Whitefish Ski Museum Unveils 10th Mountain Division Exhibit

The new display preserves the Flathead Valley’s ski history and honors the WWII veterans who helped establish the nation’s earliest ski areas, including Whitefish Mountain Resort

By Tristan Scott

More than 75 years ago, the 10th Mountain Division was deployed to Europe to help liberate Italy in the final months of World War II. But its influence on history continued long after the war ended. Hundreds of soldiers from the Tenth went on to play major roles in the world of sports, conservation and recreation. 

One became the first executive director of the Sierra Club. Another had a hand in creating one of the world’s largest footwear companies, Nike. Still others helped build ski resorts from Vermont to Montana, including the Flathead Valley’s own Whitefish Mountain Resort.

To honor the legacy, the Whitefish Ski Heritage Center Museum on Aug. 26 unveiled a new multi-media exhibit recognizing the 10th Mountain Division and celebrating its impact on skiing history in the United States and in the Flathead Valley. Funded by grants and matching donations, the exhibit commemorates the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division, the Montanans who served, their heroism in World War II, and the post-war impact of its veterans in building and reshaping the entire ski and outdoor industry in America.

“This is really exciting news for the Ski Heritage Center,” said Tim Hinderman, the Ski Heritage Center Museum’s director whose father was a 10th Mountain Division veteran. “Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division played an important role in shaping the history of skiing on Big Mountain and throughout the country. We have envisioned this exhibit as a cornerstone of our Center from day one.”

The original 10th Mountain Division was formed in November 1941 and became the only U.S. military unit since the Civil War to be recruited by a civilian entity, the National Ski Patrol. Many of its soldiers were skiers, as well as forest rangers, lumberjacks, outfitters and guides — anyone who could take care of themselves outdoors in all seasons, according to Hinderman. The 10th Mountain Division fought in some of the roughest terrain in World War II, including a series of daring assaults against the German army in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy.

The Whitefish museum’s new “Ski Troops” exhibit features the Flathead Valley men who served in this winter warfare unit in WWII. The exhibit includes the story of how soldiers from the 10th returned home across the nation and laid the foundation for today’s modern ski industry. Those stories include that of 10th Mountain Division veteran, Austrian immigrant and Whitefish skiing legend Toni Matt, and how he helped put Big Mountain Ski Resort atop the post-war North American ski scene.

The 10th Mountain Division exhibit also features a life-size diorama of a soldier with vintage winter gear, including skis, packs, tent, uniform, and weapons; highlights of the Division’s campaigns in WWII; and an interactive touch-screen video display offering full feature presentations and segments from feature films “The Last Ridge,” “Climb to Glory” and “Fire on the Mountain.”

According to Hinderman, interviews with Montanans who served in the 10th will be featured in the interactive display, describing their individual stories before, during and after the war.

The exhibit was possible through a grant awarded to the Ski Heritage Center Museum by the Tenth Mountain Division Foundation (TMDF), a partner organization Tenth Mountain Living History, and matching donations from museum membership, local supporters and fundraising for the museum. These grants and fundraising enabled this original vision of the ski museum and this exhibit as a cornerstone piece, Hinderman said. 

To assist with research, planning and designing the exhibit, the Ski Heritage Center recruited content and exhibit designer Laura Welch. With a master’s degree in Museum Studies from George Washington University, Welch brought a wealth of experience from an internship at the Smithsonian National Museum, as well as employment with the Museum of The Rockies in Bozeman and the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming. Other contributors included Whitefish architect Ross Anderson, who provided the original concept sketch for the exhibit. Clifford Persons — a Whitefish craftsman, former ski patroller, ski instructor and Big Mountain skier, since the 1970s — did all the carpentry work including cabinets, built-in display panels, and the diorama stage. Persons also assisted with the construction of the Hellroaring Ski Cabin exhibit, currently on display in the Ski Heritage Center.

As of Aug. 26, the Ski Heritage Center Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. through Oct. 1. The Ski Heritage Center Museum is located at 705 Wisconsin Ave. in the historic Saddle Club cabin adjacent to the Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish. 

In addition to the new display, the museum features a photographic exhibit portraying the history of skiing in the Flathead Valley and on Big Mountain, a Hall of Fame honoring the ski pioneers and local skiing legends, a life-size cutaway reproduction of the interior of the Hellroaring Ski Cabin circa 1935 and a video library featuring rare footage of skiing in the valley and around Montana in the 1930s, ‘40s and 50s. 

Work is currently underway to add an oral history exhibit presenting the personal recollections of local skiing pioneers, and an outdoor exhibit featuring a collection of the historic ski lifts that have operated on Big Mountain.

For Ski Heritage membership information, visit https://www.fvsef.org/ski-museum.