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Chewelah’s Social Climbers Ski Club Members Founded 49 Degrees North

Paul Bunyan-size skis may never return, but the Chewelah Peak Ski Club is making a comeback to promote the 49 Degrees North ski hill it founded 60 years ago.

Old-time members will try to revive the ski club after a public reunion Saturday at the resort.

There was no resort, no lifts, no groomed trails when the club held its organizational meeting Sept. 6, 1935. But everyone who was anyone in Chewelah signed up, even though many never got near a ski.

Using volunteer labor, the club took about a month to build a cabin about five miles west of the presentday ski resort. The cabin proved popular for summer gatherings as well as skiing and soon had to be enlarged.

Club dues in the early years were $1 per member, but schoolchildren such as Priscilla Gess and Norm LaVigne weren’t charged.

Their parents and a few other club officers had established skiing in the area in the early 1920s. Of that group, only Walt Goodman, now 81, survives.

LaVigne’s father, Cy, acquired a taste for the sport at what was then Washington State College shortly after coming home from World War I. He had the first pair of skis in Chewelah in 1921.

At that time, skiing was a family adventure with more resemblance to cross country skiing than modern alpine schussing.

Wooden skis up to 9 feet long kept skiers on top of the snow but made turning almost impossible.

Bindings consisted of a single strap over ordinary boots and, later, toe clamps formed with pieces of car fender.

Priscilla Gess Richmond, now 64, remembers using a cut-out pair of her father’s old shoes as bindings - just like all the other kids did.

“They worked like a million bucks,” said Norm LaVigne, now 71.

That’s more than could be said for some of the early ski poles. At first, a single pole was dragged between the legs as a brake or to one side or the other for steering.

Avoiding trees was a tricky business requiring a good deal of strength. It didn’t help that many of the poles were broomsticks with tin cans or can lids as baskets.

But fun was the object, not speed.

“We’d drive as far as we could out Flowery Trail Road and then we’d walk three or four or five miles to this old homesteader cabin,” LaVigne recalled. “We’d have a couple of sandwiches and put on a pot of coffee and ski down the hill a couple of times and then go home.”

Considering that it might take three hours to climb the hill, there wasn’t time for more than a couple of runs.

That changed when a rope-tow was constructed a couple of years after the ski club had been formed. Two loops totaling 950 feet were driven by the rear wheels of a jacked-up 1928 Dodge.

The rope-tow was free for kids and cost only about a quarter a day for adults. After World War II, the club replaced the rope-tow with a chairlift. The towers were framed with timber from the ski slope, and most of the parts and labor were donated. Northwest Magnasite, which used a long cable tram to deliver ore to its mill near Chewelah, provided cable and war-surplus parts.

“Everybody pitched in and did what they needed to do,” LaVigne said.

One of the club’s main functions over the years was to sponsor ski races and tournaments. Chewelah Peak and five other clubs in the region formed the Intermountain Ski Council in 1938 and competed regularly among themselves.

The other clubs were Mount Spokane, Selkirk (also located at Mount Spokane), University of Idaho, Washington State College and the Idaho Ski Club from Lookout Pass.

Richmond began racing at age 10 and was a Pacific Northwest Ski Association champion at 18. She was on the Chewelah High School team that hosted and won the state high school ski tournament in 1949.

“I entered as a boy because we didn’t have enough to make a (girls) team,” Richmond said.

LaVigne fondly remembers testing his mettle as a teenager against accomplished adults from Norway, Sweden and other traditional bastions of skiing. His high school team won a state tournament at Mount Baker that required cross-country racing and jumping in addition to downhill and giant slalom events.

LaVigne later ran a ski school at Mount Spokane for a few years in the late 1940s. He and his wife, Irene - a Davenport, Wash., farm girl he taught to ski while they were in high school - also toured the country for years with the Chewelah Peak Ski Club junior racing team he coached.

But modern life took its toll on the family oriented club, and it disbanded about 20 years ago.

Fritz Sander, race and marketing director for 49 Degrees North, saw the same trends in his native Austria and thinks ski lifts and other technology contributed to the demise. A ski trip no longer needed to be a team effort in which some people were responsible for food while others handled equipment and cleared the trails.

But Sander said the resort wants to re-establish its reputation as a family attraction and has found strong interest in the old ski club. He said managers were surprised that 127 old-time skiers turned out two years ago when the resort sponsored a club reunion, and the number increased to 180 last year.

He expects an even greater turnout Saturday. Public events - starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. - will include a dual slalom race, a nostalgic 50-cent stew-and-cornbread lunch and a 2 p.m. meeting to reactivate the Chewelah Peak Ski Club.

The LaVignes and Richmond say they hope the club will sponsor races and other events that will renew community support for the ski hill.

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