Minocqua Winter Park is one of the ultimate outlets for residents and visitors alike to enjoy Northwoods nature during the winter season – an opportunity to take in the often breathtaking scenery that comes but one time a year for only a handful of months.
It is a community park built on the shoulders of countless volunteers and an outpouring of financial generosity over several decades.
It is an endeavor that began in the late 1950s by Northwoods residents whose vision was to expand outdoor recreation from waterskiing, boating and hiking to include silent winter sports.
While the proposal of a winter park was still in its earliest stages, a Lakeland Times article published on Jan. 26, 1956, highlights its potential and poses an important question: “Water skiing in Minocqua brings much advertising and great entertainment, thanks to the Min-Aqua Bats, with their fine performances. But what about winter skiing?”
Hence, the seed that is now Minocqua Winter Park was planted.
But it wasn’t always Minocqua Winter Park – from the late 50s to the 1970s, it was known as Squirrel Hill.
Squirrel Hill proposal
Though the Lakeland area had a small ski hill, Dorwin Hill, to enjoy, which was “close to town, and town-sponsored,” and “entertainment to the youngsters,” according to The Times, many of these skiers were beginning to look for larger and longer slopes and the greater challenges they would present.
Now, the idea of developing Squirrel Hill into a downhill ski haven was not new at this point – it had long been a topic of conversation, but was left at that. Taking this concept to a new level, several relevant questions were addressed in The Times Jan. 26, 1956, article.
Some of the more basic discussion points included the current owners of the property (Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Company) and the hill’s height (229 feet). Delving deeper into the matter, the article compares Squirrel Hill’s vertical height to other nearby ski areas – Telemark was measured at 384 feet; Shelter Valley at less than 200; and Squirrel Hill was documented as three-fifths the height of Telemark.
Other pertinent questions that were answered included:
• How near is the highline? It services the Fire Tower Radio Relay station in Squirrel Hill.
• Is the property available for a ski area? Manager Edward Henricksen has stated that Nekoosa-Edwards will cooperate fully if this is to be a community project.
• How much money will have to be raised? A first year budget of $3,000. Slopes must be cleared carefully by hand, no bulldozing, estimated at $1,000; rope tow, estimated, $1,000; minimum warming shelter, estimated, $1,000.
• How much money was needed at Shelter Valley? It is reported that they spent in excess of $30,000. The Northernaire has been a big factor in this project. Those who have been there agree that the warming shelter alone probably cost $18,000. The Pomogalski platter lift cost $15,000, and the additional rope tows and clearing the ski runs must have cost another $3,000.
• If Shelter Valley spent these large amounts to develop a ski area, what result can we get for only $3,000? To some Minocqua citizens, $3,000 may even seem like a lot of money to spend. This expenditure can be a very safe investment, and as it grows and proves its worth, additional support can be raised for investment.
• How can this money be raised to get Squirrel Hill into operation by next December? By starting a ski club to work for that end. Ski membership will be $1 and everyone should belong. Endowment membership for businesses and summer home owners will be $5 or over. Public funds could be made available by appropriation. Later, a state park plan could release state help.
Spearheading the first organizational meeting of the Squirrel Hill Ski Club was Art Dorwin, who was at that time the owner of a clothing store located where Ross Sportswear is today. Other members who would play a crucial role with Squirrel Hill included Bill Patterson, a Minocqua Ski Club charter member who had a lot to do with installing the ski tow at Dorwin Hill; Bill Cameron, who would report the extent of cooperation on Nekoosa-Edwards behalf; and Forest Johnson, who created some preliminary sketches for emblems and insignia for Squirrel Hill Ski Club. Dan Jossart, director and operator of Dorwin Hill, was also a key figure in this process.
“The Minocqua area is fortunate to have a number of people with winter ski ‘know-how’ to guide this project,” The Times reported. “The many common mistakes that may have occurred in other areas can be avoided by putting to good use the ski enthusiasm and rope tow experience of Dan Jossart. Art Dorwin brings to the club many first-hand observations of ski area operations from such Colorado ski centers as Winter Park, Arapahoe Basin and Hidden Valley.”
Squirrel Hill or Muskellunge Hill?
With downhill skiing on everyone’s minds, the year of 1956 turned out to be a good one for the silent winter sport at Dorwin Hill. This enthusiasm fueled the desire for a larger, more challenging ski hill.
“The sport of skiing is certainly becoming evident in the Lakeland area and the fine ski weather has made conditions perfect at the Minocqua hill, as was seen last Sunday by the record attendance,” The Times reported Feb. 23, 1956. “Over 100 skiers spent a very enjoyable day at the hill, making use of the tow which is operated by Dan Jossart, director of the hill.
Only a few short weeks later, the Squirrel Hill Ski Club which was started earlier that year began seeing some progress and their proposed budget increased to $4,000.
“[The group] felt that the costs of clearing trails, building a ski tow, a parking lot, and a minimum warming shelter cannot be accomplished for less than $4,000,” The Times reported. “Given the proper amount of backing by businesses and by the town, a very good winter sports area can be readied by next year.”
But it wasn’t just Squirrel Hill that was being considered for a possible ski hill. In July, ski promoter George Cass Jr., consultant and builder of Sheltered Valley in Three Lakes and the Brule Mountain Hill at Iron River, Mich., which was then under construction, was roped into the Northwoods ski development project. Authorized by committees and area businessmen, Cass made a full and complete survey of all existing ski potentials in the area: Squirrel Hill, Minocqua; Muskellunge Hill, Sayner area; Anderson Hill, off County Truck between Woodruff and Flambeau.
Cass had his survey complete by August, and presented his findings to interested residents, business people and the Minocqua Lions Club members at the old Arbor Vitae-Woodruff gymnasium. The two major contenders for possible ski hills came down to Squirrel Hill, which Cass measured at 1,790 feet above sea level, and Muskellunge Hill, which came in at 1,860 feet.
“Both hills have a run of 1,000 feet, considered longer than other major hills in northern Wisconsin,” The Times reported on Aug. 2, 1956. “The elevation of both hills is also higher than Sheltered Valley in Three Lakes, and both locations have excellent possibilities for a ski center which would develop an entire new winter sport industry in the Lakeland region.”
But support was split between the ski locations, with one group lobbying for each of the two hills: The Squirrel Ski Development and the Lakeland Ski Corporation for the Muskellunge Hill project.
But even with the competition between the two locations, the Squirrel Hill project was fully embraced by the community. In mid-August the Minocqua Lions Club went on record of approving a Lions Club sponsorship of the hill. And according to Ed Henricksen, manager of Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Co., the company had “enthusiasm for the proposed ski development on Squirrel Hill, and expressed that Nekoosa-Edwards would cooperate on the development of the project, and realized the requirements that would have to be met.”
In the Sept. 27, 1956, Lakeland Times edition, the headline “‘Major League’ ski area now is assured for Lakeland area” adorned the front cover. But it wasn’t describing Squirrel Hill – Muskellunge Hill Ski Area, located at the Northern Highland State Forest on County Highway N, received approval of expenditures up to $10,000 plus a suitable shelter building.
“Ever mindful of the needs of the north, the winter economy of the Lakeland Region was given a much needed ‘shot in the arm’ by the Wisconsin Conservation Commission at its September meeting held at Gordon’s Lodge, at Bailey’s Harbor, on Sept. 21,” The Times reported.
Several open slopes and downhill ski trails were to be opened at Muskellunge Hill, plus the construction of a J-Bar type ski lift with a 750-skier capacity, a ski school area and rope tow. The estimated cost from the International Aerial Tramways of San Francisco, Calif., was between $8,000-$10,000. All the equipment was to be delivered by mid-December 1956, and the tows were expected to be set up by the holiday season.
Just one week later the Squirrel Hill Ski Corp. was formed.
To be continued ...
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org