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The Soul of Sun Valley
Since 1977, the Holding family has transformed this historic Idaho resort while honoring its fabled past.
On a February morning in 1977, Sun Valley executive Wally Huffman was summoned to owner Bill Janss’ office. There he met a middle-aged couple, Earl and Carol Holding, and was told to show them around the resort. Two days later, Huffman responded to a disturbance in Upper 5, a dormitory above the Ram Restaurant. There he found the Holdings stuffing mattresses through the windows to fall two stories onto the kitchen loading dock. Huffman called Janss and asked, “What should I do?” Janss replied, “I think you should do whatever Mr. Holding tells you to do.” The Holdings had purchased Sun Valley.
Janss had bought the resort from Union Pacific about 13 years earlier. He was an accomplished skier and had revitalized the mountain, but he was not a hotelier. They were now in a severe drought with minimal snowmaking, few skiers, and little cash flow. A sale was imminent. Corporate giants Disney and Ralston-Purina passed. The Holdings had built up the Little America franchise and owned Sinclair Oil; they knew the hotel business and had working capital. They had driven through Sun Valley only once, that summer, and then Earl saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about Disney’s play on the property. Something clicked. He made some calls, visited the resort again, and within two weeks had a deal. Janss said, “His timing was perfect.” And the mattresses flew out the windows.
(Photo top of page: Sun Valley in 1937.)
The Holdings were not skiers and to the locals, according to Huffman, “a complete unknown.” Unemployment was running at 27.5 percent that dry winter, yet the first reported act by the Holdings was to fire 1,400 employees. Under Janss, anyone with a pulse could get a job that came with a season pass or limited access to the mountain. Poof! The jobs and perks were gone. Not a good start for the new owner of a legendary ski area. Locals were incensed. But in truth it was the Janss Corporation that had to fire the employees as the Holdings had purchased only the assets; many workers were hired right back. There was, however, a new mission and strategy. Carol Holding remembers, “Why would anyone who didn’t know how to ski buy a ski resort? That wasn’t why we bought it—to come here to ski. We bought it to run as a business.”
Earl Holding came from a poor Salt Lake City family and even at eight years old was mowing lawns and doing minor landscaping. He had an extraordinary work ethic and kept at it. He served in the Army Air Corps in WWII and then pursued a degree in civil engineering at the University of Utah. One night while studying in the library he was introduced to Carol Orme, an 18-year-old student from Idaho Falls, Idaho. “He was tall, had brown hair, and piercing blue eyes,” she remembers. They were soon inseparable. Earl had saved nearly $10,000 from his landscaping work, and Carol had $400. With that they purchased a fruit orchard at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. It was the first of many diverse and profitable businesses that would eventually run Earl Holding’s net worth to over $3 billion. With a smile Carol says, “He got my $400 before we were married, but it turned out to be a good investment.”
From the orchard, to the Little America gas station/hotel in Wyoming (with its famous repetitive highway signage featuring a penguin), to Sinclair Oil, to more hotels, the Holdings were hands-on owner/operators. They learned to be self-sufficient and deal with chores and problems themselves. That was the work ethic they brought to Sun Valley and it was not initially well-received.
“It wasn’t easy when you see bumper stickers that said, ‘Earl is a Four-Letter Word,’” says Carol. “We weren’t very welcome to begin with, but Earl started to turn this into a profitable business, and more people came, and everything got better. I couldn’t ask for more wonderful people than the local people. They really supported us and if it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have made it.”
Earl Holding’s love of growing things is traceable to his landscaping years, the orchard, and his Wyoming and Arizona hotels. He brought that with gusto to Sun Valley. In the first spring he directed the planting of over 7,000 aspens and conifers around the village and golf course. The people doing the work were the newly re-hired employees. They had to learn to break down corporate departments and chip in where required. The Holdings worked right alongside them. Huffman remembers making beds and cleaning rooms, others served food and bussed tables. Hours were long, the work strenuous, and not everyone cottoned to the Holding’s methods, but the new owners never asked anyone to do something they wouldn’t do themselves and eventually found people who supported their style.
The Holdings and their children, Kathleen, Ann, and Steven, all learned to ski. For Earl, it was not recreation; he needed to ski to attend to mountain operations. According to Carol, “His work and his play were one and the same.” Carol and the kids, however, enjoyed the fun and challenge of skiing. Carol set a goal to ski Exhibition, one of Sun Valley’s more intimidating runs, and she did. She also became a dedicated runner and eventually competed in a marathon. But Earl was all about work. His contributions to the resort have been an inspired mix of maintenance, modernization, and masterpieces.
Almost every roof in Sun Valley—previously heated by a steam plant to promote snow melting—had to be redone as a modern cold roof. The Lodge and Inn were remodeled, the golf course redesigned. On the mountain, quad lifts replaced single and double chairs. Three spectacular day lodges were built at the Warm Springs and River Run bases and high on Seattle Ridge. These grand log and rock structures have interior finishes that exceed most resorts and delight guests. Two other mountain lodges, the fabled Roundhouse and the Lookout Restaurant, have also been remodeled. Over the years, a huge automated snowmaking system has been dialed in and a quality snow surface is virtually guaranteed from Thanksgiving to Easter. Expanded skiing acreage came with the development of the Frenchmen’s Bend area, a sheltered bowl with adventurous runs just above Ketchum. Grooming, the ski school, and patrol are all top-notch. And in addition to all the Sun Valley improvements, Holding acquired Snow Basin in Ogden, Utah and was a key player in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Holding was relentlessly thorough in both his new projects and day to day management. According to Wally Huffman, he would discuss details and alternatives ad nauseum, far past the point when most felt a decision was nigh. “He had the vision…way beyond the standards of what any of us were used to.” Carol was always there as a sounding board and affirms he was tireless: “He set a very high bar for everyone and he didn’t want to waste any time.” He was driven: “He just always said…give it all you’ve got, and that’s what he’s done.”
Then tragedy struck. Perhaps it was due to his herculean workload or simply a natural life event, but just after Christmas in 2002, Earl suffered a stroke.
It was devastating for the family, staff, and locals whose respect and admiration he had earned. He was 76, and according to his doctors, this was the endgame. Carol recalls a remarkable moment in the ICU when a physician addressed the family: “’We can’t do any more. We suggest you call hospice.’ And Kathleen looked at the doctor and said, ‘You don’t know my Dad.’” And she was right.
Earl recovered, and in time, returned to work, though Carol stepped up and took on more responsibility. She was the driving force behind a new day lodge at Dollar Mountain because she wanted a better facility for children. She told Earl: “If you don’t build me a lodge over there, I’m going to put a tent up.” The lodge was completed in 37 weeks. They then forged ahead on other projects.
A gondola was built connecting River Run plaza to the Roundhouse, serving skiers by day and diners by night. They sculpted the White Cloud Nine golf course with tons and tons of topsoil graded onto a ridge above the valley. The landscaping and views are stunning. The luxurious Sun Valley Club restaurant was added nearby, and it took the golf and Nordic skiing experiences to new heights. They also created a marvelous amphitheater for outdoor events. With sweeping contours that echo the surrounding mountains, structural elements with bold flourishes, and the same elegant travertine marble that adorns the Getty Museum and St. Peters Basilica, the Sun Valley Pavilion is a work of art unto itself.
Earl Holding died in April 2013. Most people connected to the resort and local communities have only gratitude for his vision and contributions. The Holdings have now been stewards of the resort longer than Union Pacific and Bill Janss combined. Yet despite all the improvements, it remains much the same as it was during the formative years of the late 1930s. In addition to what they did, it’s what they didn’t do—radically change or over-develop Harriman’s storybook Austrian village. Today one can walk into Sun Valley feeling the same ambiance skiers experienced over 80 years ago. It’s like stepping into your grandmother’s snow globe.
The Lodge and Inn interiors were recently remodeled again. New service buildings and employee housing have been constructed. There’s a lift and more skiing acreage planned for Seattle Ridge. Additional development at the River Run base may be coming as well.
Sun Valley is one of the last great family owned resorts and Carol feels their children will carry the legacy on: “They all have the work ethic…I think they love Sun Valley like we do and want to keep it like it is…where people can walk the streets and feel like they’re in the country…the soul of Sun Valley, that’s what we want to keep.”
David Butterfield is a filmmaker and writer who grew up in Sun Valley.
Stewards of Skiing History
The Holding family will be honored with a Stewardship Award for the preservation of Sun Valley’s skiing heritage at the 28th annual ISHA Awards banquet on December 10, 2020 in Sun Valley.
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