Ski town keeps evolving as resort turns 75
A view of Whitefish and the Flathead Valley from Big Mountain. (Photo by Marion Lacy, courtesy of Whitefish Mountain Resort)
Downtown Whitefish Montana as it appeared in the 1950s, when the Big Mountain ski resort was just getting going. (Photo courtesy of Stumptown Historical Society archives)
Daily Inter Lake | November 27, 2022 12:00 AM
Karl Schenck remembers the first time his father put him to work on Big Mountain, as a bellhop at the chalet, when he was only eight years old.
“‘Put on your nice pants and come to work with me,’” he recalls his father Ed saying.
Karl, now the president of the Stumptown Historical Society, practically grew up at Whitefish Mountain Resort, then known as Big Mountain. He’s observed much of the evolution at the resort and in Whitefish going back to when he was a kid growing up in town.
This year marks the resort’s 75th anniversary, and as the resort has grown, the town has too.
Karl’s dad, Ed Schenck, was one of the resort's founding fathers, and was the president and general manager through its early years. In January 1947 Schenck and four Whitefish men headed up the mountain to scout for a ski resort. Schenck, alongside colleague George Prentice, with the backing of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, opened the resort for the first time on Dec. 14, 1947.
At age 10, after the original lodge burned down, Karl was put to work collecting nails from the ruined structure, because people kept getting flat tires.
“I got paid 35 cents per gallon of nails,” he recalled.
When Karl got out of the Navy, he gave his dad a call from the East Coast and was back in Whitefish a few days later, working as a “lifty” on Chair 3.
Tim Hinderman, whose father Karl Hinderman was a longtime ski school coach and operator, as well as Army ski instructor during World War II, also saw the resort and town develop together over more than 60 years in Whitefish.
Tim eventually became general manager of the resort, from 1983-86.
He recalls his early days skiing with other kids and playing under the counter at the ski school.
“There were only three houses on the mountain,” Tim said. “A far cry from what it is now.”
Rick and Marilyn Nelson, of Nelson’s Ace Hardware, have seen their business expand much like the one on the mountain, and they too witnessed changes in the town’s identity.
The store was founded by Rick’s parents in 1947, the same year Big Mountain’s first T-bar lift began running. Rick and Marilyn have since retired and passed operations over to their daughter Mariah.
“We’ve grown from a small downtown storefront of 2,500 square feet to 15,000 square feet,” Marilyn wrote via email, mentioning that when they started, there were a total of six hardware stores in Whitefish.
“We're grateful to have outlived every other hardware store in town.”
THE RESORT’S success didn’t come right away, however. In the early years, it struggled mightily. And not everyone thought the resort had a place in the small town’s future.
According to Karl Schenck, Big Mountain didn’t didn’t turn a profit in its first 25 years, a period during which many locals wondered if skiing would prove a viable long term business in the remote corner of Northwest Montana.
“The mountain had a lot of trouble paying their bills,” he recalled.
Eventually, the tide turned. Amtrak’s Empire Builder line marketed the ski area, shipping in tourists from Seattle and Minneapolis. The resort eventually became a destination for professional conferences, and company officials realized they could use the chair lifts for summer business. The hotels and condos followed.
Tim Hinderman said Canadians discovered the ski area in the 1970s and came down across the border in droves. He described the change as happening “overnight.”
It was around that point Hinderman says the town became known as a recreational and tourist destination, as the timber and railroad industries' presence declined.
According to Schenck, Whitefish’s fate as a ski town was sealed when the local logging and aluminum operations shut down for good in the 1980s.
The Nelsons feel that while the shift was inevitable, transition wasn’t easy.
“Whitefish has grown from a sleepy, and at times struggling, little railroad and timber town to an economy based on tourism — out of necessity,” Marilyn wrote via email. “It's easy to forget that as the resource-based economy contracted, families struggled.”
RESORT STATISTICS show tremendous growth over the years.
According to numbers provided in “Stumptown to Ski Town,” a history of the mountainside commercial venture written by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter in the 1970s, the resort had just 12 employees during the first winter, compared with about 600 seasonal workers hired for this upcoming ski season.
In the 1947-48 ski season the resort saw 6,900 visitors, compared with a record 464,000 visitors recorded last winter.
The resort has gone from worrying about making payroll to enjoying a financial position that allows for significant investment and development, an advantage that Hinderman attributes to the management of majority-owner Bill Foley, who purchased a controlling stake in 2006.
Although controversial among locals at the time, Hinderman believes that Foley’s investment and restructuring was the “best thing that could have happened.”
Under Foley, Hinderman said that well-managed growth has funded capital improvements that “were a long time in coming.”
In 2007, the resort changed its name to Whitefish Mountain Resort, replaced the base lodge, and upgraded Chairs 1 and 2.
Ten years later in 2017, the resort built Chair 11, which added 200 skiable acres on the north side of the mountain.
This year, the resort will unveil its most impressive lift yet, the new $10 million Snow Ghost Express, which will disperse ski traffic around the mountain and carry up to six visitors in a chair at a time.
Even with the upgrades, resort President Nick Polumbus sees protecting the mountain’s family-friendly heritage as part of the resort’s role in the area.
“We've always prided ourselves on preserving the resort's "local flavor" while thoughtfully investing in projects that make the mountain more fun and accessible for everyone who visits,” Polumbus said, pointing out that the larger and faster lifts will give visitors more time on the slopes, and less waiting to get to the top.
All of the upgrades, as well as increased media attention, has made the resort and town an increasingly popular destination among skiers and tourists, both domestically and abroad.
Hinderman is glad that the town is now known internationally as a premier ski destination. He thinks that as the town has evolved there has been increased appreciation for arts and culture, preserving open spaces, and guarding the purity of the lake and river.
However, Hinderman warned that the town must remain vigilant to protect what makes it so special.
“There’s always the risk of ‘too much of a good thing,’” Hinderman said. As demand and population grow, the lack of housing and demand on local roads and infrastructure must be accounted for.
Schenck agreed, saying that if the town is not careful, Whitefish could catch a case of “Vail syndrome.”
As demand has increased, costs associated with skiing have gone up. Hinderman is concerned about the rising lift ticket prices he sees at many resorts.
“Skiing is less accessible than it’s ever been,” Hinderman lamented. “At some point people will decide to do other things because of $300 or $400 lift tickets.”
Hinderman remembers a time when skiing was an attainable middle class pursuit, and ski bums and locals alike could afford to live in town.
“There’s no middle class [in Whitefish] anymore,” he said. “Just the rich and the workers.”
“Now we’re running out of workers,” he continued. “They can’t afford to live here.”
THE RESORT itself notably feels the need for more workforce housing, especially in the winter as their seasonal employment swells.
According to Polumbus, the resort has stepped up to provide housing to employees, but acknowledges there is still a need for more.
“Last year we renovated the Hibernation House, which we formerly operated as a hotel, [and] now houses seasonal employees with 48 beds,” Polumbus said. “We are evaluating ways we can provide more in the coming years.”
As a large stakeholder and one of the town’s primary employers, Hinderman believes that the resort has a responsibility to advocate for affordable housing.
Polumbus agrees that the resort has a leadership role to play.
“We’re growing with the community,” Polumbus said. “As much as we know we need to take responsibility for solving our own issues on the mountain, we feel responsible for taking an active role in addressing issues in the community.”
ALTHOUGH CHALLENGES REMAIN, residents think that the town’s unique character is secure, and the next 75 years are full of potential.
Polumbus points out that some things have never changed around town, like the community’s connection and involvement with creating a culture of skiing on Big Mountain.
“Skiing has been part of the local culture for close to a century, and Whitefish and [the resort] have grown up as one,” Polumbus said.
Marilyn Nelson is optimistic that the local spirit will remain as Whitefish goes into its next chapter.
“Hopefully, [Whitefish] will continue to be a place that is inclusive and conducive to families seeking a quality lifestyle, and we will be able retain our identity in the face of continued population growth,” wrote Marilyn Nelson.
Schenck believes the town is headed in the right direction.
“Whitefish has been found,” Schenck said. “I think the town is going to keep blossoming.”
Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.