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America's Skiing Heartland
A passion for Nordic skiing drove the sport in the Upper Midwest
In the winter of 1841, Wisconsin farmers spotted some strange markings in the snow. They had been made by skier Gullit Laugen, a Norwegian immigrant, while on his way to purchase flour.
In Winter’s Children: A Celebration of Nordic Skiing, Ryan Rodgers tells of the development of Nordic skiing in the upper Midwest, from Laugen’s shopping trip to recent times. The great strength of the book is its focus on individual stories, from tragic to triumphant.
The first chapter, “Just Add Norwegians,” covers the 1840s to 1900 during the great wave of Scandinavian immigration. By the 1880s, some of the very best Norwegian skiers had emigrated to the U.S. (including Sondre Norheim and brothers Mikkel and Torjus Hemmestveit). Ski clubs were formed, the first St. Paul Winter Carnival staged (1886), regular jumping and cross-country competitions established, and ski factories founded. An 1890 attempt at an umbrella organization to sponsor tournaments failed to survive the Panic of 1893. Fast forward to 1905, when Carl Tellefsen launched the National Ski Association (today’s U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association).
Each chapter covers two decades. The period from the 1890s to the 1910s saw growing enthusiasm for ski jumping, while public interest in cross-country racing declined (the 1917 National Championships were cancelled because not a single entry was received). New ski companies were launched, notably by Martin Strand, who suffered two devastating factory fires but persevered until 1947, and Christian V. Lund, who turned Northland Ski Mfg. Co. into the world’s largest ski maker.
Ski jumping remained very popular through the 1930s, in good part because of the talent of young jumpers like brothers Lars and Anders Haugen and, later on, brothers Alf, Sverre and Corey Engen, plus the amazing Torger Tokle. On the other hand, cross-country skiing competitions remained in the doldrums and the invention of the Kandahar binding in 1929 by Guido Reuge, a Swiss ski racer and engineer, was a harbinger of the future growth of Alpine skiing. Rodgers also highlights significant improvements in the manufacture of laminated skis and ongoing debates concerning the participation of women in both cross-country and jumping events.
Neither the 1936 National Ski Association’s tournament nor the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch helped the cause of cross-country per se, but talented Midwestern Nordic skiers continued to make their mark, including Peter Fosseide, Eric Judeen, George Hovland and others. Skiers also undertook notable expeditions, such as the 100-mile Colorado trek in April 1926 from Estes Park to Steamboat Springs made by Erling Strom and Lars Haugen, Strom’s 125-mile 1930 expedition and the winter 1932 Denali expedition organized by Strom and Al Lindley.
The late 1930s through the ’50s confirmed the ascendancy of Alpine skiing. Here, Rodgers focuses on Tony Wise of Hayward, Wisconsin. After earning Bronze and Silver Stars for service in WWII, Wise skied in the Alps and was inspired to replicate that experience back home. He opened Mount Telemark in late 1947 and, as Rodgers puts it, “cross-country skiing went from being a niche activity to a niche within a niche.” Alpine skiing quickly pushed cross-country to the periphery. In the National Ski Association’s 1947 Ski Annual, “all of its 50 pages of advertisements are for downhill—clothes, hills, skis, and even portable chairlifts,” writes Rodgers.
Cross-country skiing rebounded strongly at all levels starting in the mid 1960s. By 1973, Wise was able to make a success of Wisconsin’s American Birkebeiner race, and Glen Johnstone launched Mora Vasaloppet in Minnesota. It was followed by races like the Snowjourn (1976), the Minnesota Finlandia (1979), the Pepsi Challenge in Biwabik (1985), the Noquemanon Marathon (1998) and the City of Lakes Loppet (2003) in Minneapolis. The era witnessed Bill Koch’s silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, the skating revolution and the arrival in the Midwest of World Cup cross-country races.
The final chapter, “A Thriving Ski Scene,” celebrates the present state of Nordic skiing in the Upper Midwest. For the 2019–20 season, Minnesota had 96 schools with ski teams, plus some that joined with others to pool resources. Jumping is a special case, “kept alive by a combination of individual passionate coaches and the pull of clubs with rich histories,” Rodgers writes. Growth of both cross-country and jumping are driven, in part, by Title IX; after a century of exclusion, there are now about as many girls jumping as boys. The only cloud on the horizon: our warming climate.
This is a sprawling book with fascinating characters. This short review cannot do it justice. Also featured are an outstanding selection of photos and illustrations, an extensive section of sources and a good index.
Winter’s Children: A Celebration of Nordic Skiing by Ryan Rodgers, Published by University of Minnesota Press (2021), 388 pages, hardcover, $35
Table of Contents
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP ($3,000+)
WORLD CUP ($1,000)
Aspen Skiing Company
Bogner of America
Dale of Norway
Darn Tough Vermont
Gordini USA Inc/Kombi LTD
National Ski Areas Association
North Carolina Ski Areas Association
Oppenheimer & Co. Inc.
Ski Area Management
Ski Country Sports
Sports Specialists Ltd
Sugar Mountain Resort
Sun Valley Resort
Vintage Ski World
World Cup Supply
GOLD MEDAL ($700)
SILVER MEDAL ($500)
Alta Ski Area
Boden Architecture PLLC
EcoSign Mountain Resort Planners
Holiday Valley Resort
Metropolitan New York Ski Council
New Jersey Ski & Snowboard Council
Russell Mace Vacation Homes
Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort
Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp
Sundance Mountain Resort
Swiss Academic Ski Club
Tecnica Group USA
Timberline Lodge and Ski Area
Trapp Family Lodge
Western Winter Sports Reps Association
World Pro Ski Tour