It is hard to overstate the influence of Whitefish’s early skiing pioneers on the resort that stands today, and the community surrounding Big Mountain. Far beyond the names of some ski runs like Toni Matt and restaurants like Ed & Mully’s, the men and women who blazed the first trails up the mountain, hosted the first major race events and invested their lives in the nascent, long-shot resort left an enduring imprint on Whitefish and Montana’s unique ski culture.
Because unlike many of the other North American ski areas developed in the mid-20th century, building what is now called Whitefish Mountain Resort was a truly grassroots effort, a product more of the town itself than any outside influence. And that is unusual.
“The whole evolution of Big Mountain is through the community,” Mike Muldown said. “It wasn’t some big money coming in from somewhere and just building the resort.”
“It was so rare for the genesis of a ski area to come from the locals,” he added.
Mike’s father, Lloyd “Mully” Muldown is considered the “Father of Skiing” on Big Mountain, according to Jean Arthur’s definitive history: “Hellroaring: Fifty Years on the Big Mountain.”
After moving to Whitefish from Minnesota in 1928, Mully ran into Ole Dalen while skiing in 1933. At that time only a handful of people were muscling their way up the slopes of the mountain in deep snow, along sheep trails and burned areas, in search of ski routes to and from the summit. Dalen skied in the traditional Norwegian style, on homemade skis and carrying one pole held horizontally, according to Arthur. Mully had a pair of seven-foot maple skis.
“We’d clatter on down, go pitching into the woods … fall 20-30-40 times – pick ourselves up and do it again,” Mully said in a 1984 interview with The Big Mountain’s newsletter, Ptarmigan Tracks. “I think it was in the winter of ’34 that we got to the top.”
The first ski cabin on the mountain was built in 1935-1936 by the Hellroaring Ski Club, after Mully visited the site with a U.S. Forest Service ranger to ensure it was on public land. The Depression-era accommodations consisted of bunks made from rope hammocks and barrel stoves providing heat and hot water, but the hut served as a base for ski excursions, and the club’s membership began to grow. Aside from the skiing, chopping wood and playing penny-ante poker offered no shortage of recreation.
At the urging of Whitefish’s clergy, intent, as Arthur put it, that “turpitude would not be tolerated,” a second, larger cabin was built in 1937, allowing men and women separate sleeping areas, with funds for building materials donated by the community. (Those same sensitivities would result in a name-change from Hellroaring to Whitefish Lake Ski Club.) This followed Mully’s trip to the Berlin Olympics in 1936, from which he brought back advanced skiing gear – asking local blacksmiths to replicate the bindings – as well as knowledge of the Austrian “Arlberg technique” of skiing.
Early boosters of Whitefish skiing have always been savvy enough to know that hosting a big race elevates one’s profile. In 1939, before a road to the cabins was built and a rope tow constructed from a Dodge engine – the Montana High School Ski Association championships drew 86 boys from 10 schools to compete. Four hundred spectators hiked the two miles up to watch, and Lyle Rutherford prepared the food for the racers, mixing pancake batter in a wash basin for breakfast. The racecourse began at what is now the Hellroaring run.
“We weren’t the sit-around-on-a-barstool-type people, we just went out and did stuff,” Muldown recalled Rutherford telling him, then he reflected on the parallels to present day Whitefish: “It’s like the people that are around here today – there just weren’t as many of them.”
The cabins stayed busy until, when World War II exploded, the skills of several Whitefish men, including Dalen, Karl Hinderman and Otto Ost were called upon to join the Tenth Mountain Division, the unit patrolling the Italian Alps on skis. Dalen would lose an arm in conflict, though the injury barely slowed him down. He would become the first certified ski instructor in Montana. To honor the local skier who died on a bombing mission over Germany, the first annual Doug Smith Memorial Race was held in 1948.
After the war, the business community of Whitefish, as well as the Great Northern Railway, were eager to court investors for a ski resort to rival Idaho’s Sun Valley.
Former Olympic racer Al Lindley and Earling Strom were among the national ski experts brought in to assess the area’s potential. Mully took them to Glacier National Park, where they declared Heaven’s Peak an ideal site, until the Interior Department declined permission to build a ski area there. Nor was Strom impressed by Big Mountain, calling the terrain “God-forsaken bush country,” according to Arthur. (Though Muldown recalls his father telling him Strom had great difficulty skiing the breakable crust on the day he toured the mountain, which may explain his negative impression.)
It wasn’t until two Great Falls businessmen, Ed Schenck and George Prentice, arrived in Whitefish and, impressed by the inexpensive land prices, railway access and snow, saw potential. With $20,000 of their own funds and $40,000 raised from members of the Chamber of Commerce, Schenck and Prentice formed Winter Sports Inc. in 1947. Though Prentice would move on after six years, Schenck spent the subsequent decades pouring himself into the resort, doing everything from digging ditches to plowing roads to serving as chairman of the WSI board.
On Dec. 14 of that year, the T-bar (on the site of the current Chair 2) began towing the first paying skiers up The Big Mountain, above the original lodge. The price of a lift ticket? $2. A hamburger? 25 cents. A beer? Mere pocket change.
Again, a major event would draw attention to the skiing on Big Mountain when Winter Sports Inc. won the bid to host the 1949 National Downhill, Slalom and Combined Championship races. To design the downhill course, Schenck and Prentice enticed Toni Matt to come to Whitefish. At that time Matt was an Austrian ski instructor at Sun Valley and one of the top skiers in the country after crushing competitors at the infamous “Inferno” race in New Hampshire’s Tuckerman’s Ravine.
“He brought some credibility to the place through his name,” Muldown said. “At that time, he was one of the biggest names in skiing.”
“To sit around and listen to Toni Matt tell about schussing Tuckerman’s Ravine…” he added, trailing off. “Just to be around these people and grow up with all of them, it was pretty special.”
Martin Hale, who owned and ran the ski school and ski shop from 1971-1995, won the junior nationals in 1955. As a young man he was coached by, and worked with Matt, who he remembers hand-cutting the trees for the 1949 downhill course, the run named Langley. In the 1950s, $12 would buy three days of lessons, and the entire mountain shut down at noon for lunch.
“I never got a lot of comments on what they learned, it was how much fun they had,” Hale said of the ski school’s students. “I mean, geez, they’d just go crazy in the powder.”
Ensuing years saw the resort’s restaurants, hotels, chalets and terrain expand, though finances were often tight, and it was not unusual for businesses and Whitefish to extend credit to Big Mountain employees when necessary. But the biggest step forward, for the skiers and the business itself, was the construction in 1960 of Chair One, offering summit access.
“It was relatively big news in the burgeoning ski industry for a little place like Whitefish, Montana, (where’s that?), to be building a lift on what they called ‘The Big Mountain,’” Norm Kurtz, a former resort general manager who worked there from the 1950s through the 1990s, wrote in his memoir of those years, “Chair One.”
The lift was 6,800 feet long, rising 2,000 vertical feet, and necessitated the building of roads into every one of the 31 towers.
“The machine worked hard for 28 years and in the first year of operation, our business went up 141 percent,” Kurtz wrote. “We were on our way.”
Hale recalled the time before Chair One went up, when chances were good if he saw one or two tracks coming off the summit, he knew who made them.
“It still amazes me when I look up there on a sunny day and see tracks everywhere,” Hale said. “We never had that.”
And though the next four decades weren’t easy by any means, those who recall the resort in its early days share Hale’s amazement at what it has become. Many have passed on, and Muldown wondered what they would say if they could see it.
“It would be fun to get those guys back,” Muldown said, “and have them look at the town today and the mountain today and see what they started.”
This story was excerpted from Escape, the Flathead Beacon’s seasonal magazine, which is on newsstands now.
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