Some people are patrons of the arts, but Louis Kneubuhler is a patron of skiing. Affectionately known simply as Loulou, this native of France has been a fixture on Spokane’s ski scene for more than 40 years.
And now he’s opened a ski museum at his original ski chalet on East Pacific Avenue, just off South Sherman Street.
“It’s small – it’s still small,” Kneubuhler said as he opened the door to the house he’s owned since 1971. “But you must start somewhere. I’m making the transition from mister pack rat to curator, and that is hard.”
Over the years, Kneubuhler has accumulated a huge collection of skis, boots, bindings and clothing. He had so much stuff he ended up buying the building next door and using that as a warehouse.
“It was almost full,” Kneubuhler said, laughing. “I bought some and people gave me stuff when they moved, and I said, ‘Oh, I have room, I’ll take it, don’t throw it out.’”
Now he’s sorting through his treasures, one ski at a time, as he tries to assemble an exhibit about skiing around Spokane and the history of ski equipment since the late 1800s.
One ski is nothing more than a raw pine board with a piece of conveyor belt nailed to it as a binding.
“It was found in Glacier Park and they say it was probably from the 1870s,” said Kneubuhler.
There are all kinds of skis imaginable – from the first ones made out of wood and with various metal edges, to those made from aluminum or steel, and carbon fiber.
One special pair was made by Lacroix in the early ’80s.
“They are 100 percent custom-made, special built, and they cost around $1,100 at the time, plus boots and bindings,” said Kneubuhler. The owner’s name, Dale Thisted, is still written on the ski tips. Several families pooled their money for this lucky skier. “It was a lot of money at the time.”
Born and raised in the French Alps, in St. Jean De Marianne, Kneubuhler doesn’t remember not being able to ski.
“I could always ski,” he said, smiling. There were 80 ski resorts within 100 miles of where he grew up, and it was racing and competing that initially got him to the United States in 1966. A black-and-white photo shows Kneubuhler and two friends grinning in cowboy hats soon after their arrival.
“We ate up the cowboy stuff,” he said.
In the winter of 1968-69 Kneubuhler came to Spokane.
“It was the most terrible winter with so much snow, all you heard was another roof had collapsed every day,” Kneubuhler said. “I thought I’d died and gone to the heaven with the big snow flakes.”
Kneubuhler hooked up with the Crescent Department Store and did ski fashion shows at the Ridpath Hotel. He was instrumental in the plans that lead to the gondola being installed at Silver Mountain, and also had a big hand in the development of the ski area there. He operated Magic Mountain – an indoor ski slope where local skiers could work with trainers on technique and style. He’s been a ski educator, a ski resort adviser and a racing coach – at one point his racing program on Mount Spokane had 120 members and had to turn people down.
Famous skiers came and went at his ski shop on East Pacific Avenue, and signed photos of Warren Miller, Pam Fletcher, Craig Kelly and Phil Mahre – who won 27 World Cup races in his career – are just some of the ski memorabilia Kneubuhler has put up on the museum’s wall.
Posters featuring skiers like Italian Alberto Tomba – Tomba la Bomba – who took three Olympic gold medals, are on display too.
Boots and skis by makers like Nordica, Rossignol, Solomon, Ramy and K2 line the walls. And every imaginable ski binding is represented.
“Some of them would break your ankles, they would break anything,” said Kneubuhler, holding up an early contraption that passed for a quick-release binding.
He’s got some clothing on display, too, and early training helmets with built-in radios worn by downhill skiers.
“A woman called today and said she has a ski outfit from the early 1900s,” said Kneubuhler. “It’s all wool. People have so much ski equipment lying around.”
What really makes this museum, however, is Kneubuhler.
He has a story to tell about all of the equipment, the people, the places and the history of skiing in this area – including how the railroads played a big role in getting skiers up into the mountains.
For ski aficionados, there is so much to see.
“I should put some labels on things and some signs, but for now, I narrate.” Kneubuhler said in his Jacques Cousteau accent. “I know I can’t keep doing that for the rest of my life, but there is so much to tell.”