Firsts?

Which was the “first” ski area in Michigan? What is the earliest opened area to still be in business? Which area was first in the U.P? Down below? Give us your nominations and your PROOF.

The Case for Caberfae. According to a feature article on Caberfae Peaks by Jim and Ann Neff dated Feb, 2007 on the Michigan Skier.com site: Opened in 1938 as Michigan’s first ski area, Caberfae has a rich history. As joint project of the U.S Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, runs were carved out of the Manistee National Forest and skiers chipped in $5 contributions until there was enough money for volunteers to construct the first rope tow in 1940.

1938 sounds good, even if the first lift wasn’t running until 1940.

The Case for Mont Ripley. Mont Ripley is claimed to have been opened in 1935. By 1938, they had formed a ski patrol. That’s the same year the National Ski Patrol was formed by Charles Minot (Minnie) Dole at the request of Roger Langley, head of the United States Ski Association.

1935 beats 1938. It’s wonderful that both areas are still operating and still under the same name as when they opened.

The Case for Hanson Hills Recreation Area. This area opened in 1929 as the Grayling Winter Sports Park on land willed to the State of Michigan for military or recreational use. This area claims to be the first downhill area in Michigan and second in the midwest. Still operating in the 1960’s, local businessman and entrepreneur, Fred Bear of Bear Archery, offered to take over the management, rename it Bear Mountain, and make it into a competitive, commercial ski area to rival the big areas further north. He installed chairlifts, built and brought in buildings (a polyhedron hotel from the Montreal Olympic Village) and opened ancillary businesses. When the original family brought suit because the property was being used for profit, a judge had the area padlocked. Eventually the community took the area back, a disgusted Fred Bear moved his factory to Alabama, and the area was renamed Hanson Hills and is still operating as a community run winter sports park.

1929 trumps 1935 and 1938, and this area is still open, too, although it has been operated under at least three names.

However, skiing in Michigan began with schussing straight down a steep hill and often included a ski jump at the top of the hill.

The Case for Grand Beach Ski Club. Beginning in 1922 and running for several years, the Grand Beach Ski Club held an annual ski tournament (jumping?) attracting skiers from throughout the nation. Held on one of the dunes near the Hotel Golfmore, the skiers were served by a ski lift. The hotel burned in 1939, I don’t know when the tow was removed. The link above has a picture of the slope  and ski jump next to the hotel and a brochure for the 1926 tournament.

The tournament ran from 1922 to at least 1926. I do not know when the hill was cleared and opened, when the tow was installed, when the jump was built, or when the area ceased to be used for skiing or jumping. But tow served skiing in 1922? Wow! Grand Beach is no longer open and may have ceased operating before any other ski areas opened in Michigan. Was this really alpine skiing or just tow-served nordic skiing? Was there a difference?

OTHER FIRSTS

Pando Winter Sports Park, near Rockford, was the first ski area in Kent County (1960), but more impressively was the first area in Michigan to allow “snurfers” and then snowboarders to have the run of the area, hosted the first ever snowboard competition (won by Jake Burton Carpenter) and was also the first area in Michigan to install a tubing hill.

By the way, the “snurfer,” predecessor to the snow board, was invented in Michigan in 1965 by Sherman Poppen of Muskegon. He cobbled together the first one when he saw his daughter sliding down hill standing on her sled. Her friends all wanted their own, so he built several with improvements. He patented the device in 1968, the year the first “World Snurfing Championship” was held at Blockhouse Hill in North Muskegon. He licensed the concept to Brunswick who made and sold about a million snurfers between 1966 and 1976 when they re-licensed the product to JEM which produced them into the 1980’s. Snurfers had no bindings, just traction pads. In 1979 Jake Burton Carpenter of Vermont showed up at the championship with a board customized with bindings, He won in the Open Division which allowed modified boards. In 1980, the championship moved to Pando where it was again won by Carpenter.  Carpenter went on to found Burton Snowboards.

Sometime between 1985 and 1999, Warren Brosch installed the first halfpipe in Michigan (and likely the first in the Midwest) at Mt. Holiday, near Traverse City.

In 1947, Boyne Mountain near Boyne Falls was the first area in the midwest to install a chairlift, a used one purchased from Sun Valley which had been, in 1936, the first chairlift ever constructed. The loading and unloading supports from the original lift are still installed and functioning. The area opened on New Years Day, 1948 as the Boyne Mountain Ski Club. Everett Kircher, the owner, modified the lift from a single to a double chair the year after he installed it. He also installed the first triple chairlift (Highlands, 1964), the first quad chairlift (Mountain, 1964) and the first 6-place chairlift (Mountain, 1992) and the first high-speed detachable quad chairlift in Michigan (Highlands, 1990). Not bad for a guy who bought the land for his first ski area (Mountain, 1947) for $1 and his first used chairlift for $2000.

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6 Responses to Firsts?

  1. Bill Bonkowski says:

    I was working on the ski school at the Highlands at the time of the install of the high speed detachable chair. The old chair took us about 9 min to get to the top. This chair cut it down to about two. It was an amazing change.

  2. I still have a couple of the first snurfers I bought back in the day. They were a hoot!
    Regards,
    Mike

  3. Hanson Hills in Grayling was officially established in 1929 with the co-operation of the Hanson family and the Michigan National Guard. Before that the citizens of Grayling had established a toboggan, ski and sledding hill where the Officers Hillis inside Camp Grayling as early as 1921. After that the activity’s were moved to Collin Hill off Margerethe Blvd by the lake. Due to traffic concerns, as the runs crossed Margarethe Blvd. the area was moved to it’s current location off M-93. During it’s hay day the area claimed 2 different ski jumps, the worlds fastest toboggan run “Suicide Sal” with speeds over 100 mph., skiing and ice skating. The snow trains from down state would drop hundreds of people off in downtown Grayling for the trip out to the winter sports park. At it’s height of popularity 10,000 people were reported to visit in a single day as no other facility’s like it were in existence. The winter sports park also hosted many Michigan Winter Carnivals through it’s history crowning snow queens and welcoming many dignitary’s to the historic area. Hanson hills, Bear Mountain and the Grayling Winter Sports Park as it has been known through the years is Michigan’s 1st winter sports area, not Caberfae. They may claim to be the first, but history knows different. Hanson Hills still operates with downhill skiing, tubing, an extensive world class system of cross country trails, as well as several major cross country races through out the season and has a fully certified PSIA/AASI snow sports school.

  4. In addition, Walter Kidde Corp. who bought Bear Archery moved the Bear Archery factory to Gainsville Fla. due to a very nasty labor strike in the 70’s. This strike divided the town and put family vs. family as the strike went on. This event spurred the move to Fla.

  5. If interested in confirming us as the 1st , contact us for pictures, information and first hand written accounts of our historic area. Thanks Bill Bonkowski- Director Hanson Hills Snow Sports School

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