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Marquette Monthly
January, 2004
 

Back Then, Frida Waara
Ishpeming knee-deep in skiing heritage
Local museum celebrates fiftieth anniversary

Baseball has Cooperstown, football has Canton, and skiing has Ishpeming.
   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 feet.
   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 Ski Day."
   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 these sports."
   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 and hotels.
   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 years.
   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.
--Frida Waara

   Anniversary Events
   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, Ishpeming
    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

 

 


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