WHITEFISH — Skiing in Whitefish has always been a community affair
This past week, the Whitefish Mountain Resort celebrated its 70th anniversary with recognition of three men who played pivotal roles in bringing alpine skiing to the area.
The sons and daughters of Lloyd “Mully” Muldown, Ed Schenck and George Prentice will be the first to tell you that their parents' dreams would have never come true had it not been for the efforts of a community who pitched in with strong backs and open pocketbooks.
“A lot of things start with a dream,” said Mary Anne Miles, the daughter of the resort’s co-founder Ed Schenck. “A lot of people worked really hard to make the resort what it is today. It was a passion for them to see it succeed. The whole community was behind it.”
Many of those members of the community were likely on hand on Dec. 14, 1947, when The Big Mountain Ski Area officially opened its T-bar and lodge to the public. Back then, lift tickets cost $2, a burger could be had for a quarter and a beer cost a few nickels.
That first winter, 6,900 skiers visited the ski area 8 miles north of town. By the time spring came, the company books were $3,600 in the red.
“They went through some really tough times in the beginning,” said Mike Muldown. “It was quite an amazing group of people who collaborated to make it all work. It’s a very unique situation when a ski resort evolves through the community surrounding it.”
Muldown’s father, Mully Muldown, was one of the first to ski the slopes around Big Mountain. His enthusiasm for the sport led him to be named “The Father of Whitefish Skiing.”
Mully’s mother, Anna Erickson, learned to ski as a child in Norway. She taught her son to glide though the gentle slopes of southern Minnesota on long wooden skis while carrying a single pole that was used as a brake.
After graduating from college, a friend enticed Muldown to take a high school teaching position in Whitefish. He brought his skis with him.
Faced with a new mountainous terrain, Muldown’s interest in the up-and-coming sport of alpine skiing grew. When he traveled to Berlin to watch the 1936 Summer Olympics, he made a side trip to Switzerland and Austria to buy books, equipment and clothing that would open up a new world to him and hundreds of others.
“He spread the wealth when he returned,” Mike Muldown said.
A local blacksmith copied the bindings and toe pieces from the equipment he brought back from overseas. Others figured out how to copy the design of the skis and boots. The books that explained the new techniques were shared.
Those first skiers perfected their turns on the ridges around Grouse Mountain. Before long, they were looking for terrain that was bigger and more challenging.
They found that on the top of the nearby Hellroaring Mountain.
“That area had been burned over by the fires of 1910 and 1918,” Muldown said. “It had created this large open area around the top of the mountain that had become a popular place for people to graze their sheep.”
In the early 1930s, the area around Flathead Lake was home to a lot of sheep ranchers. The sheep that wintered around Plains and Hot Springs were herded up along the lake, through Kalispell and Whitefish to lush green mountainsides found at the top of the mountain that’s now home to Whitefish Mountain Resort.
In the winter, Mully and the growing group of skiers would hike up the sheep trails through the trees to get to the top of the mountain in order to get in one long ski run for the day.
In 1935, Mully and members of the Hellroaring Ski Club convinced the Forest Service to issue a permit to allow the construction of a cabin that would allow them to get two runs in on a weekend.
“It was the first recreational permit in the Forest Service’s Northern Region,” Muldown said.
Over the next couple of years, the club worked to get a road built in to the cabin and then, with the help of some local railroad men, they constructed a rope tow that saved their legs for the long climb to the top of the mountain.
The story goes that Mully was the first to coin the name “Big Mountain.”
“When they first started skiing in the early '30s, it was around the area where Grouse Mountain Lodge is,” Muldown said. “Later, occasionally they would ski Chicken Ridge in the middle of the week after skiing off the top of Big Mountain on the weekend. He would tell people that they could ski here on Chicken Ridge, but they’re not really skiing until they go to that big mountain over there.”
Early on, Muldown said his father and others saw the potential for something bigger on that big mountain.
“Those passionate crazy ski people were convinced there was a future for a ski resort up there,” Muldown said.
World War II put that idea on hold. Once the war ended, club members started talking with city fathers and the Chamber of Commerce to try to push the idea of building a ski area forward.
It would take a couple of high school buddies from Great Falls to make it happen.
The pair of ski lift salesmen, Ed Schenck and George Prentice, came to Whitefish with $20,000 in their pockets, an old Jeep and the dream of building a world-class ski resort.
Miles said her father had served as paratrooper in WWII.
“When he was overseas, he wrote letters home to his mother,” Miles said. “He told her that when he got out, he was going to start a ski area.”
The two sold stock to locals and formed a corporation in 1946 that would eventually lead to the opening of The Big Mountain Ski Area. Those first years were challenging for the two young men and their families.
George’s son, Tom Prentice, was a young boy when his parents took on the effort to get the ski area up and running.
“I remember the road to the lodge seemed really long,” said Prentice. “When I was a little kid, we had an old Pontiac that didn’t have any back seats. My sister and I would sit in the back on seats that my mom had made out of boxes. We had a contest on who could see the ski lodge first. … It took us a long time to get there. It almost felt like a vacation trip.”
By 1952, Prentice’s father decided the ski area couldn’t support two families. Prentice fell back on his education as an engineer and the family moved away.
But they never forgot Whitefish.
“All they ever talked about was when they retired, they would move back to Montana,” Prentice said. “When my dad would talk about Montana, he would just beam. They started skiing again. They didn’t want to forget how to do it.”
Prentice would beat his parents back to Whitefish. He spent his last two summers of high school working at Big Mountain. As soon as he graduated, he moved to Missoula to attend the University of Montana. When winter came, he found himself back at the ski area his father co-founded.
“Those were probably the best years of my life,” he said. “I was just in heaven. I was getting paid to do something I loved to do.”
True to their word, his parents moved back to Whitefish as soon as they retired.
Muldown will never forget his first ski run down the big mountain.
He was a just a tyke when his father took him in his arms and placed him on his shoulders. Holding his son with one hand and his poles with the other, Mully Muldown caught a ride up on The Big Mountain Ski Area’s T-bar.
“It was probably 1948 or '49,” Muldown remembers. “He took me to the top of the T-bar, which is where Chair Two is now. And then we skied down the hill. It felt like I was a 7-foot-tall person as we weaved down the mountain. I can still remember seeing the tips of his skis when I looked down.”
“It terrified the hell out of me,” he said. “But he never did fall when he took me for a ride.”
Mully Muldown kept skiing for as long as his legs would allow him. When he retired as Whitefish Schools superintendent, he went back to the mountain where he taught others to ski, well into his 80s.
“He was a visionary type of guy, just like Ed and George,” Muldown said. “He could see the potential of the mountain from the very beginning. I can remember Ed Schenck coming over to our home with blueprints and maps and those two talking about all the possibilities.”
“I think he would be happy with the way that it’s turned out,” Muldown said. “None of it would have ever happened if the community had not wrapped its arms around it. Without that collaboration in the beginning, none of it would have been possible.”
The history of that effort will soon be on display at a new museum being developed by community members of Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation. The Ski Heritage Center is next-door to the ice arena just off Wisconsin Avenue in Whitefish.
The foundation formed in the 1970s to support youth skiing, said Tom Hinderman, adding that the foundation’s volunteers helped gather the history of skiing around Whitefish for the resort's 50th and 60th anniversaries.
Hinderman’s own connection to the mountain goes back to his grandfather, who was the school superintendent who hired Mully Muldown. His parents ran the resort’s ski school after his father finished a stint the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
“We had gathered all these great stories together,” he said. “We decided we should do something to preserve them. … It was a long and hard road for a lot of people to make this work. It’s an amazing story that we hope to share.”