Photo by Ross Hall
SCHWEITZER Turns 40
A tale of 2 managers
At the helm in 1963,
Schweitzer Sam Wormington
Like many Sandpoint natives, Ive lived the history of Schweitzer Mountain Resort. I once held stock in the place. My parents still have a photo of us with local promoter Bob Cox when we invested $10 apiece from our savings into the new ski resort not far from our North Boyer home.
I even remember an afternoon in the early 60s when Dr. Jack Fowler and his friend, Grant Groesbeck, stood near our driveway with drawings spread across their car hood. Both brimmed with enthusiasm while showing my dad their plans for Schweitzer. Somewhat skeptical about building a road up in the watershed where he tended Sandpoints water system, Dad wondered if they could pull it off.
Well, they did. As snow piled up in 1963, a steady stream of cars, bound for the ski hill, began rolling past our farm, turning at the corner of the woods onto the old Schweitzer Road (Woodland Drive). We knew our quiet, rural existence would never be quite the same.
When Schweitzer opened like other curious locals our family gathered in our 58 Ford, carefully drove the switchbacks, venturing up the mountain farther than wed ever gone with our tractor and hay wagon years before for huckleberry picking. We couldnt believe the views of Lake Pend Oreille. We were even more awestruck with the new, almost foreign world atop the mountain that visionaries from Spokane and Sandpoint along with carpenters, dozer operators, technicians, loggers, laborers, et al, had created so quickly for its Dec. 4, 1963, opening. (See Milestones 1963.) Envisioning a wintertime family playground, Schweitzer pioneers also hoped to boost Sandpoints seasonal economy.
The snowy scene was magical as we listened to Bavarian music and drank hot chocolate while skiers seemingly floated down the slopes from Chair 1. I remember seeing Schweitzer Sam as the tall, lean, friendly Canadian from Kimberley, British Columbia, greeted visitors at the distinctive lodge designed by Groesbeck. That inaugural visit not only introduced me to Schweitzer and Sam Wormington but also signaled an awakening for our community. Since then, Sandpoint and Schweitzer no longer sleep during the winter.
We eventually got to know Sam, his wife, Elsa, and daughter, Colleen, as neighbors and fellow horse lovers. I sold season tickets in the 60s. In the 70s, my husband, Bill, worked for Sam as a chairlift operator. My brother, Kevin, managed the Ski Patrol prior to John Pucci, who still holds the job today.
Forty years later, weve all grown older, and Schweitzer has grown beyond our wildest imaginations. General Manager Tom Fortunes challenges of ushering the resort into its fifth decade contrast sharply with those 43-year-old Sam Wormington faced in 1963.
Wormington joined me at Schweitzer Village last August to reminisce. This World War II Canadian Army veteran may be 83, but age hasnt slowed him down. I huffed and puffed while climbing the hill behind him to Chair 1 for some picture-taking.
Sam surveyed the slopes where trees have grown, erasing any sign of the first rope tow and original T-bar. He still marvels at road contractor Russell Olivers scheme of running a bulldozer up the snowy slope, letting the path freeze and covering it with sand, enabling cement trucks to get to the top in January 1964 during T-bar installation.
We then went to Selkirk Lodge to talk more about the past. As Sam opened his scrapbook of clippings and medals of appreciation from Sandpoints Rotary and the Queen of England, the past came walking by in the form of early ski patrol volunteer Dutch Miedema.
It was all basic, starting from scratch no grooming, Miedema reflected. It was a whole different mountain then, wasnt it Sam?
After Dutch left, we started again. Minutes later, Otto and Denny Schatz walked by, recognizing Sam. They skied Schweitzer during Ottos Fairchild Air Force Base tour in the 70s. Wormington and the Schatzes swapped stories, including one about the young pilot who buzzed the basin with his B-52 bomber, only to learn later in a chewing-out that his commanding officer had been sitting in the lodge during the flyover. Hes a three-star general now, Denny quipped.
Over lunch at the Alpenglow Deli, Schweitzer Sam and I traversed the high spots of his 14-year career at Schweitzer, recalling original players in the resorts evolution, some who have since died. Spokanes Dr. Merritt Stiles one of the resorts foremost, early cheerleaders came up to North Star at Kimberley, encouraging Sam to apply for the Schweitzer job. The manager would be involved in supervising everything from clearing timber for ski runs, installing power and organizing ticket sales, to hiring staff and even marketing the new ski area.
While remembering Jim Brown Jr., Sam expressed appreciation toward the community leader and visionary businessman who later took sole control of the resort. (See Milestones 1982 to mid-80s.) He answered directly to Brown, whose influence and support drove Schweitzer for the next 26 years. As founder of Pack River Lumber Co. and a vast timber empire, Brown and his wife, Jean, shared the early vision for Schweitzer as a family-oriented ski area that would provide employment in Bonner County.
It was supposed to be a venue for good fun, says Browns eldest daughter, Bobbie Huguenin. Mom and Dad supported the operations for all the years I can remember because they wanted the people of Sandpoint, et al, to enjoy something appropriately challenging and thrilling.
Brown was grooming Bobbie to help carry out his dream of catapulting Schweitzer into a regional destination resort when he died suddenly in 1989. (See Milestones 1989.) We made a plan and laid the foundations for the next 50 years of operations and development with the conviction that Schweitzer has the potential to be a top quality, family-oriented, year-round destination mountain resort, she said. The plan contemplated that Sandpoint-Bonner County would always be integral in terms of amenities, accommodations and employees. We saw many ancillary businesses being able to piggy-back our investment.
Browns leadership, vision and friendship left an impact throughout the community and especially with Sam, who wrote in his 1980 book The Ski Race, Much of the credit for the success of Schweitzer Basin goes to Jim for his foresight and faith in the development.
Sam also touched on Schweitzer employees, including meticulous bookkeeper Delores Kelly, ticket seller Patti Parkins McGovern, and Girl Friday Shirley Hamacher. Wayne Parenteau, Rennie Poelstra and Bob Aavedal functioned as jacks-of-all-trades, while Russell Oliver, Wayne Ebbett and the Palmer brothers (Bud and Perry) built the road. Ski patrolmen Dewain Mullins and Zane Lund, maintenance man Jim Robertson, lift specialists Bob Melton and Scotty Castle, as well as a host of other employees and volunteers played key roles in launching the operation.
When Sam left in 1977, Schweitzer, with its seven chair lifts and overnight accommodations, had become well-established as a popular Northwest ski resort, but not without a few glitches. Until paved in 1974, the road, with its soft base, provided headaches. Sam always worried about parking. Still does. And he still grouses about Chair 1s 600-person-per-hour capacity. He says it should have had a 1,200 skier-per-hour capacity.
Sam, however, has little time to dwell on the past. Besides trips to Europe for World War II monument dedications, he is training and caring for his German shepherd sidekick, Astra, who sniffs out missing persons for Search and Rescue.
He quit the ski business in 2003 after 50-plus years, managing Kimberley, Schweitzer and Mt. Spokane resorts and installing Riblet chair lifts in the United States and Canada. No longer skiing, he prefers snowshoeing because the dogs trip over skis, and the workout keeps him in shape. Elsa died in 1992, so he house-sits or spends time at his daughters ranch in Montana.
When I left Sam, he was feeding Astra turkey scraps from his deli sandwich. I headed home, appreciating my visit with an old friend who played such a significant role in shaping Schweitzer and starting Sandpoint on a whole new journey.
The Present, The Future
Harbor carries the torch, fulfills visionarys dreams
At the top in 2003, Tom Fortune
Tom Fortune was an Edmonds, Wash., toddler when Sam Wormington directed Schweitzers opening in 1963. He first skied through a school program at Stevens Pass, where he later worked as a teenager. Nowadays, this father of three boys, husband to Jennifer and lifelong winter-sports junkie says he lives, works and plays on Schweitzer Mountain.
Ill quit the day I dont have the passion for the sports that are up here, says Fortune. I like the work, but I havent lost the passion for riding the fresh line of powder.
After 25 years with Harbor Properties/Harbor Resorts, Fortunes passion for his present job shines while reviewing strides Schweitzer has made since the Seattle-based company purchased it in 1998. Harbors financial prowess is carrying much of Jim Browns 1980s dream into fruition. The company has poured millions into improving, developing and marketing the New Schweitzer, emphasizing its tie to Lake Pend Oreille with its Mountain on the Lake slogan. A tour through the Schweitzer Village home to White Pine Lodge, retail stores and the recently renovated Selkirk Lodge reflects Harbor Properties commitment to see the resort emerge throughout the West as a prime, year-round recreational draw. (See Timeline 1999-2003.)
The mountain is well on its way with two consecutive record summer seasons and improved facilities like Stella Idahos first high-speed, 6-passenger chair lift. Schweitzers skier visits have exploded in the past five years from an annual average of 160,000 visits to 217,000 that includes two winters with less-than-ideal conditions.
Harbor hopes to attract more group conferences and major recreational events by increasing overnight/retail facilities similar to the White Pine Lodge concept. That strategy began to pay off for Schweitzer and Sandpoint last July when more than 10,000 spectators showed up to watch 1,100 mountain bikers compete in the 4-day NORBA competition.
They want to come back, Fortune says. In four years, we may host the finals. The event provided priceless national and worldwide exposure for Schweitzer and even spawned winter reservations and local real estate deals.
Lots to celebrate and celebrate it shall several times during the 2003-04 winter, Fortune says. Plans call a kickoff event on the Dec. 4 anniversary and Winter Carnival events on the milestone. Were going to have an employee reunion in April, Fortune says.
He appreciates longtime employees like Ski Patrol Manager John Pucci and Base Operations Manager Deanna Harris, whose history and knowledge help perpetuate Schweitzers heritage as the resort expands.
Hes very open about recognizing people, who they are and their experience in this industry, says Pucci, a 38-year employee.
A Schweitzer staffer since 1981, Harris remembers the days of fighting over one typewriter. She has witnessed how computer technology has changed the way we operate dramatically. We know how many people are on the mountain at any given time, she says. We can sell tickets off-site in order to eliminate ticket lines. What hasnt changed over the years are the great employees; it is a special group of people.
Fortune adds, I believe the leaders have a responsibility to operate this place and continue to operate with a respect for the history.
Fortune also looks ahead toward celebrating Schweitzers half century with goals of a central bell/clock tower, replacement of Chair 1 into two separate lifts upping capacity to 2,000 skiers hourly; improved mountain access and increased skier visits. Other plans include enhanced beginner terrain and programs, building and equipment renovations, and added amenities like a summer zip line, climbing wall and bungee jumping.
And, who knows? Schweitzer Village could even appear on maps as an incorporated municipality by 2013.
A 40 year Timeline
By Marianne Love