U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum
The upper peninsula of Michigan -- known locally as "the U.P." -- brags about its abundance of sport fish and deer. But its most plentiful natural resource is snow. Winter season totals of 20 feet are common, and the locals take a perverse pride in it.
It follows that the U.P. is "the birthplace of organized skiing in America" and the home of the U.S. National Ski Hall Of Fame And Museum. Places such as Aspen and Vail with their fancy mountains get more publicity, but Ishpeming gets more snow.
In an odd juxtaposition, the Ski Hall Of Fame And Museum is just down the road from the Da Yoopers Tourist Trap. Each establishment views the human population of the U.P. differently: Da Yoopers sees them as flatulent beer-drinkers, while the Ski Hall of Fame views them as trim and fit. The truth lies somewhere in between.
The Ski Hall Of Fame And Museum opened in 1954 and moved into its current building -- with a steeply-pitched roof like a ski jump -- in 1992.
Most of the museum's exhibits seem frozen in a 25-year-old time warp, to our delight. The "50 Years of Progress" ski fashion exhibit ends in 1985-86. A photo display of famous skiers features James Brolin (aka Mr. Barbra Streisand), Tanya Tucker and Clint Eastwood (during their 1982 fling), and Crown Prince Olav of Norway (who died in 1991).
The building is a quiet place, like the calm after a blizzard. Expanses of empty, gray carpeted floor under a lofty roof give the museum a Spartan feel. Some areas are neatly designed, yet the occasional glimpse of cinder block walls, bright orange electrical cables, and baseboard heaters call to mind a VFW Lodge Hall. Scattered among the exhibits are artificial Christmas trees, for atmosphere.
The "Upper Peninsula Winters" display, at the front of the museum, notes that the UP received 272.2 inches of snow in 1996-97. Large construction-paper snowflakes provided the background for a collection of home-made skates, skis, and snow shoes for horses. There's also a pair of reindeer boots, filled with straw, from Lapland. A sign notes "Before snow removal equipment and techniques were perfected, it took much effort to travel from place to place."
An audience of two men sits in a small theater, a video playing about taconite strip mining, but our attention is drawn to a display of two hairy warriors carrying a baby over a snowy landscape. These are the Birchlegs -- "Birkebeiners" -- soldiers of the Norwegian army, depicted as they carried the infant Prince Haakon over the mountains to safety in 1206. On skis, of course. We thought they were Vikings.
Similarly odd exhibits are scattered throughout the museum. Over here is a replica 4,000-year-old ski and pole that was found in a Swedish bog. Over there is a 1956 outrigger -- America's first handicapped ski. There are displays devoted to the development of the chair lift and to ski waxing.
There's a World War II "weasel" -- a kind of miniature tank -- that became the "First Mechanized Snow Grooming Equipment Used at Sun Valley, Idaho." There's a plaque for Averell Harriman, member of the Skull and Bones Society and former chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, who promoted skiing to get people to take the train.
The "Modern Ski Warfare" exhibit honors the American 10th Mountain Division troops of World War II, and notes that Bob Dole received his battle injuries fighting Germans in Italy. Most of the first generation of US ski resorts were created by 10th Mountain Division veterans.
The Hall of Fame is full of plaques for people we've never heard of: Hans Gmoser, Sigrid Laming, Luggi Foeger, Sepp Benedikter, Siegfried Buchmayr, Fritz Mittelstadt. A big silver cup, the Paul Bietila Trophy, honors a ski-jumping prodigy who had mastered Ishpeming's infamous "Suicide Hill" at the age of 10, then died at age 20 after a jump in St. Paul.
If nothing else, The Ski Hall Of Fame And Museum will make you appreciate just how little you know about skiing. And if you need a break in the action, there's always the taconite video....