Bill Berry and his family have modest plans and dreams for their new ski area and the wherewithal to make them come true.

FARMINGTON – One rumor in town was that actor Kurt Russell would buy it, or maybe actor Mel Gibson. But last week the rumors were put to rest when a 71-year-old retired geology professor sealed the deal.

Archie W. “Bill” Berry Jr. had been sold on Saddleback Ski Area for months.

Early in the summer, Berry and his son Mark traveled to Massachusetts to meet with Donald Breen, 73, who has owned the mountain for decades.

The men, along with Breen’s daughter Kitty, talked shop, skiing and the sale for more than six hours before settling on a sale price of more than $8 million, Berry said.

Berry paid more than the asking price to also purchase land that borders the mountain’s access road. He wants to protect it from future developers, he said.

The gentlemen’s agreement includes the 41-trail, 4,116-foot mountain, post-and-beam base lodge and 8,300 surrounding acres of lush forest and alpine pools.

His wife, Irene, and their seven children – a nine-person partnership – all invested in Berry’s vision.

Berry said that much of his money, and his children’s, comes from the sale of shares in his father’s Pennsylvania insurance company.

“This has been planned for,” said Berry, clad in work clothes as he relaxed on the porch of his Voter Hill home. “And the money for the improvements we have planned for the next three years is there.”

Bill Berry, born in Brooklyn and raised in Pennsylvania, came to Maine in 1970 to be a geology professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. He immediately took a liking to skiing, both at Titcomb Mountain in Farmington and Saddleback in Rangeley.

He taught skiing at Titcomb for 25 years and eventually bankrolled much of the small mountain’s operating expenses so the Farmington Ski Club, which owns Titcomb, could hire a general manager.

The family purchased a condo at Saddleback in the 1980s when the ski area was logging 45,000 skier visits per year. Today, those visits are down to around 16,000.

Berry said it saddened him to see the decline. “Let’s face it, half the time I skied it, I was on my own mountain.”

He and Irene are known as kind philanthropists who live modestly. The night the news of Saddleback’s sale broke, Berry was out in his barn, feeding the 18 head of beef cattle and six calves the couple own.

Several years ago, he donated $1.3 million to UMF to support the school’s geology department, which he retired from in 1996 after 25 years of service. The couple also started the Sandy River Charitable Foundation, which works to improve the standard of living in sustainable ways. Their son, Nate, runs the foundation, which gives millions each year to do things like drill water wells in Africa and teach farmers in Romania modern agricultural methods, Berry said.

“You look at the total picture, and we had the ability to pull this off,” Berry said of the Saddleback purchase. “And now, we have to work hard to make it a success.”

Planning ahead

Berry has big plans for the ski area, but not flashy ones.

Irene calls it resuscitation.

The family’s philosophy is “to keep the mountain as pristine as possible,” he said. Here’s their three-pronged plan:

• Price. Last year, an adult day weekend lift ticket was $49. This season, it has been set at $35.

• Advertising. The Breen family stopped advertising years ago. Now, Berry has hired a Westbrook-based firm to do an advertising blitz. That firm projects that skier visits will double this winter if the marketing plan is effective.

• First-rate conditions. This past week, a crew of workers was cutting glades and clearing trails. More work has been done in the last week, Berry has been told, than in the last 20 years.

Already, new groomers, snow guns and mowers have been ordered.

The mountain is scheduled to open nearly a month late this season, Dec. 19, so that it’s fully ready. Berry wants to make sure skiers notice the improvement.

The mountain will also reopen to hunting this year, which will please the locals who raised a fuss when the Breen family closed it down in 2002.

Blending in

Berry’s strategy for the first few years will be to “make the present ski area viable,” he said. Then it’s time to grow, including cutting the virgin Horn Bowl.

Next summer, the groundbreaking for a 120-room hotel is expected, but for all Berry cares, it could be painted green to blend in with the tall pines. “It’ll be simple. It’ll be tasteful. If we could do it in camouflage paint so no one could see it, we would,” he said.

The trails will be renamed after fishing flies – Grey Ghost, Green Weaver – as they were when Saddleback opened in 1959.

Berry wants the mountain, which currently has a western feel, to have a Rangeley motif. For example, he says, the lodge bar – the Painted Pony – could become the Bull Moose.

He wants to update the lifts and add some new ones, but not the high-speed ones, because they don’t give skiers enough of a break, he said.

He doesn’t want people to be rushed. He wants them to enjoy Saddleback as he does.

Each new trail cut will have its own character, he said, with each run designed to be savored.

Berry recalls a sunny Sunday at Titcomb “when hundreds of people were skiing but there were no lift lines.” That’s his vision for his Saddleback. And he can foresee a tubing park, an expanded lodge, an ice skating pavilion.

There are many unknowns, he acknowledged. What he knows is that a family shouldn’t have to kill a month’s wages just to get out and enjoy the winter snow for a weekend.

Berry didn’t buy the mountain to get rich. “It doesn’t have to make money, just break even,” he said. He bought it to breathe new life into a mountain that was slowly dying. He doesn’t plan to shake things up. He’ll rely on Tom McAllister, Saddleback’s longtime manager, to be his eyes and ears.

And as the mountain grows, Berry will be down in Farmington tending to his cattle. “I’m a skier, not a developer.”

In his dream, Saddleback will return to its glory days, and the town, county and region will feel the effects.

“We hope we live up to expectations,” he said.

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