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home : community : features April 29, 2016

1/11/2013 12:55:00 PM
The Northwoods ski industry saw huge growth in 1956-57
A history of Minocqua Winter Park
Northwoods residents and visitors hit the slopes of Squirrel Ski Hill after it opened December 1956.Contributed photograph 

Northwoods residents and visitors hit the slopes of Squirrel Ski Hill after it opened December 1956.

Contributed photograph 

Standing near the Squirrel Ski Hill rope tow are (from the left) William Niemi, Clyde Ahlborn, Eugene Niemi, and Ernest “Ernie” Niemi, who was in charge of building the tow.Contributed photograph 

Standing near the Squirrel Ski Hill rope tow are (from the left) William Niemi, Clyde Ahlborn, Eugene Niemi, and Ernest “Ernie” Niemi, who was in charge of building the tow.

Contributed photograph 

Sarah Hirsch
Features editor

Continued from last week.

A ski boom had hit the Northwoods in the year 1956. 

Between Muskellunge and Squirrel hills as prospective downhill skiing sites, it was also a year of community support, volunteers and donations, and excitement for the silent winter sport of skiing.

After Muskellunge Hill Ski Area – later known as Mus-Ski Mountain – was under way with approval for up to $10,000 of expenditures in addition to a shelter, it was Squirrel Hill’s time to shine. 

The Jaycees and Minocqua Lions Club, which had pledged its support for the downhill skiing endeavor, formed Squirrel Hill Ski Corporation in early October 1956 and elected temporary officers for the young nonprofit organization – Dr. Hartzheim and Larry Bosacki as co-chairmen; Rudy Teschan, secretary; and Eddie LaPlante as treasurer. 

Art Dorwin and Les Rusch were appointed to the finance committee and set big goals for the small group. By Oct. 15, about a week and a half after the organization was created, they planned on collecting $2,000 through $50 stock memberships. 

By today’s standards, raising that amount of money in such a short time would still present a challenge – but in the late 50s, $2,000 seemed astronomical to some.

“You have to remember, this was only 10 years after World War II ended, and the country was just getting started again,” Doris Handrick said. Handrick is one of the Northwoods residents who watched Squirrel Hill grow to what it is today.

But the Northwoods had set its sights on developing Squirrel Hill. The Lakeland area and Squirrel Hill Ski Corporation’s determination stoked the coals that would eventually transform into the blaze that is Minocqua Winter Park. 

One week after The Lakeland Times reported Dorwin and Rusch’s ambitious goal of raising $2,000, 25 signed pledges were received and a total of $1,250 collected.

“Be a sport. Don’t kick it around. Get behind the Squirrel Hill Ski committee and have a winter activity to be proud of,” the committee said, as reported Oct. 4, 1956, by The Times.

And community support did pour in from all directions. The Minocqua Junior Chamber of Commerce endorsed the Squirrel Hill ski development, adding three of its members to work with and become a part of the development committee. 

Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Co. (NEPCO) promised a renewable 25-year lease and permission to clear two slopes for winter recreation. And not only did NEPCO commit the land for the ski hill, it also planned on removing the merchantable timber, cutting the local costs of clearing “considerably.”

The stage was set, the community was ready – work began on Squirrel Hill. 

The Northwoods ski boom

“A lot is happening these days in the ski boom which has hit northern Wisconsin, and the newest developments are, of course, Minocqua’s Squirrel ski hill and Muskellunge ski hill near Sayner, who will join the ranks of the already developed Sheltered Valley and King’s Gateway,” The Times reported Oct. 18, 1956. 

“This regal combination most assuredly will begin an entirely new winter industry for Wisconsin.”

NEPCO removed poplar and birch from across eight acres of Squirrel Hill, saving the balsam on the lower slopes for “their natural beauty.” The ski runs were to end at the edge of a “healthy balsam swamp” with the ski shelter to be “nestled in a cluster of balsam and spruce.”

“It is truly an unusual beauty spot, which shows up more and more as the plump trees are taken down, and with the snow for contrast, it will be worth a trip just to enjoy this Christmas tree setting,” The Times reported. 

With the trees coming down, the next big step for Squirrel Hill was the removal of stumps – and Northwoods volunteers stepped up to the plate.

“It was kind of like supporting a political party – when you want to work for a party and you don’t have a lot of money, what you do is donate your time,” Handrick said. “Same thing with the hill. You go and work and cut brush, which is worth its weight in gold.”

Mother Nature was even supporting the Northwoods ski boom. The autumn of 1956 was an unusually warm and dry one, giving the development of both Squirrel and Muskellunge hills a time advantage before the winter season.

By Nov. 29, 1956, it was projected that Squirrel Ski Hill slopes would be ready for skiers by Christmas, with Mus-Ski Mountain’s opening to follow by the New Year.

“From timberland, to stumps, to brush and finally to an ideal slope – the long anticipated reality of the entire region,” The Times reported Nov. 29, describing Squirrel Hill’s progress.

The slopes were cleared, trees downed, stumps removed – it was time to install Squirrel Hill’s rope tow, which was handled by Ernest “Ernie” Niemi. Niemi, who was a Nash Rambler car dealer, had a shop downtown Minocqua where Anne Marie’s is located today.

“The process of building [the rope tow] was a family thing,” Sandy Trapp, Niemi’s granddaughter, said. 

And according to Dorwin, Niemi was making strong progress on the rope tow, using innovative techniques for the end result.

“Ernest Niemi has done a fine job of fabricating the tow machinery complete with a coat of red paint,” Dorwin wrote in a Times article Dec. 13, 1956. “The power plant is a new 1956 Hudson Hornet engine rated at 170 h.p., with a cubic displacement of 308 inches. A Ford truck transmission and differential transfers this power to truck wheels having rope grooves in the rubber tires. Every turn of the wheel will move nine feet of rope up the hill. All of these component parts are mounted on a four-foot by four-foot angle iron frame and bolted to a concrete base, which is also the cement floor of the tow house building.”

Dorwin also reported the big news that the decision was made to construct a 28- by 52-foot alpine-style warming shelter. 

“This project has moved so fast that in less than a week the footings and two rows of blocks are in and framing has begun,” he wrote. “The entire front wall will be a picture window with 10 sections of four-foot by six-foot plate glass. The exterior will be scored plywood simulating four-inch planking.”

After only a few short months, countless hours of volunteer work and 46 stockholders subscribed to Squirrel Hill, it was announced in The Times that the ski slopes would be open Saturday, Dec. 29, 1956 – a day that was made possible by the dedication of Northwoods residents.

“The Squirrel Hill Ski Corp. leased the land owned by Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Co. and during a period of two months the project has been transformed from a timbered slope to a picturesque ski hill,” The Times reported Dec. 27, 1956. “The ski-minded citizens who donated hours of labor and those who gave financial support are to be commended.”

In that same Times edition, it was also reported that Mus-Ski Mountain set New Year’s (Day) as its opening date.

“The project is a heartwarming example of community cooperation from residents of Arbor Vitae, Boulder Junction, Lac du Flambeau, Sayner, Star Lake, St. Germain and Woodruff,” The Times reported of Mus-Ski Mountain. 

The Northwoods ski boom was in full swing – and would thrive in the year 1957.

‘Ski hills in area having fine turnouts’

The dream of Squirrel Ski Hill was now a tangible reality. Within the first several weeks of 1957, it became a popular destination for visitors and residents alike. The hill’s two slopes catered to expert and intermediate skiers.

“I remember the construction of Squirrel Hill as a very exciting time. My father [Ed Henricksen] took myself, and my siblings, out to ‘the hill’ several times during its development. He had us do a dance to ‘Heikki Lunta,’ the Finnish God of snow, to assure a great ski season. It worked!” Mary Henricksen-Quayle of Au Train, Mich., said.

Squirrel Hill opened many doors of opportunity for skiing enthusiasts, but before one Northwoods resident could enjoy it there was one thing she had to tackle first.

“The first thing I had to do was learn how to ski,” Handrick said. She did just that on Dorwin’s Hill with the help of Dan Jossart, director and operator of the small slope.

“I went out there and he found me some wooden skis ... and boots. We didn’t have binders in those days. He somehow kept those boots attached to the skis with big rubber bands, and that’s how I learned to ski,” Handrick said.

Though Squirrel Ski Hill was open to the public, work in the shelter house was still under way. In early January it was fully equipped with kitchen facilities and plans were laid out for a circular fireplace to be installed. 

But plans for the winter sports destination didn’t stop at just a fireplace. 

“Squirrel Hill has been developed to about one-third of its potential ... Last year there was an expert slope and an intermediate slope in operation. This year there is hope of adding a beginner’s slope and a family slope for beginner skiers,” Squirrel Hill Ski Corporation said.

Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Co. was doing its part to ensure that the hill could reach its full potential. According to the Jan. 17, 1957, Times edition, NEPCO employee Peter Steinwand announced that the company would deed a tract of 40 acres to the Squirrel Ski Hill Association to be used for development.

The Lakeland community wholeheartedly embraced NEPCO’s gift and crafted an outline of possibilities for the following ski season.

“Much work remains to be done before the full potential of the hill can be developed,” The Times reported Feb. 14, 1957. “Another tow and additional runs are planned for next year and further improvements to the warming house will be made.”

Though there was still much work to be done in the future, Squirrel Ski Hill was a shining example of what a community could accomplish in a short period of time.

“The progress made in just a few short months is remarkable and the Squirrel Hill ski area is a project that the folks of this northern Wisconsin town will point to with pride over the years,” The Times reported. 

To be continued...

Sarah Hirsch may be reached at shirsch@lakelandtimes.com

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