6 minutes reading time (1175 words)

Warren Miller: Midwest Skiing The Way It Was

Filmmaker Warren MillerDuring the 1950s and ‘60s the greatest expansion of ski resorts in America occurred. Squaw Valley, Vail, Keystone, Sugarbush, Heavenly Valley, Copper Mountain, Beaver Creek to mention just a few.

However I had the privilege of turning my camera lens to truly spectacular and virtually unknown ski resorts in the Midwest during that same era. One was near Traverse City, Michigan, and started out as an apple orchard.

John Bintz had spent the winter on the ski patrol at Boyne Mountain, Michigan and as a result wanted to own his own ski resort. The first thing he did when he got home was to go out and rent a transit and the services of a surveyor to find out where the highest point in his father’s apple orchard was. They discovered that it was three vertical feet higher than the lowest point. 

This was enough to convince his father to let him hire a bulldozer and an earthmover and start digging a hole. The digging went on for several months.  When the hole was approximately 120 feet deep plus the height of the mound of dirt alongside of the hole, they decided to celebrate and shut down and take the next day off.

When they came back two days later they discovered that the afternoon before they had unearthed an artesian well and the bulldozer was under 150 feet of water. Construction was held up for a week or so while they pumped out the new scuba diving school location in Traverse City. (He was definitely an entrepreneur!)  He had to dry out the bulldozer and earthmover and cap the artesian well. 

Then they decided they would settle for the 150-vertical-foot ski canyon and put in three or four rope tows to handle the anticipated large crowds. Then they added a very large aluminum Butler building for a warming hut and restaurant on the top of their newly created Bintz Mountain Ski Resort.

My first experience filming their shiny new resort was during the first annual Tri-City downhill and slalom championships in late February of a year that I can’t remember exactly, but it was sometime in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, I believe. The tension and the aura of all of these young children and their very expensive downhill racing suits, crash helmets, personal coaches, trainers, ski technicians, and doting mothers made for interesting images and some of my mean-spirited humor.

I can’t remember who won the race or what the winning time was, but the first place trophy was as tall as the young man who won it and the winning time was a new downhill record of 18.7 seconds, top to bottom.

The process of this particular ski resort growth on its fruit farm, as I understand it, led to the construction of a fine dining room where people could watch the night skiers riding the by-then frozen rope tows. I have no idea if the rope tows are still operating, but the last time I heard, the restaurant had hired the best chef within 100 miles so it’s worth stopping by the Bintz Fruit Farm for dinner and take a look at a very unusual scrapbook if the rope tow is not operating.

A second newly developed ski resort of the late 1950s early 1960s took place in beautiful downtown Chicago. This development took place within two or three years of the invention of snow guns and man-made snow looked like a sure road to financial security for ski resorts. 

In the early days developers were renting unused high-pressure air compressors from construction companies that didn’t use them during the winter. They rammed water through a galvanized pipe against another pipe at right angles and out into freezing cold air where it formed snowflakes and covered the ground with skiable snow of varying quantity and quality, depending on the temperature and the right mixture of high-pressure air and water.

As most people know, there is not a single mountain between Boyne Mountain, Michigan and the Colorado Rockies. However, a promoter who thought he was smarter than everyone else, took one look at Soldiers Field in Chicago and realized from the football field to the top of the grandstand was almost 150 vertical feet. He had visions of making a fortune when he filled the north facing bleachers up with man-made snow and sold rope tow tickets to everyone in Chicago who own a pair of skis and cash in on the ski boom of the ‘50s and the ‘60s.

Theoretically this made a lot of sense. Chicago is known for its bitter cold winters blowing in off of Lake Michigan, all of the plumbing was in place so all the developers needed was to build the galvanized iron snow guns, rent half a dozen air compressors, turn on the water and fill the bleachers up with deep powder snow.

When I stopped by to film this man-made snow on the man-made mountain I was greeted by the Austrian ski school director in his Tyrolean hat and jacket with a yodel and a willingness to ski for my camera. Along with the wet soggy rope tow way off in the end zone, 60 yards away was a toboggan slide with a half a dozen people hauling their two toboggans up alongside of the narrow track of snow that had been made just for toboggans and sleds.

Apparently it had been four or five days since it had been cold enough to make new powder snow and the snow that greeted me was fairly dark gray colored on top of three feet of bleacher seats, and a very special wax necessary to slide on this grimy gray snow.

Wolfgang Bang, the ski school director, had seen my recent ski movie and thought I would make funny remarks about his snow conditions and wanted me to come back on a weekend when he had a larger crowd. My schedule was tight, but I was able to come back on Saturday morning.  By now the smog and soot of downtown Chicago had really made the snow almost black in places. When, and if, you could ski down the hill it looked as though you were writing on a blackboard with white chalk.

Talking to Wolfgang, he told me that the promoters of the Soldier’s Field Ski Resort were in real trouble because at the conclusion of one snowmaking session when it warmed up, they did not blow the water out of all of the pipes and it froze up almost every water pipe in the massive stadium.

And while many of the resorts such as Sun Valley, Squaw Valley, Heavenly Valley, Breckenridge, Big Sky, Mammoth, Aspen and Vail still occupy a large place in a lot of people’s hearts, the resorts I have described here probably occupy a very prominent position in two separate bankruptcy courts.

I think there’s an old adage for this situation, “Reality is what dreams are made of.”

Where and what is the perfect ski resort that you dream of?

Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)

 

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