One of the oldest myths about skiing—Austrian Alps, American Rockies, pick a spot—is that, first, there must be a hill and, second, the weather must be bracing but not polar. Forget it. Consider the American Midwest, that isolated plain of absolute cold. The snowdrifts cover the Burma-Shave signs along the highways, and on clear nights up near the Great Lakes people sit around and listen to theengine blocks crack. But they also ski all over the place, and a million flatlanders can't be wrong.
In Cable, Wis.—hidden so deep in the rural Midwest that there are signs on the sides of barns introducing Twenty Grand cigarettes—there is a 370-foot hill just outside of town. It never had amounted to much; the hill was too high to plow and not high enough for a first-rate lover's leap. Folks around Cable would tell strangers there was a lost silver mine on the property, but even at that nobody wanted it. When home-town boy Tony Wise came back from Harvard Business School and bought the hill for $750, it got to be sort of a local knee-slapper. Tony was making the rise into a skiing hill, his neighbors discovered, complete with a long piece of rope that would pull you right to the top. That was in 1947. One day recently 2,200 people were skiing the hill, having paid $4 to $5 apiece for the privilege. The snazzy Mount Telemark base lodge was jammed with hundreds more spending money like wild, and Tony Wise was rich. The farmer who once owned the hill is now working for Wise as an attendant on the new double-chair lift. Occasionally he shuffles over to the boss and looks at him searchingly. "You didn't find no silver mine here," he says. "You found a hot darn gold mine."
A few years earlier, ski enthusiast Walter Stopa bought a mound of his own down near Chicago. It is called Wilmot Ski Hills and is only 230 feet high—in Al Capone's Chicago they used to stack bodies higher than that. Nevertheless, Stopa put in a warming shack and a rope tow. When he was finishing work on the top terminal he looked back down the hill and there were 70 people waiting to ski. Thousands are waiting there to ski now. Much the same thing happened at Buck Hill in suburban Minneapolis, where there is a humped-up patch of 30 acres that goes 313 feet high—and where a daily average of 400 people spend $5.50 each to ski in weather so cold their skis squeak on the snow. At Pine Knob and Mt. Holly, near Detroit, thousands of equally demented people, who assemble cars all day, ski under floodlights each evening until midnight. At Pine Knob the light bill runs higher than the hill.
There are now 200 midwestern ski areas, and there will be more as soon as enough barbed wire can be cut, the resident cows evacuated and lifts installed. Outsiders who came to scoff are staying to ski—often in surroundings as lavish as anything they have seen. In some cases the lodge stands taller than the ski slope, but still the crowds come pouring out of Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Paul and points between. Just out of Osceola, Wis. faded billboards sell the oldtime religion ("Repent or Perish"), but downtown they have strung out a "Welcome Skiers" banner.
February 15, 1965
Nothing about it makes much sense. The weather is no less frigid than before. At Trollhaugen ski resort in Dresser, Wis. the skiers whoop it up at 20° below and the local Army-Navy surplus outlet does a big business in World War II flight suits. Wisconsin skiers call them fat Bogners. The flying suits are thick with insulation, and when a skier wearing one falls down he can't get back up unassisted. There also is reason to suspect that if anyone stands too long near the woods at the top of the hill a timberwolf will come out and eat him, fat Bogner and all.
Midwestern skiing is growing so fast that even the newest areas feel pressed to expand. At Bessemer, Mich. the Indianhead Mountain ski resort caught on immediately, and the owners hastily converted a barn into a lodge. They pounded some paneling over the old stalls, and for a while Alfalfa Pete, the most famous bull in town, had to stand outside and look in the window at people dining where he used to sleep. Two-legged Mid-westerners—you can tell the oldtimers by the Pay Day labels on their bib overalls—have also been caught by surprise. At Trollhaugen one farmer stopped his 1935 Ford flatbed truck just outside the lodge and angrily stomped in. "Tell my old woman to come down off of that hill and get back on home," he demanded. "We got the milkin' to do!" His wife was skiing with hundreds of others on the new Wednesday Ladies' Day Special ($5.50 for lesson, lunch and lifts). Not a few of them wore ski togs by Bogner or Dior, an impiety that J. C. Penney and Sears Roebuck may never forgive.
Not far from Harbor Springs, Mich. a winding road bursts suddenly upon an olde English lodge that is the leading luxury spot of the northland. This is Boyne Highlands, a place of thick carpet and heated swimming pool, of quiet, expensive service midst candlelight and Eau de Royal Mountie. The ski hill at the Highlands runs up to a dizzying 608 feet. The main ski runs are so gently bulldozed that it is more taxing to descend the circular staircase from the bar into the lobby than to ski down from the top of the hill. Both journeys require approximately the same amount of time and are undertaken by large and growing crowds of winter sports.
These successes owe much to midwestern ingenuity. Yesterday's molehill is today's slope—and tomorrow's mountain, if the bulldozer boys keep at it. Each summer many of the area operators craftily bulldoze dirt below and pile it atop their hills to make them higher. At Wilmot Hills, Stopa has made the ski run 45 feet higher by stacking it. In time, he says, people will be skiing down into the pit, which is already 30 feet deep. At Detroit's Mt. Holly, Operator Mort Graddis paid $80,000 for a worn-out gravel pit, already has piled 35,000 cubic yards of gravel on top of his hill and plans to stack on two million yards more in the next three years. With enough dirt, gravel and time, these people could throw up a mountain range from upper Minnesota to Detroit.
Poorly endowed with altitude, the Midwest also has an unreliable snowfall. That's where snowmaking comes in. "We don't count on natural snow; it's a bonus," says Stopa. He churns out the artificial stuff night and day. Wilmot can add eight to 10 inches of snow on its slopes overnight. Telemark's Tony Wise hires a crew of Chippewa Indians to make his snow, rainmakers need not apply.
This furious activity does not mean that skiing is entirely new to the Midwest. In 1904 the first national ski organization was formed at Ishpeming, Mich. But the sport then centered on cross-country touring and jumping; downhill skiing was ignored for years while folks to the east and west were living the high life on the big mountains. Now the Midwest—last to catch on—is fast catching up.
On the lower Michigan peninsula, in offices over an empty store in Traverse City, the Central Division of the U.S. Ski Association operates a headquarters for organized Midwest skiing and keeps an unofficial cold nose count. There were 76 ski clubs and 1,781 members in the 1960-61 season, says Director Tom Joynt. Now the Central Division has 304 clubs and approximately 10,000 members. Add unaffiliated skiers and the count soars. Chicago contains an estimated 100,000 skiers and Minneapolis 30,000. Every weekend 50 chartered buses carry skiers out of Chicago, some making the 700-mile round trip to Boyne Mountain. At Telemark, Tony Wise figures he has 300,000 skiers within a day's drive. Caberfae, near Cadillac, Mich., is already building an extra $170,000 base lodge. Trollhaugen plans a $70,000 addition to the lodge. Telemark already represents an $800,000 investment and in two years will have a 20-story, 200-room circular hotel at the top of its hill. It will be a kind of stylish silo with a bar on the roof featuring a panoramic view of more than a million acres of trees.
Merle Trepp, manager of the $1.5 million Pine Knob area says, "We have the plushness of Sun Valley in the backyard of Detroit. What we lack in height we make up for in services. You get 10 times more skiing here in the flatlands than you do in Aspen." In the Midwest, Trepp maintains, you ski down a 2,000-foot run, take a quick ride up the hill again, and you repeat this every three or four minutes. "At Aspen," he says, "you're lucky if you get a chair up once every 35 minutes for a 2,000-foot run, since most people only ski the top."
No one is more evangelistic about the future of Midwest skiing than Mort Graddis, whose Mt. Holly is all of 175 feet high. "People think I'm a blow-hard," he says, "but I have a potential ski market here that I would not change for Aspen or Kitzb√ºhel or any ski resort in the whole world, and I've seen them all. Why? The average wage here is one-third higher than in New York City. We've got six million people living less than an hour's drive from Detroit. They get paid very well and don't know how to spend their money. So they go skiing. You know what we'll do? We'll ski 10,000 people a day, that's what. Sugarbush and Vail will fall by the wayside."
Graddis saw the boom coming three years ago in the lesson of a trip to Mount Snow in Vermont. "Know who was skiing? The shipping clerks and shopgirls from New York City. I came right back to Mt. Holly and said, 'Let's get ready for the masses.' "
Today they swarm out of the cities onto the flatlands, out along country roads and into the farm and fishing country, their eyes on the mountains. Well, their eyes are on the hills and ridges, and if one does not have mountains one has gravel pits and bulldozers.
The snooty East and the Far West had better watch out. The Aspen-Sun Valley-Sugarbush-Stowe people have had a tendency to strike poses and look down their mountains at Midwesterners. There was a time when they could tell a flatlander by his knees-apart, gentle-slope stance, and the woolen socks worn outside his stretch pants, but not now. The Midwest is exporting real skiers; well schooled and better groomed. A midwestern instructor who has put more than 40,000 people on skis in 25 years says: "We give better ski instruction by accident here than they do on purpose in the West." How was that again? "Out West," says Helmut Teichner, chief of the Wilmot Hills school, "they take the students to the top of the mountain. They have to spend 70% of their time trying to get them back down and 30% of their time teaching. Here we take 20 full minutes coming down a little bitty hill and we work our students very carefully. The only difference in converting a Midwesterner to mountains is in getting him accustomed to longer hills."
In consequence, the Midwest is producing a new generation of skiers: the smooth-slopers. On manicured hills, innocent of moguls, everybody can look a little like Stein Eriksen. Sun Valley and the rest must wait for snow to cover the moguls. Not so in the Midwest.
At Trollhaugen the other day a skier came storming into the chalet with fire in his eye. "There's a bump over there," he cried. "It's right where I make my turn at the bottom."
"A bump?" said Co-Owner Wally Peterson. "Here? On my hill? How big is it?"
The skier gestured with his hands, describing a little mound. "About this big. What are you going to do about it?"
Peterson sent a man right over with a shovel to erase the mogul. It was the last one in the Midwest that day.