kids were in the ski program at Sugarbush and one stop on the race circuit was Cochran’s,” recalls Leandro Vazquez of Charlotte. He and his wife, Amy, joined other parents in raising about $40,000. “I stopped in one night to see how the lights were coming along. Someone asked me if I knew how to ride an excavator to dig trenches for the light poles.”

Everyone in the Vazquez family began pitching in at the mountain, from grooming snow to cooking hamburgers at post-race barbecues. Making snow at Cochran’s on Christmas Eve has become their family tradition.

“It feels good to give back to kids and families to enable them to have the privilege of skiing and spending time together,” says Vazquez. “There’s no requirement to work. It comes from the heart. People do it because they love to do it.”

Volunteers came to the rescue last Christmas when the T-Bar motor failed. “It was our busiest time of year and we were in trouble. A core group of people got together and within three days they rebuilt the huge electric motor,” Lindy recounts. “Something like that could not have been done as quickly without a community effort.”

Businesses also contribute. Neighboring ski resorts lend snowcat trail groomers and donate spare parts for the T-Bar. Local mechanics and welders keep the lifts operating. A bakery provides bagels for the snack bar and a farm trades pork in exchange for family ski passes. Bartering helps keep skiing and snowboarding affordable for all.

Making the sport accessible was Mickey Cochran’s calling and it remains the ski area’s mission. “Dad took satisfaction in helping everyone learn to ski,” says Lindy. “The ski area has been able to survive by making sure everybody has fun.” •