Mid-century ski boom

The ’50s and ’60s saw a number of ski lodges built in Michigan, many in the Mid-Century Modern style.

By M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson

Michigan saw a boom in vacation travel after World War II, but it wasn’t only in the summer months that Michiganders enjoyed the state’s recreational offerings. 

vintage female skierAlthough Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had experienced winter skiing since the late 1890s, a post-World War II boom brought the sport of skiing to a much larger group of people. By the mid-1950s, there were at least 26 winter sports areas and resorts in West Michigan, while Eastern Michigan had 38 spots and the Upper Peninsula offered 17. 

In fact, Michigan had one of the greatest concentrations of “snow fun spots” in the United States. Its tourist associations and winter sports councils collected information on weather and snow conditions and, in the days before the Internet, sent reports on Thursdays to newspapers, radio and television stations, travel information bureaus and sporting goods stores throughout the Midwest. 

The state started using the slogan “Water Winter Wonderland” in 1965, not only to promote the beauty of Michigan’s lakes and rivers, but also its winter attractions including ice skating, tobogganing, snowshoeing, ice fishing and, of course, skiing. Winter festivals and pageants were created to showcase winter entertainment. Competitive winter sports games and tournaments attracted nationally known professionals and amateurs that put Michigan on the map for winter fun.

Vintage Male Skier

New ski resorts built in the 1950s and 1960s took advantage of the growing number of winter sports enthusiasts. Tow- and chairlifts made skiing easier, and snow-making machines extended the skiing season. Some resorts added overnight accommodations, and most offered package deals including lodging, meals, ski instruction and lift tickets. 

To fit the modern spirit of the times, many of the new ski lodges were built in the Mid-Century Modern style, featuring horizontal lines, large windows, open spaces often created by the use of post-and-beam construction, and flat or angled rooflines. Modern amenities included cocktail lounges, heated swimming pools, and shops that sold “ski togs” and equipment. Bouffant hairdos, stretch ski pants and fitted sweaters were the fashion of the day. One can imagine “Mad Men” character Don Draper sipping a hot buttered rum in front of a ski lodge fireplace. 

Boyne Mt photo
Boyne Mt. – Courtesy Vintage Views

Boyne Mountain had its beginning in 1947 when Everett Kircher bought land for $1 near Boyne Falls for a ski resort. Soon hailed as the “Sun Valley of the Midwest,” Boyne Mountain had the first double chairlift east of the Rockies. A small lodge was built in 1950, then expanded in 1953 in the Mid-Century Modern style with a heated outdoor swimming pool. The swanky Snowflake Room Lounge was added where skiers could relax after a day of skiing. As the resort added other buildings with an Alpine theme, its modernity was lost along the way.

Holiday Hills
Holiday Hills – Courtesy Vintage Views

Holiday Hills near Traverse City opened in 1949. Its clubhouse of “modernistic design” featured an open-hearth fireplace in the lounge, a ski waxing room, and a dining room serving meals cafeteria-style. The angled roofline could support the region’s heavy snow load, while the large glass windows offered views of skiers in action. The slopes were floodlighted for night skiing.

Nubs Nob photo
Nubs Nob – Courtesy Vintage Views

Nub’s Nob near Harbor Springs opened in 1958. Modern met rustic in its “informally luxurious” lodge that could accommodate 120 guests. By 1960, a full-size, heated Olympic pool was built. The newly built Mackinac Bridge was visible on a clear day from the top of the slopes.

Snow Valley photo
Snow Valley – Courtesy Vintage Views

Snow Valley Ski Club was located on the west side of Otsego Lake near Gaylord. Opening about 1950, the lodge could accommodate 200 people. It boasted a dining room, ski shop, cocktail bar and eight bowling alleys. The lodge’s brightly colored exterior panels added a modern touch.

Snow Bowl photo
Snow Bowl – Courtesy Vintage Views

The Snow Bowl near Houghton Lake was located on a ridge of a series of small hills. The lodge was built about 1959-60 with angled exterior walls featuring large glass windows. 

Indianhead photo
Indianhead – Courtesy Vintage Views

Indianhead Mountain Ski Resort is located between Ironwood and Wakefield in the Upper Peninsula in an area known as “Big Snow Country” because of the 200-inch average annual snowfall. Built in the late 1950s, Indianhead spurred the development of other ski resorts in the area. Its twin exaggerated A-frame buildings were a landmark in the area.

BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids.

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