Snow Memories: Shussing Along the St. Croix Valley Ski Trail
There were once two downhill ski areas near Hudson along a St. Croix Valley ski trail, from the upper St. Croix to its confluence with the Mississippi.
For their 25th anniversary several years ago, Marshall and Bobbi Sinnett of Hudson packed a picnic and trekked up to an empty lot at the Birch Park development north of Hudson at the junction of County roads E and V.
"We set up a little picnic and enjoyed our wine and cheese on the main hill because that lot had not yet been sold," Marshall recalls. "We invited some of our friends from the Birch Park days and reminisced about our wedding reception at the ski area."
The pair met at Stillwater High School in the late 1960s.
"I asked Bobbi, 'Do you like to ski?' And she said yes, so I said, 'Let’s go sometime,'" Marshall remembers. "Our first date was skiing at Telemark. We went early one morning, skied all day and drove back home at night."
Eight Flags of Birch Park
The Sinnetts share special memories of the ski area that was officially named Eight Flags of Birch Park, not only as the site of their wedding reception but because Marshall was hill manager from 1971 to 1981. He was a partial shareholder with general manager Roger Lecy, and Earl Nystrom, who was the primary shareholder.
Bobbi is a teacher at Hudson Middle School, and Marshall now works for 3M. Each summer they get together with friends and former coworkers from their ski area days and take a boat trip down the St. Croix River.
"We had a great group of people who worked there, from the 'shack rats' and the kitchen help to the management," Sinnett says. "I had the best job—I would ski at night to inspect the hills and give the lift people breaks and such. We had terrific entertainment too, with musicians from the Twin Cities and Milwaukee."
Lecy, who lives in Bloomington, MN, and had run Buffalo Valley Ski Area in Buffalo, MN, recalls: "Birch Park was started on a shoestring by Harold Lutton in 1966 or 1967. It went bankrupt maybe the second year of operation and was closed. Earl had ended up with the debt, and I had heard he was going to reopen so I called and asked if he needed a manager. I ran it from 1969 to 1979, and it was a great experience as we were riding the crest of the skiing wave."
Snowcrest / Ski Mac
Nearby at the site of the St. Croix National Golf Course was Snowcrest, an elder sibling to Birch Park. It started in 1954 as Ski Mac by Mac and Marge McAlister, who sold it in 1968 to Robert Owens and Robert White. Snowcrest was known for its annual Norwegian festival, Norski Dag, and visiting Norwegian ski instructors including resident ski school manager Per Guldbrandsgaard, who is now an instructor at Snowmass in Aspen. Famous skiers made the rounds at several freestyle and racing camps, including Eddie Ferguson and Billy Kidd.
"Snowcrest also had a cross-country area with an old farmhouse as the chalet. With no snowmaking there, it was always a risk whether the cross-country trails would be open or not," recalls Rose Lundell, group sales and office manager at Trollhaugen Ski Area in Dresser and who has worked at both Snowcrest and Birch Park. "At Norski Dag, the shareholders' wives would make a ton of Norwegian food and we'd barbecue on the deck. It was great fun. I did love working at both ski areas and still have lifelong friends from those days."
Lowell Rivard, who founded the 9R Ranch Snowtubing Park in Somerset in 1972 (now the American Legion), worked at Ski Mac/Snowcrest from 1954 to 1970. He also operated a farm and a stone business.
"I started skiing as a kid in the 1930s and skied at all the places around here and as an adult, all around the world," Rivard said. "We used to go across the road to before Ski Mac was there and ski with the neighbors on a moonlit night. I didn’t even think there was such a thing as a tow rope."
Rivard took care of machinery, snowmaking and outdoor operations but when he left had a noncompete clause so he started a snowtubing park.
"I tried skiing again two years ago, but my left knee wouldn’t handle it," he says. "I got that knee replaced, and I’m telling my wife I want to try it again."
Butch Jacobs, a good friend of Rivard's and retired manager with the St. Croix County Highway Department, started at Ski Mac in 1965 and became hill manager for Snowcrest in 1970. He joined Birch Park after Snowcrest closed.
"We had snowmaking going on even when it was Ski Mac, but it was miserable the way we used to do it. At Birch Park, we were able to pump water out of a cooling pond so it was easier and more efficient. Snowmaking now is much more efficient than it was then," Jacobs said.
Owens and White operated Snowcrest until about 1979 when they sold to Manny Villafana, the founder of several medical device companies in the Twin Cities including St. Jude Medical. Villafana had also purchased Birch Park around the same time, and closed both within a year of each other in the mid-1980s.
Many valley ski enthusiasts were saddened by the closings as noted by the remembrance Facebook page titled I Skied Birch Park/Snowcrest as a Kid, which has 550 members.
Back then, Snowcrest, Birch Park and Trollhaugen were cross-promoted as "Ski 35," remembers John Wright, who is Trollhaugen’s current ski shop manager and who was on Birch Park’s freestyle team in the 1970s.
Wright also recalls skiing at Englewood ski area, which opened in the mid-1950s and was between Somerset and Osceola along the St. Croix River. It closed in the late 1960s, but trails where you can see remnants of the old tow equipment and hills are accessible through the Standing Cedars Land Conservancy.
"An ice road existed from the Marine On St. Croix ferry landing across to the Somerset landing and then you went up the road to Englewood," says Wright, who was a student at White Bear Lake High School at the time. "It was a beautiful ski area—all spread out along the St. Croix. But it faced west so had the afternoon sun."
Downriver, west of the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi was another ski area known as much for the smell from the nearby refinery as for its homemade chili.
"Pine Bend near Hastings had the best chili around," remembers Wright. "But there was the refinery smell sometimes as the ski area was downwind of the refinery."
Pine Bend was operated from 1954 to 1972 by Oscar and Gabrielle Cyr. After selling the land to Flint Hills Resources/Pine Bend Refinery and closing the ski area after Oscar died, Gabrielle became ski race director in 1975 at Buck Hill in Burnsville, MN, until her death in 1999.
For the past decade, Flint Hills Resources has been restoring the property’s habitat, which adjoins Spring Lake Park Preserve. You can see remnants of the old ski hills from the Mississippi River and the road, says Jake Reint, FHR public affairs manager, and local municipalities may be developing future trails or extending ones along the river below the former ski area.
The river valleys and bluff terrain from the upper St. Croix River to its confluence with the Mississippi created a landscape that beckoned skiers. While Snowcrest, Birch Park, Englewood and Pine Bend are memories, several along a St. Croix ski trail remain open, and most are operated by the same families since their beginning.
Upriver from Pine Bend along the St. Croix in Afton, MN, is the Twin Cities largest ski area—Afton Alps—with fantastic views of the valley. Paul Augustine, with his brother Robert and friend Thomas Furlong, founded the ski area in 1963, which today is a 300 acre, 18-chairlift, five-chalet facility and golf course. Augustine died Jan. 1, but his sons John and David and daughter Amy Reents plus others in the management team continue operations. Augustine also purchased ski areas in Mankato, MN. and Malone, NY, and was very active in local, regional and national ski industry organizations.
"My dad just loved the river valley and how scenic it is, and he loved all the fun times and memories that it created for families," said Reents in the wake of her father’s death. "Our family wants the ski area to continue to be successful, and to preserve my dad’s legacy and show respect for his hard work that created jobs and a destination for people of the valley and beyond."
Welch Village is south of the St. Croix and Mississippi confluence and was started by Leigh Nelson in 1965 and remains family-owned and operated. It is the only area with on-site lodging.
"The first years were very tough," Nelson, 82, recalls. "About five weeks after we opened we had two inches of rain, that that ended the season. We held out and sold some stock and were able to keep going. When we started there were maybe 35 ski areas in Minnesota or western Wisconsin. It was a very touch-and-go kind of business."
Wild Mountain / Val Croix
Back in the upper St. Croix Riverway, Wild Mountain started as Val Croix, a small hill founded by five Rivard brothers in Taylors Falls in the late 1950s. Dennis and Cam Raedeke purchased the hill in 1972 and developed it into a year-round recreation area, developing the ski hills and turning the terrain parks and tubing park into a summer recreation area with an alpine slide, go-karts and waterpark.
"Val Croix started as basically a warming shack at the bottom of a hill for the locals," says Dan Raedeke, who learned to ski at Trollhaugen. "One of the things my parents decided early on and that my sister and I are still doing is that we wanted to have a ski area run by skiers and managed by skiers. I think that's a great advantage."
Wild Mountain installed the first four-seat chair lift in the world and is known for its snowmaking and grooming.
"There has been a lot of research and development tin snowmaking over the years, so it is very efficient," says Raedeke, who left a job in engineering to return to the family business where he worked as a youth. "The ski industry is a lot of work but we absolutely love doing it and love seeing two or three generations of families getting into the sport."
Trollhaugen across the river in Dresser turns 60 this year and carries the torch as the oldest commercial ski area in the Twin Cities. Like Raedeke, Jim Rochford Jr., the manager of interior operations at Trollhaugen, also returned to the family business. His grandparents, Ray and Anne Rochford, were St. Paul dentists who had a cabin in Amery.
The Rochfords purchased the ski area in 1967 from Wally Peterson and Lee Rogers, who were St. Croix Falls mailmen by day and early ski-area developers by night and on weekends. Peterson had a ski hill and tow rope in a neighbor's backyard; the pair opened Trollhaugen in 1950, carving and shaping the area with horses, ropes, tractors and dynamite as needed.
"Corny as it sounds there is something about working here and seeing people have a great time," says Rochford Jr., whose father Jim Sr. is president and CEO. "Prior to coming here and after college, I had worked in laboratories, which are high stress environment. It’s great to work at a place where you are helping people have a good time."
Trollhaugen remains a favorite among locals and visitors alike.
"I think it has the best grooming, and there are wonderful people who work here," says Susie Petryk, a retired college instructor and season-ticket holder who lives on nearby Sand Lake.
Rollie Westman, Trollhaugen’s director of fun, has been with the ski area since 1950 when he started on the ski patrol. On the ski team at the University of Minnesota, Westman returned to teach in 1960 after college and a stint in the Army. Having skied most all of the areas in the region, he keeps a scrapbook of mementos from ski areas past and present.
"I went on quite a few ski trips around here and the country with Wally Peterson and Ben Kern, who was Mr. Fixit from the Minneapolis Tribune and who also wrote the column This Weekend in the 1960s and 1970s. We went over to Wild Mountain when they installed the first four-seat chairlift, and I remember Ben fell off. That was pretty funny."
Westman remembers a ski train that ran from Minneapolis to Trollhaugen one year as part of a promotion by the Minneapolis Junior Chamber of Commerce and skiing at Telemark, Eko Backen in Scandia, MN, which is now a snowtubing park, plus a bygone area in Colfax, and Hardscrabble in Rice Lake, which has closed in recent years.
"In the Twin Cities at one time, there were a lot of little ski hills with rope tows, like at Como Park, Wirth Park, Highland, Elm Creek and Tartan Park," Westman says. "Some are still here; some are gone. It’s really amazing when you think back on all the skiing in this area."