Nearly 80 years ago, the ski pioneers of Big Mountain donned wool clothing and strapped 7-foot-long wooden skis to their bear-trap bindings, wore leather boots and gripped bamboo poles with baskets measuring double-digit circumferences. Many of them had just returned from Europe, where, as members of the 10th Mountain Division, they helped liberate Italy in the final months of World War II.
To honor their legacy, the Whitefish Ski Heritage Center Museum last year unveiled a new multimedia 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.
With the Ski Heritage Center’s seasonal opening scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 16, its director, Tim Hinderman, is encouraging Whitefish residents and visitors, along with skiers and non-skiers, to pay a visit to the museum at 705 Wisconsin Ave. in the historic Saddle Club Cabin, adjacent to the Stumptown Ice Den.
“This is really exciting news for the Ski Heritage Center,” said Hinderman, whose father, Karl, 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 “Ski Troops” exhibit recognizes the Flathead Valley men who served in this winter warfare unit in World War II. 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, who helped put Whitefish Mountain Resort (formerly 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.” Interviews with Montanans who served in the 10th are featured as part of an 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, adding that the nonprofit Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation (FVSEF) has led the effort to transform the museum into a venue to showcase the region’s rich history. As a nonprofit organization relying solely on donations and volunteers, FVSEF is always seeking new members interested in being a part of preserving and documenting the history of skiing in the region.
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.
After its winter opening on Dec. 16, the Ski Heritage Center will be open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Other times can be arranged for group tours or private events.
For more information, to volunteer or donate, or to schedule a private tour, please visit our website at whitefishskimuseum.org or contact Tim Hinderman at (406) 885-2730 [email protected].