By Samantha Allen

MediaNews

WESTFORD -- In 1964, Alan Fletcher looked out over some land tucked away on Powers Road in Westford and had a crazy idea: He was going to build a haven for skiers from the ground up.

Now 81, and celebrating 50 years operating the Nashoba Valley Ski Area, along with his family and some 600 employees, Fletcher said he believes he was originally motivated by "insanity."

"Not really," he joked. "But I've always been a skier. I was in the U.S. Navy ... and for three years, they didn't give me enough to do. I was thinking what I would do when I got out and one of the things I thought was, 'Why not build a ski area?' "

Fletcher served from 1953 to 1956 and returned to the area of his hometown, Littleton. He said he used to camp as a teenager at the top of the 300-foot hill in Westford where the ski area now stands. Back then, he said he thought it would be a good spot for skiing, so he bought the land, invested in some old-fashioned rope-tows and set up a few trails. Some of the antiquated machinery is still in place today for young beginners.

But the site today is transformed from what it once was. Now it has 17 trails, from the beginner level up to advanced, and can service up to 3,000 people a day for both skiing and snowboarding. There's a modern chairlift system and state-of-the-art snowmaking and grooming equipment, as well as a snow-tubing park just over the border on Great Road in Littleton. A restaurant and building area that transforms into a corporate rental space in the summer months provide supplemental income in the off-season for the family, as well as the famed Witch's Woods Halloween theme park that sets up in the fall.

Al Fletcher Jr., the ski area's acting president, said his family takes great pride in knowing they've lasted 50 years. He said many independently run ski areas have gone under or merged with larger chains in the last few years. He added, according to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, there were once 174 ski areas across Massachusetts, and today his family's business is one of the nine that remain.

"At one point, there were 64 in eastern Massachusetts," he said. "A lot of the ski areas, even slightly bigger, have gone out of business in the last 20 to 40 years. ... For us, I think it has to do with snowmaking. A lot of the original ones balked at snowmaking."

Alan Fletcher agreed the snow is what makes Nashoba Valley so unique. He said his family has invested great sums of money into making the snow the best around, perfect for sliding and schussing fun. And it's practically the same snow his Olympian-skier daughter Pam Fletcher learned the sport on, too, he said.

Pam Fletcher captured six national titles in her 10 years on the U.S. Ski Team but shattered her leg in a freak accident one hour before she was set to compete at the Olympics in Calgary in 1988. She healed and qualified for the World Championships the following year and today works as the family business's public-relations representative. She said it's her father's passion that's kept the business alive.

"There are not a lot of Olympians that come from little ski areas that are only 240 vertical feet," Pam Fletcher said, "But it doesn't matter how high."

Nancy Fletcher, Pam and Al Jr.'s mother, who was married to Alan Fletcher for years before he even started Nashoba Valley, said she is proud of her husband's accomplishments. She recalled when he and his cousin set out first to buy the land.

"I don't think he realized how much overhead there was," she said, with a laugh. "Over the years, we have improved and we add things and we put the money right back in to it."

Chris Kitchin, a manager who has worked part time for the Fletchers for the last 16 years, agreed the hill is a great place for kids to practice. He said he brings his young daughter any chance he can get to show her the ropes here -- along with the help of 300 on-site instructors.

"The whole family is great to everyone. You really get a lot of camaraderie here and then you look out and see all these people going out to ski and snowboard," Kitchin said. "That's why I keep working here."

Kitchin looked out over a mobbed ski area Sunday afternoon. Al Fletcher Jr. estimated the ski area sees 120,000 visitors every season, with another 50,000 visiting the tubing park.

Nine-year-old twins Abby and Sara Devroude, of Natick, in complementary pink snowsuits, waited to board a lift to the top of the hill Sunday. Once at the top, they could look out over Nashoba Valley, with its many snow-capped trees. The pair said they love to come every season to the park with their parents.

"There's nothing more exciting for me than to see the smile on these kids' faces when they learn a new sport or tackle a trail for the first time," Pam Fletcher added. "I haven't been around all 50 years, but you know there are things that have set Nashoba apart."

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