During the 1950s and ‘60s the greatest expansion of ski resorts in America occurred. Squaw Valley, Vail, Keystone, Sugarbush, Heavenly Valley, Copper Mountain, Beaver Creek to mention just a few.
However, I had the privilege of turning my camera lens to truly spectacular and virtually unknown ski resorts in the Midwest during that same era. One was near Traverse City, Michigan, and started out as an apple orchard.
John Bintz had spent the winter on the ski patrol at Boyne Mountain Michigan and as a result wanted to own his own ski resort. The first thing he did when he got home was ask surveyor to find out where the highest point in his father’s apple orchard was. They discovered that it was three vertical feet higher than the lowest point. This was enough to convince his father to let him hire a bulldozer and an earth mover and start digging a hole. The digging went on for several months and when the hole was approximately 120 feet deep they decided to celebrate and shut down and take the next day off.
When they came back two days later they discovered that the afternoon before they had unearthed an artesian well and the bulldozer was under water. Construction was held up for a week. He had to dry out the bulldozer and earth mover and cap the artesian well. They decided to put in three tows to handle the anticipated large crowds. Then they added a warming hut and restaurant on the top of their newly created Bintz Mountain Ski Resort near Traverse City, Michigan.
My first experience filming their tiny new resort was during the first annual Tri-City downhill and slalom championships in late February of a year that I can’t remember exactly, but it was sometime in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. I can’t remember who won the race, but the winning time was a new downhill record of 18.7 seconds, top to bottom.
A second newly developed ski resort of the late 1950s early ‘60s took place in beautiful downtown Chicago. This development took place within two or three years of the invention of snow guns and man-made snow looked like a sure road to financial security for ski resorts. In the early days developers were renting unused high-pressure air compressors from construction companies that didn’t use them during the winter. There is not a single mountain between Boyne Mountain, Michigan and the Colorado Rockies. However, a promoter who thought he was smarter than everyone else took one look at Soldiers Field in Chicago and realized from the football field to the top of the grandstand was almost 150 vertical feet. He had visions of making a fortune when he filled the north facing bleachers up with man-made snow and sold rope tow tickets to everyone in Chicago.
Theoretically this made a lot of sense. Chicago is known for its bitter cold winters blowing in off of Lake Michigan. All of the plumbing was in place so all the developers needed was to build the galvanized iron snow guns, rent a half-dozen air compressors, turn on the water and fill the bleachers up with deep powder snow.
Apparently, it had been a few days since it had been cold enough to make new powder snow, and the snow that greeted me was a fairly dark.
Wolfgang Bang, the ski school director from Ober-Untergurgle, had seen my recent ski movie and thought I would make funny remarks about his snow conditions and wanted me to come back on a weekend when he had a larger crowd. My schedule was tight, but I was able to come back on a later day and by now the smog and soot of downtown Chicago had made the snow almost black in places.
I think there’s an old adage for this situation, “Reality is what dreams are made of.”