Detroit Mountain’s original ski club members tour new facility, talk history
It all started with a 1935 Studebaker, about 1,200 feet of one-inch tow rope, and a mutual love for hurtling down snow-covered mountainsides at breakneck speeds.
The local skiing mecca known as Detroit Mountain first came into being 65 years ago, when seven young men from Moorhead decided that they were tired of driving for hours, to Walker or Brainerd or sometimes, even farther, to indulge their passion for downhill skiing.
“We were childhood friends, we’d grown up together, and we all loved skiing,” said Dale Anderson, one of the seven founding members of what came to be known as the Winter Holiday Ski Club.
Besides Anderson, the group included Dave Armstrong, Jerry Bueide, Bob Engelstad, Dave Herringer, Jim Marquardt and Chuck Thompson.
Now in college, these young men would spend every winter weekend on the slopes of Shingobee (near Brainerd), or Lutsen (by Walker) — but because they were college students, they couldn’t really afford to stay overnight, which somewhat limited their time on the slopes.
“We didn’t like driving all the way to Walker to ski… we were too tired to make the drive back, and we couldn’t afford to stay over,” said Marquart.
“One day the decision was that there had to be some hills around Detroit Lakes that we could use, so we started looking at places, and we found the mountain,” Anderson said. “We thought we could work that into a ski area. So we found out who owned the property and after several trips to visit with him we got permission to lease the place.”
The owner at that time, Harry Hibbing, agreed to lease the property to them for $1 a year — though it did take some persuading.
“He didn’t want to lease it to us in the beginning,” Marquart admitted.
But eventually, Hibbing agreed, and after that, the seven young men launched an all-out effort to get the slope ready before the snow started to fly.
“We were down here just about every weekend, clearing trees and setting things up for the tow rope,” Marquart added.
That tow rope was an inspired bit of creative engineering; the young men used the engine and frame of a 1935 Studebaker to power the towing mechanism.
Because there was no electrical hookup nearby, a gas engine was needed to supply the towing power, so the group scraped together enough cash to buy the old Studebaker, along with the rope, pulleys, lumber for the towing shack and warming house, and other related materials.
“We built the (towing) engine in Moorhead and then towed it out to the mountain,” Anderson said.
Marquart — who was a mechanical engineering student at NDSU at that time — also noted that they built the trailer for hauling their equipment out to the mountain using the wheels and axles from that old Studebaker.
They were also able to splice together enough one-inch rope to tow skiers up the hill, with a little help.
“Dale and I, being Eagle Scouts, thought we’d try to splice together these pieces of one-inch rope, but we couldn’t quite nail it,” Marquart said with a smile. “So we talked to Otto (Zeck, a former museum curator and taxidermist who lived just a few miles away), and he ended up splicing it for us.”
Zeck also loaned them a buzz saw to assist them in clearing the trees, and would also give their car a jump start whenever they needed it — even if it was in the middle of the night.
(Coincidentally, one of the roads leading to the mountain bears Zeck’s name.)
One of the main problems the young men en-countered was keeping engine motors — especially the towing engine — running in the bitter cold.
They had to haul five-gallon gas cans and car batteries up to the top of the hill to assist in getting the motor running. Marquart even recalled having to light a fire underneath the towing engine to get the oil warmed up enough so that it would turn over.
Sometimes, things got a little dangerous.
“One day, when we were starting up the engine for the tow, it backfired,” Anderson recalled. “I don’t know what happened, but a spark from the engine lit the gas cans, so I pulled them out and threw them down the hill.”
The small warming house at the bottom of the mountain’s one and only ski run (at that time) was where visitors could come and purchase lift tickets for 75 cents, which were good for the whole day.
They could also warm up in front of one of the two small Coleman stoves that were set up for that purpose.
“We’d put up some coffee and hot chocolate for them,” Marquart added.
Concessions were also sold to help pay for the cost of plowing the driveway every Sunday.
The attraction often brought as many as 20-30 skiers, which the group described as “a pretty good Sunday.”
“We had a lot of fun,” said Anderson. “We’d go down every weekend, no matter how bad it was snowing.”
In fact, a few times they would have one or two people sit on the bumper of the car and spot for the driver, keeping an eye on where the road was, he recalled.
“We were kids, so we had a ball,” Anderson added.
When asked what they thought of the new Detroit Mountain Ski Area (several members of the original ski club have had the opportunity to tour the facility in recent weeks), he said, “I was very impressed.”
“They are doing it exactly the way it should be done,” Anderson said. “The building is absolutely gorgeous… there’s a lot of possibilities out there.”
Marquart, who had his tour on Thursday, was equally impressed, stating at one point, “I think I want to come out here and work for you.”
He also said he might have to take a trip back to Detroit Lakes next year (he currently makes his winter home in Dallas), just to check on the progress.
During a quick drive up to the top of the original slope to check out the view, Marquart said, “Man, this is a blast. I feel young again.”
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.