December's Record Snow Brings Winter Memories
Part 2: Alpine skiing has deep roots in the hills of Hudson near Perch Lake.
Alpine skiing history has a remarkable pedigree in the St. Croix Valley and it turns out, right here in Hudson.
Trollhaugen, the oldest Twin Cities ski area located in Dresser, turns 60 this season, but two decades beforehand the St. Croix Ski Club hosted international slalom meets at what is now Homestead Parklands on Perch Lake.
A little digging into the permafrost reveals that Scandinavians introduced skiing of all types when they immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the mid- to late-1800s.
It’s also interesting to note that the Strand Ski Co., the oldest U.S. commercial ski manufacturer founded in 1879 in St. Paul, may have left a lasting legacy by popularizing the sport in the region. It operated in New Richmond from 1911 until closing in 1949.
In any case, in the late 19th century ski jumping clubs took off, as climbing back up a scaffold was more fun than trudging back up a hill carrying cumbersome skis and poles.
Nevertheless residents of the rolling hills, bluffs and dales of the St. Croix and upper Mississippi valleys were getting downhill thrills wherever they could.
"I was skiing when I was 7 down on the farm," said Leigh Nelson, 82, who is the retired owner of Welch Village Ski Area near Hastings, MN, where the St. Croix meets the Mississippi. In 1965, he started a commercial ski area with his brother on land near the family farm.
Nelson is a remaining founding father of the area’s downhill skiing; his colleague Paul Augustine, who co-founded Afton Alps Ski Area in nearby Afton, MN, in 1962, died on Jan. 1.
"As kids we just made our own entertainment and found a nice hill wherever we could," Nelson said. "We had wooden skis with the big rubber bands to hold them on."
At the same time young Nelson was grooming his ski jones, a group of folks in Hudson, Stillwater and Lake Elmo had formed the St. Croix Ski Club for some serious downhill skiing.
From 1936 to 1941, the club held meets on the hills surrounding Perch Lake, a glacial lake in the St. Croix Watershed between Hudson and Somerset.
"Grandpa Davidson used to say with a laugh that the most money he ever made from the farm was when the St. Croix Ski Club leased the land," said Donna Seim, the founder of Friends of Perch Lake, a nonprofit group whose mission is to establish a learning and history center at the park. Seim’s late husband’s grandfather was the original land-grant homesteader on the property, which is a now a county park.
"You can snowshoe along the park’s ski trail and see the hills where the skiers raced, even though pines were planted on the hills in the 1950s," Seim said.
Seim gives presentations to area schools on the park from glacial times to the present and has photos from an international meet in 1939 and articles on the club from the Stillwater Gazette.
"One of Grandpa Davidson’s relatives lived in Stillwater near a man in the ski club named Warren Dickinson," Seim said. "The club had been practicing on Barker’s Alps in Bayport, MN. They approached Grandpa and that’s how they got connected."
While meets were held as early as 1936 when the club leased the land, the second annual tourney in 1939 attracted 800 spectators, according to the Feb. 28, 1939 Stillwater Gazette.
"With a record entry list of 88 skiers, including representatives of the world highly regarded as natural ski places, the second annual St. Croix Valley Championship event Sunday was declared very successful by club officials," the paper said.
Men's and women's downhill and slalom events drew skiers from Montana to Massachusetts. One entrant dislocated a shoulder, the report notes, and Edgar Hardy of Zurich, Switzerland, characterized the Perch Lake course "as good as any slope in the world."
Seim said, "They’d park the cars up in the field at the Waldroff farm because there were so many spectators."
Gazette history columns in the 1960s noted that the ski area had a 1,100 foot run with a drop of 250 feet. Two rope tows powered by diesel engines yanked skiers back up, and a canvas shelter served as a chalet, where baked beans and coffee could be had for refreshment. Non-club members paid 50 cents to use the hills.
The club had a ski instructor from Minneapolis, Lincoln Page, who skied for the famed Dartmouth College. The book, Passion for Skiing (2010), by Dartmouth College alumnus Stephen L. Waterhouse positions the small New England ivy league college at the epicenter of an incipient U.S. ski industry. The St. Croix Ski Club also had an acting instructor, "former Dartmouth ace" Kenneth Boothroyd.
Seim says a local teen is capturing her stories of the lake, park and homestead on video, including the ski club, for an Eagle Scout project.
"We always felt developers would ruin the area," Seim said. "It has a very unique history."
After 1950 when Trollhaugen opened, commercial alpine skiing took off in the area. Next time St. Croix Confidential will recall two bygone ski areas in the Hudson area, Snowcrest and Birch Park, plus others long forgotten in the valley and several longstanding ski areas along a St. Croix "ski trail."