‘Town like Whitefish’ key to beginning of ski resort

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Big Mountain’s first summer chairlift, circa early 1950s — with single chairs on the original T-Bar lift. (Photo courtesy of FVSEF)

This column is brought to you by the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation and the Ski Heritage Center Museum of Skiing. Enjoy these fascinating stories about the rich and colorful history of skiing in the Flathead Valley.

Ed Schenck told the story of the founding of a ski hill on Big Mountain to Edmund Christopherson for The Saturday Evening Post on March 4, 1950.

Earning $42.50 for a ticket by picking berries and tending lawns is a real sacrifice just when the lake, with swimming, fishing and boating is at its best. These kids nowadays really have it figured close. They earn just enough, then quit. Other junior-sized enterprisers keep hitting me for jobs, so they can earn their lift rides. In winter they line up by the viaduct and hitch up to the hill. They bring their lunches along, and don’t spend an extra nickel.

Most of our more than 200 stock­ holders in town dug down really deep to help finance a sport they’d never tried. Twice during our recurring pay­ roll crises, Don Smith, a mechanic at the Great Northern shops, borrowed $500 and put it into shares. Neither Russ Abell, nor Shirley Lincoln, nor Joe Monegan skis, but at considerable neglect to their businesses they went out and sold more than $30,000 worth of the $110,000 worth of stock out­ standing. Our involuntary stockholders — ex-creditors who decided to settle for stock — and even some of the hardest-working skeptics have developed a real enthusiasm for their project on the hill. Take our druggist, Bob Haines, long a holdout, who recently succumbed and took a $1,000 block of stock. He says, “I guess I couldn’t see it at first because I’m 65, which is older than most of these other bucks. I can now. It’s going to be a good thing for the town and this whole end of the state. I may even get out and put on a pair of skis myself one of these days.”

When they invested, lots of our stockholders put their money into Big Mountain chiefly for what it would do for the kids and for the town. But last year, in addition to all the money we put into getting ready for the Nationals, the corporation made a small profit. This season there’ll be enough left over for a dividend, but the stock­holders will probably vote to use it to buy chairs for our lift.

You can’t get away from skiing in Whitefish. Every time there’s a newsreel shot of a ski jump, at least a dozen citizens will accost me and ask if we hadn’t better put in one right away. Before Big Mountain was developed, Whitefish’s ski club had 40 members. This year there are around 1,000, and they make the lodge a year-round social center. Lyle Rutherford, long­time skier and a conductor on the Great Northern, keeps badgering passenger representatives to tell train riders about our mountain. Schoolmarm Kathy Lloyd picked Whitefish as the town she wanted to teach in be­cause of the skiing it affords. This year a dozen other teachers splurged on ski equipment and are starting out with lessons. Any evening of the year you can find a good bull session on skiing in high school science teacher Lloyd Muldown’s living room. Even the local beachcombers have geared themselves to skiing. In the late spring, when the snow melts up on the slope, they come up and hunt for the money that gets left in the sitzmarks. One Forest Service timber cruiser, working on the hill, stumbled over more cash than he took in as wages.

Already George and I have started getting letters asking how it happened. “It’s easy,” we tell them, only half remembering our early headaches. “All you have to do is to find a town like Whitefish.”

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