A History of Wilmot Mountain Ski Area

At the beginning of the 1950’s, the growth of Wilmot Ski Hills appeared stagnant. The variable weather conditions in the Midwest did not always bring favorable snow conditions. A good snow dump of 6-12 inches could be followed by rain, wiping out the hill until the next storm several weeks later. In 1952, a technological advance resulting in machine-made snowmaking was achieved by Joe Tropiano, an agricultural spraying expert from the Florida area. Test runs of the equipment in New England showed promise in extending skiing seasons on slopes with machine-made snow. Walter flew to New York to see the test installations at the Concord Hotel in Monticello, N.Y. in the Catskill Mountains. The hotel had a small ski run on

First Snowmaking Apparatus mounted on a Willys jeep, Don Brown on Left, Lyle Ehlert on the right. (Stopa Family Photo)

the side with a rope tow. Despite the lack of snow throughout the surrounding countryside, this small rope tow-serviced slope was covered with snow. Walter was excited. This was the apparatus he needed to reduce the effect of the fickle weather conditions in the Midwest and to make the ski area a viable enterprise. Upon his return to Chicago, he bought several snow sprinkler heads (bull horn sprinklers) and carried them on a WWII Willys MB Jeep for transportation to the base of the different ski runs. The snow making crew would then carry the sprinklers up

Willys Jeep in April 2000 (Roberts Photo)

the slopes. Aluminum pipes and lengths of rubber hose were connected to form an array that was moved periodically down the hill as the man-made snow formed. One set of pipes supplied air while the other supplied water. Freeze-ups were a significant problem with this early system. Electric heaters were installed near each sprinkler but these proved problematic and were removed. Walter Stopa made several improvements to the system and passed them on to the manufacturer. The man-made snow making exceeded all expectations, leading to the decision to make Wilmot Hills a full time operation. The first snow gun was the TEY gun (manufacturing started circa 1956) with a capacity of 5-10 GPM. This gun featured external mixing of the air and water, which was unreliable in windy conditions and never worked properly. John Stopa would later develop an improvement in air/water mixing on the snow guns, making them more efficient and less problematic. This design exists on the snow guns today. The snow making system used compressed air at 90-100 psi, with water added in a mixing chamber. The high pressure atomized the water in a freezing environment, resulting in snow particles sprayed on the hill. The guns

View of early "bull horn" lawn sprinkler system near ropes 7 and 8, 1954. (Stopa Family Photo)

were pointed downwind for the best effect. Initial snowmaking for the base used a large particle size for quick covering. For the final layer on top of the base, the airflow was increased for a dryer and smaller particle size. An experienced snowmaker continually adjusts the mixture for the best results. Early snowmaking often resulted in a stiff crust on top of the man-made snow.

View of the hill after the first snow making, 1952. (Buchholz Photo)

Volunteers, ski school and ski patrol all helped pack the slope. A farm crawler tractor was later fitted with 2x6 wood slats and worked well as a slope packing machine. The wide 2x6's packed the snow sufficiently to eliminate the crust, but not enough to compress it into a hard-pack form. The tractor had to be driven up and down the slope. Nearly everyone involved with slope maintenance ran the tractor, including Lyle Ehlert, Walter Stopa and John Stopa. Lyle indicated that it was tricky operating this tractor, in that when it turned sideways, it had a habit of traveling downhill as if on skis and was uncontrollable. Once, the operator inadvertently turned sideways, he hung on for dear life because the next stop was at the bottom of the hill. One day, Walter Stopa was operating the tractor when it turned sideways, slid down the hill and struck a tree. Walter had that tree cut down to reduce the chance of a serious injury in the future.

The first snow packer was an Oliver tractor with 2x6's and angle iron supports mounted on the track. (Stopa Family Photo)

Tractor in storage in April 2000. (Roberts Photo)

In the early 50's, Charles Pagel, the farmer who owned the land that comprised the ski area, passed away. The Pagel family sold the land to Walter Stopa ensuring the development of Wilmot Ski Hills as a private family enterprise. By the mid 50's, the Stopa family moved permanently to Wilmot. Also in the mid 50’s, lighting was added to the area, allowing utilization of the hill at night.

Night skiing at Wilmot Hills, 1955. (Stopa Family Photo)

Walter Stopa prepares to ride the rope tow.

Walter Stopa skiing down main run. (Stopa Family Photos)

Walter Stopa in front of lodge, February 1958. (Stopa Family Photo)

Walter (third from left) as leader of the US Central Ski Association Ski Team, 1957. (Stopa Family Photo)

Walter Stopa Skiing by the Center Rope Tows (Stopa Family Photo)

Walter Jr., Eugenia and Walter Sr., 1955 (Stopa Family Photo)

Conrad Stopa in classical reverse shoulder technique. (Stopa Family Photo)

John Stopa jumping the rock at the top of the Exhibition run with Renee Teichner looking on.

The rock was a favorite jump and re-mained on the hill until the mid 1980’s when the Exhibition run was recontoured. John entered the Army in 1958 and became the editor of Pacific Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for military personnel. John returned after his tour of duty in 1960. (Stopa Family Photo)

Diane Stopa, 1955 (Stopa Family Photo)

Part of the jumping rock is now a monument to the memory of Eugenia (Jeanne) and Walter Stopa. (Roberts Photo)

The lodge in mid 1950’s with “bull horn” snowmakers running. (Stopa Family Photo)

Lilimor Abbott and Ed Morrison at the ski shop and lift ticket counter, 1951. (Stopa Family Photo)

Lodge fireplace built by the Rauch brothers (Frank, Joe and John Sr.) in 1954.

Post card of new addition named the “Red Wood Lodge,” which did not catch on, 1954. (Stopa Family Photo)

Old lodge area in April 2000, now converted to vending area. (Roberts Photo)

Eugenia Stopa handled the ski shop and skiing apparel. She purchased ski and après-ski clothing for sale in the shop. Fashion shows were often a part of pre-season activities.

Eugenia Stopa enjoys musical entertainment provided by Helmut Teichner. (Stopa Family Photo)

Wilmot Ski Hills activities during early NBC Tonight Show national broadcast, Miss Chicago (1st from left), Irv Kupcinet (2nd from left), Helmut Teichner playing the accordion. (Stopa Family Photo)

Members of the NBC cast prepare for broadcast. Helmut Teichner, Walter Stopa and Irv Kupcinet are shown seated at the upper left. (Stopa Family Photo) In the late 50’s, Wilmot was chosen as a subject for one of the first talk show series, “The Nation at Night.” Chicago columnist, Irv Kupcinet, hosted the show.

Large, bulky TV cameras were installed at the base of the center rope tow to capture the activities live. (Stopa Family Photo)

View of lodge after addition (on left/north side) of the new cafeteria and ski patrol area - later adapted as the Pizza Barn. (Stopa Family Photo)

View of rope tow 11 (Stopa Family Photo)

Wilmot Ski Hills sign on the road to Wilmot (Stopa Family Photo)

In addition to winter activities at Wilmot, the Milwaukee Region of the Sports Car Club of America approached Walter Stopa about holding sports car races at Wilmot in 1953. Andy Rosenberger, Harry Danforth, Carl Mueller

First Wilmot Hills Sports Car race, 1953. (Egloff Photo)

and Brooks Stevens were key individuals involved in the racing. The races were very successful until about 1955 when it was determined that the road was too badly

Milwaukee Region Club Race, 1959. (Boldt Photo)

deteriorated to continue racing. In 1957, Edward MacArthur formed the “Wilmot Hills Road Racing Association” (a part of the Chicago Region SCCA), raised $30,000, and rebuilt the race course, which was re-opened in October 1957.

Brooks Stevens’ Design of the Wilmot Raceway. (Egloff Photo)

Under Helmut’s direction, the ski school, numbering about 20 instructors, continued to grow. At the beginning of the decade, the Arlberg method was still taught. This technique was short-lived after Helmut’s visit with Professor Stefan Kruckenhauser, Professor of Sport and Biology, State Ski School at St. Christoph-am-Arlberg. Professor Kruckenhauser asked Helmut, “Why telegraph the turn to your feet? Just turn the feet.” The rhetorical question alluded to the inefficiencies of the Arlberg turn where the upper body twisted in the direction of the turn and the feet were the last to follow. The professor advocated the more efficient way of skiing by turning the feet directly with the lower body. A second personality who closed the door on the Arlberg turn at Wilmot Ski School was an accomplished skier, Gerhard Hofer, who had come to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. Gerhard would traverse along the slope, unweight with a hop and simultaneously reverse the shoulder (counter rotation), initiating the turn. This was called the Reverse Shoulder method, a definite improvement over the Arlberg turn. The Wilmot Ski School adopted the counter rotation turn. Gerhard Hofer was also a skilled teacher and made a fair amount of money teaching skiing. He had a personable skill of approaching prospective students. Here’s how it went: “Sir (Madam). I saw you skiing down the hill and you looked marvelous. I might suggest that you would look even better if you performed the following….” Flattery will get you everywhere, and Gerhard’s students bought into it. Because he knew how to motivate people to take a ski lesson, he was always busy teaching private ski lessons. Gerhard’s success served as an influence to Helmut, who later developed mini-lessons of similar fashion to motivate skiers to take lessons at the Wilmot Ski School. The Lake Placid Olympics and the GI’s learning to ski in Europe sparked a significant increase in skiing interest. A ski school bell was installed to summon students for

Ski school sign (Stopa Family Photo)

Beginning lesson sequence (Stopa Family Photo) lessons. Signs were made that laid out the lesson sequence. The beginning lesson sequence included walking, climbing, downhill running, and the snowplow.

Beginning class sign (Stopa Family Photo)

Typically, the students would form a line up the hill with the instructor facing them in the middle. Each student would take a turn after a demonstration of a particular maneuver by the instructor. The intermediate lesson introduced the snowplow turn, traversing, and eventually the dynamics of skiing.

Advanced lessons dealt purely with parallel skiing. Feet and legs were glued together to mutually support each other because of deficiencies in equipment of the time as well as for elegance. The “comma position” was taught as a way to significantly weight the downhill ski. The turn was initiated with an unweighting or hop and upper body counter rotation. Quicker, wiggling turns, such as: “Wedeln” were introduced at these higher levels.

Helmut Teichner in front of the Ski School Sign

Early race course on State Line run, 1955 (Stopa Family photo)

Racing classes were offered along with children’s classes. Ski instructors wore a variety of patches at Wilmot Ski School. Some patches identified the wearer as a beginning Wilmot Ski School instructor. Other patches indicated the wearer was certified by the Central United States Skiing Association (CUSSA). In 1956, Helmut invited Eddie Becvarik, an accomplished skier from the ski patrol, to teach in the ski school. Eddie brought a ski patrol colleague, Cal Beisswanger, with him. Eddie would eventually become co-director of the ski school, and when Eddie left in the mid 1960’s, Cal would assume the position. Becvarik was certified by CUSSA in 1957; Cal Beisswanger was certified a year later. Judge Jimmey Johnson, chief examiner of the CUSSA, formulated the rules for certification. Each instructor would perform turns and maneuvers and practice teach. Then at the end of the day, the candidate would go into a room where examiners would make the final decision on who passed the certification.

Wilmot Ski School Supervisors, 1959, from left to right, Eddie Becvarik, Helmut Teichner, Norm Johnstone, Cal Beisswanger, Irv Buckholtz. (Teichner Photo)

It is difficult to determine who the first ski patrol director was at Wilmot. Ed Morrison led the ski patrol in the early 1950’s. Leo “Bud” Gross was also involved along with Irv Buchholz, who became a National Patrolman (#1821) in 1952. Jack Abbott was the patrol director at Wilmot in the 1957-58 season. The director coordinated ski patrol activities and assigned ski patrollers to the various runs when the area was open. Eddie Becvarik was the director from 1958-59, and Bill Haase completed the decade as director from 1959-60. Typical equipment included wood toboggans for carrying injured skiers down the hill. All members had to take a skiing aptitude test, a Red Cross first aid refresher course, and a toboggan test every year. After Irv Buchholz became a national patrolman, he improved the toboggans by adding handles and chain brakes. This worked much better than the previous method of straddling the toboggan while in the snowplow position.

Ski patrol members, from left to right: Lilimor Abbott, Dick Holsten, Cal Beisswanger, and Ed Morrison, 1956.

E-Mail: ccr@robertsski.com
Copyright 2001 Charles C. Roberts, Jr