knee-deep in skiing heritage
museum celebrates fiftieth anniversary
Baseball has Cooperstown, football has Canton, and skiing
To the native Ojibwa, Ishpeming meant "heaven" or "high
place," but the tallest skiable slope in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
rises only 900 feet. So how did this small U.P. mining town earn the
distinction to be home to organized skiing in America? What about Aspen,
Stowe or Sun Valley?
The reason dates back before safety bindings, stretch pants and chair
lifts. In fact, Ishpeming's significance to skiing predates the birth
of Alpine skiing altogether. The U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame and
Museum has a beginning much like that of the sport. It's rooted in Scandinavia,
where skiing was not just for fun, but also for survival.
Norwegian Birkebeiner soldiers wore skis as early as 1206. They also
used skis while hunting gold in the mountains of California nearly 900
years later. Over a century ago, when Norwegians came to the mineral-rich
hills of the Upper Great Lakes to mine copper and iron ore, they brought
skis here too.
Underground work was hard. Above ground, winter was even harder.
Surrounded by the planet's largest concentration of freshwater, as much
as 300 inches of "lake effect" snow can bury the peninsula,
which means this section of the country, at sea-level, gets as much
snow as some high altitude towns of the Colorado Rockies.
To the spartan Scandinavians who settled here, the house-high snow
banks looked just like home. So as they established communities, they
also began organizing ski clubs.
According to local lore, Michigan's first ski club started with some
strong spirits on a wintry Sunday afternoon in 1887. The term "spirits"
refers to more than just the quality of characters skiing that afternoon.
Apparently Ole Sundlie and his Norwegian pals, out for a Sunday ski
in the woods, met up with a pair of saloon keepers who had a bottle
of rum stashed at the bottom of a hill. Each loop ended with a swig
of rum and it didn't take too many trips before the friends were convinced
it was time to start a ski club.
So, spiced by rum, the Norden Ski Club started on January 24, 1887.
To date, this club ranks the fifth oldest sporting club in Michigan
and the oldest continually active ski club in America.
A year later, in February 1888, the Nordens had grown from thirteen
to thirty-five members, and they hosted Ishpeming's first public ski
jumping tournament. The men had been holding contests on homemade hills
for quite a while, but this marked the first tournament with fanfare,uniforms,
bands, prizes, food and speeches. Sundlie, founder of the Nordens, became
Ishpeming's first Ski Jumping Champion that day with a leap of thirty-five
The first competition was such a success that the club followed it
with a second tournament a month later. Ski jumping quickly spurred
an Ishpeming Winter Festival and the local newspaper, The Iron Ore,
covered it with front-page prominence. Editor George Newett wrote about
a newcomer that showed up at that second tournament, thirty-three-year-old
Carl Tellefsen from Trondheim (Norway).
"Carl Tellefsen, a stranger employed at the Ishpeming National
Bank arrived too late to take part in the tournament but he was still
allowed to take an exhibition ride and jumped forty-two feet, six inches.
He is an elegant rider who handles his skis gracefully and quickly."
--The Iron Ore, March 1888
Carl Tellefsen was more than an elegant rider; he was a gifted leader.
He helped organize his hometown ski club in Trondheim and brought that
experience to Ishpeming. He also made lifelong friends with Newett,
forging a fraternity that would forever shape American ski history as
well as Michigan's winter economy. Tournaments weren't just athletic
competitions; they became contests to draw spectators.
The quest to build communities in the rugged Great Lakes required
people, and ski jumping became a powerful magnet in these iron-rich
hills. Instead of apologizing for winter, it celebrated snow, showcasing
a daring spirit that embraced healthful cold climate living, a trait
the mining companies wanted to amplify while attracting a durable labor
force. By 1891, eleven ski clubs had organized from Michigan to Minnesota.
Ishpeming already had such a reputation for holding quality tournaments
that the group awarded it host rights for the first Central Region Ski
Jumping Tournament, January 16, 1891.
After that year, snow-poor winters took a toll on jumping's popularity
and the central organization lost momentum. Small contests continued
for kids because they were hooked. They couldn't give up their passion
for flying on wings of wood. Reports from that era contend there were
more ski jumps in Ishpeming than baseball diamonds.
Along with the weather, populations changed too. By 1900, Norwegians
in Ishpeming were outnumbered by Swedes four to one, and by Finns five
to one. As club president, Tellefsen knew for the local group to remain
viable and ski jumping a community asset, it was time to begin anew.
Instead of remaining exclusively Norwegian, he invited all nationalities
to join the club. Opening the door meant changing the name and doing
business in a more universal language. So in 1901, the group became
the Ishpeming Ski Club, and from that date all bylaws and proceedings
were conducted in English.
The change signaled a new start. Ishpeming returned to hosting successful
tournaments in February 1901. Right away the community showed its enthusiasm
for the comeback by declaring that date, Washington's Birthday, as "National
The success also ignited the community to ski. Roughly ten percent
of Ishpeming's population took to the sport. The Iron Ore reported that
"local dealers disposed of several thousand feet of lumber for
ski making." Promotion began naming Ishpeming "the place where
developing champions are raised. Publications also boasted that Ishpeming
should be considered "the greatest town in the United States for
As events continued to build, so did Tellefsen's goal to set up a
national ski organization, hosting national competitions, governed by
a national set of rules, headed by a national president. That dream
would be realized in Tellefsen's office on the eve of the 1904 tournament.
That night, nine Norway-born skiers and one American, Newett, met
to form the National Ski Association. Tellefsen was elected President
and Aksel Holter secretary--positions these two men already held with
the Ishpeming Ski Club.
The next day, 200 participants entered the fourteenth annual Ishpeming
Ski Jumping Tournament, unofficially the first National Ski Jumping
Tournament of the National Ski Association of America. A story in the
Marquette Mining Journal estimated that 6,000 to 8,000 spectators were
on hand and the day was voted one of the best in Ishpeming's history.
Invitations immediately went out for the second national championships
to be held on the same date, "National Ski Day," February
22, 1905. That year 8,000 people came to Ishpeming, filling the restaurants
Newspapers officially announced in bold face type the founding of
the NSA, now firmly established with a constitution and bylaws. Five
clubs representing three states were registered. No one disputed that
the NSA headquarters be located in Ishpeming.
It had the two secret ingredients, snow and hospitality. So from
that day forward, Ishpeming has been known as the birthplace of organized
skiing in America.
Ishpeming also has been the birthplace of ski champions. In 1917,
Ishpeming's Henry Hall became the first native-born American to break
the 200-foot barrier in ski jumping. He leaped 203 feet at Steamboat
Springs (Colorado). Since then, Ishpeming Ski Club has produced seventeen
national champions, five world champions and ten Olympians. This small
town of less than 7,000 people had at least one ski jumper at every
Winter Olympic Games from 1936 to 1964.
In 1925, Ishpeming Ski Club volunteers constructed a new 100-meter
jump. Situated in a natural bowl surrounded by trees the jump faced
away from the sun and out of the wind. The inaugural jump was set for
February 16, 1926. At practice a few days before, Walter Anderson fell
and was badly hurt, which prompted newspaper reporter Ted Butler to
dub the jump "Suicide Hill." The name stuck for seventy-eight
In 1938, at a NSA conference in Milwaukee, the idea surfaced to build
a National Ski Museum, similar to the ski museums in Norway and Sweden.
The idea stalled until after World War II, when the mission was revived
and a National Ski Museum Committee, spearheaded by Ishpeming's Burt
Boyum, went to work.
In addition to a home for the nation's ski trophies and records,
Boyum's vision included a hall of fame, a permanent registry of biographies
and photos of U.S. ski legends. On February 21, 1954, the fiftieth anniversary
of the National Ski Association, the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame
and Museum was dedicated.
It took two more years to draft rules for electing men and women
to the Hall of Fame, and in 1956 the first four men were inducted. This
winter that number will climb to 338.
During the Hall of Fame's fiftieth anniversary celebration on January
23, seven new legends will be inducted to skiing's highest honor: Tommy
Moe, A.J. Kitt, Diann Roffe, Jerry Nunn, Alex Cushing, Ernst Constam
and Clare Bousquet.
Much has changed in fifty years. NSA has become USSA, the United
States Ski and Snowboard Association. The Hall of Fame and Museum has
moved to a facility five times larger and now houses the nation's greatest
collection of recorded ski materials. But what has stayed constant is
Ishpeming's desire to ski and celebrate winter, the very elements that
earned the area recognition over a century ago.
Thursday, January 22
Annual Board Meeting 1:00-4:30 p.m. Ski Hall of Fame, Ishpeming
U.S. Ski Hall of Fame Reception 4:30-6:00 p.m. Ski Hall of Fame,
Torch Lite Ski Trek 6:00 p.m. Al Quaal Recreation Area
Press Conference 6:00 p.m. Ski Hall of Fame, Ishpeming
Ski Jumping Exhibition 7:00 p.m. Suicide Bowl, Ishpeming
Friday, January 23
Ski Expo 3:00-10:00 p.m. Superior Dome, Marquette
Noquemanon Registration 3:00-10:00 p.m. Superior Dome, Marquette
Induction Ceremony 7:00 p.m. Peterson Auditorium
Induction Afterglow 9:00 p.m. Venice Supper Club
Saturday, January 24
Kiwanis Breakfast for Inductees 8:30 a.m. Phelps School Ishpeming
Noquemanon Race Begins 8:45 a.m. Ishpeming
Induction Banquet 5:30 p.m. UpFront & Company
Noquemanon Awards 7:30 p.m. UpFront & Company
Sunday, January 25
Celebrity Slalom 10:00 a.m. Marquette Mountain
Big Air Exhibition 1:00 p.m. Marquette Mountain