It was a warm spring day in 1937 when 11-year-old George Hovland and his friends climbed to the top of the ski jump at Chester Bowl.
According to Chester Bowl’s Historical Timeline, it was the highest ski jump in the world when it was built in January 1926.
“We climbed up there after the tournament was over, and we got our skis on,” recalls Hovland, 86. “It was one of these things: ‘Okay, you go first.’ ‘No, you go first. So we finally took the least aggressive, and we, for all practical purposes, picked him up and set him on the track. And he went down.
“Well, he survived, and he was not the best skier of the group,” Hovland said.
All the other boys followed suit, and most of them stood their jumps. The adventuresome and fun-loving nature of these young children epitomize the rich history of the Duluth Ski Club.
“It was a coming of age,” Hovland said.
But before those boys could speed down the slopes, a group of men had to found the club.
A Jan. 1, 1905, article in the Duluth News Tribune asked, “Why doesn’t Duluth have a ski club the same as they did some years ago?” Zenith City Online cites this as the call for formation of the Duluth Ski Club.
On Nov. 21 of the same year, the Duluth Ski Club convened for the first time at the St. Louis Hotel in downtown Duluth. Almost all members of the club at that time were Norwegian immigrants.
A book entitled “The Culture and Sport of Skiing: From Antiquity to World War II” by E. John B. Allen said that skiing is one of the greatest sources of national identity for Norway, with skis found dating back to 4000 B.C. Norwegian immigrants like John Mangseth gave the club a strong foundation.
Though the club tried out several different locations over the years, its primary home became Chester Bowl. It was there that so many children like Hovland, who still lives just a few blocks away, grew up in the Duluth Ski Club family.
In those days, the club had about 50 to 100 kids involved. Skiing was a daily part of life for each of them.
“We walked two miles to school in the morning, walked back, got home, had a bite to eat, put our skis on, took a dozen ski jumps, and then go and ski around a three-and-a-half mile trail,” Hovland said. “It was just a daily thing, and so you got pretty proficient. We didn’t think about it as conditioning, it was just something we did.”
The club centered on a core value of hard work combined with fun. Duluth native Adrian Watt, 64, now lives in Esko, Minn., but he started skiing with the club in 1956. He recalls the way everyone worked together.
“We used to have work parties,” Watt said. “There were always quite a few people who would show up. We did carpenter and steel work on the jumps; we put that stuff together. When we got snow, we would carry gunny sacks full up to the jump. That’s how we got snow up there.”
But it wasn’t all work. One of Watt’s fondest memories of the club was the shenanigans he got into with his friends.
“We had a juke box in the chalet, and there were speakers that played it out on the hill,” Watt said. “It was a nickel for each song. Well, we figured out how we could stick a coat hanger in there and get free songs. I remember my favourite was ‘Peggy Sue’ by Buddy Holly.”
As times changed, there was a major shift away from ski jumping at Chester Bowl. The program lost funding from the city of Duluth in 2008 due to financial difficulties, but the Chester Bowl Improvement Club saved the program from shutting down.
Thom Storm, 63, grew up with the program and lives just a few minutes from the park. He is still quite involved with the program today as a member of the Chester Bowl Improvement Club and ski camp director. As the years have passed, Storm said the club is still going strong.
“The Alpine Program had 600 rentals and over 1,000 tickets sold,” Storm said. “It’s more economical than other winter activities like hockey. It is growing and holding its own.”
The history on the hills of Chester Bowl is full of memories, and the love for skiing in the community will certainly continue to carry on that tradition.