Continued from last week.
The community project that was Squirrel Ski Hill took the Lakeland area by storm in the late 50s and early 60s.
“Art Dorwin was without question the sparkplug for all of this,” Betty Grundy, first secretary for the Squirrel Hill Ski Corporation, said. “He was very business-savvy. I was pretty young at the time, and I didn’t recognize all of this, but when I look back on it now he was picking out key people in businesses – people who were also business-savvy with entrepreneurship.”
From its inception in 1956 and into the early 60s, improvements were continuously made to the chalet and the hill. In October 1959 the Squirrel Hill board of directors authorized the installation of indoor plumbing, a first aid room, and women’s and men’s bathrooms.
“The Squirrel Lake Road is being improved, which should make access more convenient,” The Lakeland Times reported Oct. 22, 1959. “Board Chairman Dr. Jim Hartzeim says, ‘Given good snow conditions, the improvements at Squirrel Hill should attract more skiers than ever, and we should have our biggest year yet.”
The gradual decline of Squirrel Hill
Sadly, as the 1960s began to fade into the 70s, enthusiasm for downhill skiing at Squirrel Park also began to lose steam.
“As far as I’ve been able to gather, there were a couple of things that killed downhill interest,” Wes Doak said. Doak was one of the driving forces behind the revitalization of Squirrel Hill, promoting the sport of cross country skiing in the Northwoods and helping build Minocqua Winter Park to what it is today.
“Number one, there were a couple of bad snow years right in a row. There’s nothing that can kill a ski center like a couple of bad snow years. That can be completely devastating.
“Secondly, somebody had improved County O leading from Presque Isle up to Hurley, and the downhill ski areas up there – especially Indianhead – started to make [their own] snow. Any downhill skier would rather go to Indianhead than anywhere else.”
This shift was evident to the Squirrel Hill board of directors, who recognized the gradual decline of interest in the ski area.
“We have indeed reached a crossroads point where winter sports in the Minocqua area can move ahead in a giant stride, or slip back into becoming a school boy hill,” Art Dorwin said to The Times in December 1966.
Dorwin’s proposal? Deed the property to the town of Minocqua.
“The Ski Corporation thinks that there are many advantages to town ownership, and the line of thinking on this matter has met with complete approval from Nekoosa-Edwards Corp. (the current owner of the property) officials,” Dorwin added.
Little did Dorwin, Nekoosa-Edwards officials or the town of Minocqua know, this is precisely what would breathe life into the ski area again – but this action wouldn’t take place for more than a decade.
Growth of cross country skiing
At the same time downhill skiing in the Lakeland area was on the decline, a new type of skiing was emerging and becoming popular at a rapid pace – cross country skiing – and it would prove to play a crucial role in Squirrel Hill’s restoration and the creation of Minocqua Winter Park.
“I was bitten by the [cross country] ski bug in a relatively unique and dramatic fashion back in December of ‘71,” Doak said. After suffering from a long-distance running injury and undergoing surgery on his right ankle, Doak was introduced to the sport of cross country skiing.
“Somewhere in the early year of ‘71 my mom called and said she had just read about this thing called cross country skiing where you can ski uphill, downhill and across the flats. I just said, ‘Mom, you can’t ski uphill. You can only go downhill.’ And bless her heart, she sent me the article anyway,” Doak said.
After reading up on the new-age sport, Doak rented some skis for himself and three of his friends, including Gordy Brown, who would later become Doak’s partner in starting the first cross country ski shop in the Lakeland area. The group of amateur cross country skiers stayed at Brown’s home in Lac du Flambeau.
“We skied around Fence Lake on some logging trails that we knew ... When we got back at about 4 o’clock or so, I took off my skis and went to walk into the house for this beautiful big steak dinner that Gordy’s wife was preparing, and my feet didn’t want to walk – they just wanted to ski. So I put my skis back on and ... skied until about 9 or 10 o’clock. I just couldn’t stop skiing,” Doak said. “Of course, they didn’t save me any steak dinner either.
“That night, after the first day on skis, we enjoyed it so much and knew it would be a hit, so we decided we were going to [open a ski shop]. We even came up with a name for the shop: Easy Slider. That was a pretty dramatic entrance into the cross country ski world.”
Ultimately, one of the many diverse roots of Minocqua Winter Park can be traced to these four friends “who had a good time on Fence Lake and decided to start a ski shop,” Doak said.
Over the course of the next eight or so years, Doak and Brown would perfect their cross country skiing skills. In addition to opening the Easy Slider ski shop in 1972, they “built their first [ski] track-setting sled in December 1973, opened a full ski touring center just outside of Woodruff, and then a real ski center with freshly designed trails at Camp Kawaga in November of ‘76, and the Winter Park was the natural progression from that.”
Along the way Doak would eventually meet Dan Clausen, another key figure in the creation of Minocqua Winter Park.
“I thought I was the only cross country skier in the area,” Clausen said. “I would go to the Escanaba Lake trail almost every day. One day I ran into another skier on the trail and it was Wes. He saw a repair job on my wooden ski and we started chatting and became good friends ever since. The few skiers in the area finally met.”
With a growing interest in cross country skiing, the Lakeland Ski Touring Club was formed – an outlet for cross country ski enthusiasts to share their passion for the sport.
Revitalizing Squirrel Hill and XC skiing’s role
The year of 1978 was a significant one for Squirrel Hill – arguably as momentous as 1956.
The magic of Squirrel Hill was dwindling over the years. It was a slow but steady decline, and eventually downhill skiing at the hill faded away, Grundy described.
By early January 1978, Squirrel Hill had not yet opened for the winter season for a few reasons.
“Minocqua town officials are not only running into trouble with Mother Nature trying to get the Squirrel Hill ski area opened; they are also having problems finding someone to run the operation when the snow does appear,” The Times reported Jan. 5, 1978. “For any kind of skiing, at least five or six inches of compacted base snow is needed, and according to Town Chairman Rich Herrick there is only a one-and-a-half to two-inch base at present.”
Consequently, bus trips to Squirrel Hill ski area arranged by the Lakeland Recreation Foundation were postponed “indefinitely,” and news of Squirrel Hill would not be reported in The Times until late September of that year.
Though that first article about Squirrel Hill had a foreboding headline – “Squirrel Hill ski area repair, opening urged” – it would prove to be the turning point for Squirrel Hill, as well as cross country skiing and the eventual Minocqua Winter Park.
Mark Clark, the Minocqua town planner, came before the Minocqua town board not as an official, but as a resident urging the restoration of Squirrel Hill.
As Clark wrote in his letter to the town board, “The hill and chalet are currently in poor state of repair. It is my understanding that vandalism was the cause and has been a long-standing problem on the hill. With this in mind, it would seem futile to rebuild the equipment and chalet, without some assurance that this same state of disrepair will not happen again.”
He then proposed what Dorwin had more than a decade before: Designate Squirrel Hill as a town park. Not only that, but Clark also pushed for creating a Town Park Commission. Finally, Clark suggested that living quarters be added to the chalet for the hill manager to ensure constant vigilance and protection from vandals.
All of this could be made possible through the available Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funding – and the town board’s approval.
On Oct. 3, 1978, that approval was secured. Renovation work on Squirrel Hill was under way, and the Lakeland Ski Touring Club volunteered countless hours of manpower to the project.
To be continued...
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org