Elusive Minneapolis Ski Jumps: Keegan’s Lake, Mount Pilgrim and Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park
The Norwegians of Minneapolis had greater success getting their music recognized in a Minneapolis park than they did their sport. A statue of violinist and composer Ole Bull was erected in Loring Park in 1897.
A ski jump was located in a Minneapolis park only when the park board expanded Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park in 1909 by buying the land on which a ski jump had already been built by a private skiing club. The photo and caption below are as they appear in the annual report of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners for 1911.* While the park board included these photos in its annual report, they are a bit misleading. Park board records indicate that it didn’t really begin to support skiing in parks until 1920 — 35 years after the first ski clubs were created in the city.
Minneapolis, the American city with the largest population of Scandinavians, was not a leader in adopting or promoting the ski running and ski jumping that originated in that part of the world. Skiing had been around for millenia, but it had been transformed into sport only in the mid-1800s, around the time Minneapolis was founded. Ski competitions then included only cross-country skiing, often called ski running, and ski jumping — the Nordic combined of today’s Winter Olympics. Alpine or downhill skiing didn’t become a sport until the 1900s. Even the first Winter Olympics at Chamonix, France in 1924 included only Nordic events and — duh! — Norway won 11 of 12 gold medals.
The first mention of skiing in Minneapolis I can find is a brief article in the Minneapolis Tribune of February 4, 1886 about a Minneapolis Ski Club, which, the paper claimed, had been organized by “Christian Ilstrup two years ago.” That article said the club “is still flourishing.” Eight days later the Tribune noted that the Scandinavian Turn and Ski Club was holding its final meeting of the year. The two clubs may have been the same.
Ilstrup was one of the organizers two years later of one of the first skiing competitions recorded in Minneapolis, which was described by the Tribune, January 29, 1888, in glowing and self-congratulatory terms.
Tomorrow will witness the greatest ski contest that ever took place in this country. For several years our Norwegian cultivators of the noble ski-sport have worked assiduously to introduce their favorite sport in this country, but their efforts although crowned with success, did not experience a real boom until the Tribune interested itself in the matter and gave the boys a lift.
The Tribune mentioned the participation in the competition of the Norwegian Turn and Ski Club, “Vikings club” and “Der Norske Twin Forening.” The Tribune estimated that 3,000 spectators watched the competition held on the back of Kenwood Hill facing the St. Louis Railroad yard. Every tree had a dozen or so men and boys clinging to the branches, while others found that perches on freight cars in the rail yard provided the best vantage point.
The competition consisted of skiers taking turns speeding downhill and soaring off a jump or “bump” made of snow on the hill. Points were awarded for distance and for style points from judges.
The winners of the competition were reported as M. Himmelsvedt, St. Croix Falls, whose best jump was 72 feet, and 14-year-old crowd favorite Oscar Arntson, Red Wing, who didn’t jump nearly as far, but jumped three times without falling. Red Wing was a hot bed of ski-jumping, along with Duluth and towns on the Iron Range. (The winner was perhaps Mikkjel Hemmestveit, who along with his brother, Torger, came from Norway to manufacture skis using highly desirable U.S. hickory. The Hemmestveit brothers are usually associated with Red Wing skiing, however, not St. Croix Falls.)
A Rocky Start
Despite the enthusiasm of the Tribune and the crowds, skiing then disappeared from the pages of the Tribune until 1891, when on March 2, the paper reported on a gathering of thirty members of the Minneapolis Ski Club at Prospect (Farview) Park. “This form of amusement is as distinctively Scandinavian as lutefisk, groet, kringles and shingle bread,” the Tribune reported. “With skis on his feet a man can skim swiftly over the soft snow in level places, and when a slope is convenient the sport resembles coasting in a wildly exhilarating and exciting form,” the report continued. The article also described the practice of building snow jumps on the hill, noting that “one or two of the contestants were skilful enough to retain their equilibrium on reaching terra firma again, and slid on to the end of the course, arousing the wildest enthusiasm.”
The enthusiasm didn’t last once again. The Tribune’s next coverage of skiing appeared nearly eight years later — but it came with an explanation:
During recent winters snow has been a rather scarce article. A few flakes, now and then, have made strenuous efforts to organize a storm, but generally the effort has proven a failure. The heavy snow of yesterday was so unusual that it is hardly to be wondered at that there arose in the breasts of local descendants of the Viking race a longing for the old national pastime, skiing…The sport of skiing was fostered to a considerable extent in the Northwest, and particularly in this city, a few years ago, but the snow famine of late winters put a damper on it.
— Minneapolis Tribune, November 11, 1898
The paper further reported that the “storm of yesterday had a revivifying effect upon the number of enthusiasts” and that the persistent Christian Ilstrup of the Minneapolis Ski Club was arranging a skiing outing on the hills near the “Washburn home” (presumably the orphanage at 50th and Nicollet). The paper also reported that while promoters of the club were Norwegian-Americans, “they do not propose to be clannish in the matter.”
Within a week of that first friendly ski, the club shifted its focus to the hills west of the city at Bryn Mawr, because they were more accessible by street car. The Tribune recalled the meet held nearby “several years ago” (actually ten years), which had been won by Mikkjel Hemmestveit. The paper noted that Mikkjel’s brother, Torger, had since set the American ski jump record of 122 feet, and concluded “it is doubtful if it will ever be broken.” (Only two weeks ago, February 11, 2011, Johan Remen Evensen became the first person to surpass 800 feet in a ski flying contest in Vikersund, Norway.) The same article that noted the prowess of the Hemmestveit brothers also included the news that they had returned to Norway.
Once again a flurry of interest and newspaper coverage didn’t last. Despite what the Tribune called “enough ludicrous mishaps to keep spectators in the best of humor,” “dismal conditions” discouraged the skiers. The “dismal conditions” must have been even worse than being laughed at.
A few years later, in 1906, the Minneapolis Ski Club reported that it was looking at hills in the Golden Valley district where it could build a “trestle” for jumping. S. Quamme, secretary of the Minneapolis Ski Club, wrote in the Tribune, December 30, 1906, “For some reason or other this excellent sport has not been cultivated in Minneapolis, in spite of the fact that many expert skiers live here, but from now on it will be different.” Quamme noted that ski tournaments had been tilted towards ski jumping in the past, but that the club was planning more cross-country races, too. The club must have succeeded in that because the only mention of skiing in the Tribune for the next year was of a ten-mile race conducted at Lake Harriet.
Quamme also noted in his report that “ladies on skis are not very common in this country, but nevertheless, they will be seen in Minneapolis this winter. Several good lady skiers of Minneapolis are eager to join the club.” (Is it possible that one hundred years later women were not allowed to compete in ski jumping at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver?)
About the same time, reports appeared that John Ruud of Duluth “startled the ski world a short time ago by turning a complete somersault on skis,” according to the Tribune, February 2, 1908. Gender equity in skiing may have been a challenge, but extreme skiing was already underway. Flips off of ski jumps and double jumps — two skiers jumping together — were touted as attractions for spectators. Shaun White would be amused.
Finally, with the coming of the 1908 ski season, Minneapolis ski jumpers would get their own ski jump. Plans were announced December 6, 1908 to build the highest slide in Minnesota two blocks west of Keegan’s Lake in Golden Valley. The slide was planned to be 90-feet tall and cost about $1,000. The goal, the Tribune reported, was to “put the sport before the public in such a manner that interest will equal Duluth enthusiasm and the range towns…Minneapolis with its population of old-time enthusiasts, should take to this sport at once.” The new slide was being built by a new organization, the Twin City Ski Club. What the new club may not have anticipated was that the slide was soon to be on public property — in a Minneapolis park.
On December 27, 1908 the Tribune announced that the club would hold its first competition on January 1 at “Glenwood Park.” The park board was putting the finishing touches on the biggest land acquisition in the history of Minneapolis parks by adding nearly 500 acres, most of it in Golden Valley, to the existing Glenwood Park. The new park included Keegan’s (Wirth) Lake and the Twin City Ski Club’s slide. (For more on the history of Glenwood or Theodore Wirth Park visit the park board’s history pages.)
The club announced that the slide and scaffold were in first-class condition and that snow had been cleared from Keegan’s Lake so that people wanting to watch the ski jumping could also have a skate. Nearly 4,000 people watched the competition and the winning jump of 104 feet. Two days later another jumping event was held that drew some of the best ski jumpers in America, including the reigning national champ, John Evensen of Duluth. Evensen won in front of a crowd estimated at 8,000.
The success of yet another ski competition got the Tribune revved up again. “Probably no other winter sport has attracted so much attention as has the skiing game which made its debut in Minneapolis this winter. There have been ski tournaments held in this city before this winter, but the sport locally in the past has been limited to the club member and no concerted bid has been made by its devotees for the patronage of the public,” the paper surmised on January 10, 1909.
But even with the park board in the picture, prospects for better skiing facilities or programs were not very good. On February 22, 1909 the Tribune reported that the ski slide was going to be removed. “As the Minneapolis park board has secured the land now occupied by the slide at Keegan’s Lake, the scaffold will have to be removed during the summer and this will doubtless be the last tournament held on the hill,” the paper reported. It added that the Twin City Ski Club planned to find another hill superior to the short, steep hill at Keegan’s Lake. For some reason, which is not documented in park board records, the ski club was not done in by park board ownership of its ski jump site. The next winter, the Twin City Ski Club continued to hold competitions at Keegan’s Lake — although records do not indicate if the slide was relocated. The photo of the ski slide in the 1911 annual report raises some suspicion, because it does not appear to be on a very steep hill.
The Julius Blegen Award Goes To …
The Minneapolis Ski Club established itself as a competitor with the builders of the Keegan’s Lake slide when it constructed an even bigger slide at Mount Pilgrim, farther north in Golden Valley. The club inaugurated its new slide January 1, 1910. Other than reports of a strong wind that limited the distance of jumps, the most notable news from the competition was that the winner of the gold medal in the amateur class was Julius Blegen. It was the first of three jumping competitions won that winter by Blegen. The Minneapolis Tribune of February 7 noted, after Blegen had won a contest in St. Paul, that he was “a new arrival in the country and is considered one of the world’s best ski-runners.” Blegen was also credited in newspapers that winter with making two successful double jumps and at least an attempt at a triple — three skiers jumping together. But Blegen is better known as the U.S. 15 km cross-country champion in 1911-12 and as the coach of U.S. skiers in the 1932 Winter Olympics. The award given each year by the United States Skiing and Snowboarding Association (USSA) to the person who contributes “outstanding service to the sports of skiing and snowboarding” is still known as the Julius Blegen Award.
Blegen’s emergence as a force in skiing was one of the only good things to come from the Mount Pilgrim ski jump. Just three weeks after Blegen’s first win there, the tall slide blew down. It was not only quickly rebuilt, but extended. The Minneapolis Tribune called it one of the “best in the nation” before another tournament later that winter. But as always the success of skiing in Minneapolis was short-lived. After just one more season of use, the Mount Pilgrim slide was found blown down yet again in July of 1911. The newspaper cited evidence that the steel cables that supported the slide had been cut.
The fall of the Minneapolis Ski Club’s slide at Mount Pilgrim was apparently too much for local skiers to bear. The club announced plans to build a new steel slide, but the Tribune reported a “crisis” of “no interest” from skiers on January 14, 1912. Jumpers hadn’t shown up at meetings to discuss a new slide, which led the Tribune to comment, “If the riders fail to do this the club will forsake the sport for this winter at least and probably for all time.”
By the next winter, the paper declared that local ski jumpers had abandoned all hope. They had been unable to generate interest in a new ski slide and were calling off all plans. The Tribune reported that the St. Paul ski club was also giving up. Interest in skiing had just dried up. And it appears that the lack of interest extended beyond just ski jumping. When Virginia, Minnesota hosted the national ski jumping championship in February 1914 it had to cancel a cross-country race coinciding with the jumping contest due to a lack of entrants.
All we know of the slide at Keegan’s Lake after 1910 are the pictures in the park board’s 1911 annual report. The park board was proud enough of the jump to devote two pages of photos to it in 1911, then ignore it as if it never existed. In his 1913 annual report, park superintendent Theodore Wirth suggested putting a toboggan and ski slide in Riverside Park, but nothing came of it. That was the only reference to skiing in Wirth’s annual reports until 1921.
To be blunt, the park board and Wirth had higher priorities than ski jumping over those ten years. Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles, Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake were being linked; bath houses were being built on Calhoun and Glenwood Lake; at Lake Calhoun and Lake Nokomis wetlands were being dredged into lake and dry land; and a parkway was being built from Cedar Lake through Glenwood Park to Webber Park, not to mention around Lake Calhoun. Skiing was not even a priority for the new enlarged Glenwood Park, where there was a public clamor for the creation of a public golf course, an amenity that potentially had a greater appeal than a ski jump or cross-country ski course. Another priority that likely had a more limited appeal was the creation of bridle paths. (Several park commissioners were horsemen and Wirth was always sensitive to his bosses desires.)
Throughout the 1910s newspapers continued to carry reports of skiing, but they were always about events elsewhere, never Minneapolis, and in the reports of ski contests throughout the region, never was a team of Minneapolis skiers mentioned, although teams from Fergus Falls, Glenwood, Red Wing, Duluth, Virginia, and Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula towns were nearly always cited. Meanwhile, Ragnar Omtvedt of Chicago set a new world record of 192 feet in a jump in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 1916.
The next Minneapolis ski story in the Tribune didn’t appear until February 20, 1920, when the paper ran a piece about a group of Girl Scout ski jumpers who were presenting an exhibition at Glenwood Park. (Take that International Olympic Committee!) That was quickly followed by other stories that indicated an interest in skiing had not disappeared completely. On March 1 the Tribune reported on a park board-sponsored class to teach kids how to ski jump. The class was taught by members of the “Municipal Ski club” and attracted several hundred people. In fact, so much interest was shown that the park board decided to hold a ski meet the next week. The article also mentioned that about 15 women skiers turned out for the classes. Some of them may have been among this group of skiers featured in the park board’s annual report the following year. The article also announced that a meeting of all interested in joining a ski club was to be held in the Mayor’s reception room that week.
But the item of greatest interest in the Tribune report was that a few of the boys who attended the class worked up the courage to take jumps off the “big slide.” So! Despite lack of mention in newspapers or park board records, some slide still existed in Glenwood Park nine years after it had last been heard of.
Ski Jumping, Fancy Skating and Golf
The next November, as a new ski season approached, the park board hosted a meeting of the Minneapolis Ski Club to make plans. The club selected a hill, near the golf course clubhouse, where it hoped to erect a 50-foot-high scaffold and smaller slides too. On December 25, 1920 the Tribune reported that the park board had called a meeting on the next Tuesday for everyone interested in forming a “Municipal Ski and Fancy Skating Club.” It’s not clear if fancy skaters turned out for the meeting, but enough skiers must have shown up to make a difference. A day after the proposed organizational meeting, Theodore Wirth asked the park board to spend $800 from its 1921 budget to build a new ski slide in Glenwood Park. The park board approved the expenditure unanimously and park board secretary J. Arthur Ridgway remarked that skiing would become a “permanent feature” in the park board’s winter program.
Construction of the new 50-foot scaffold was completed in February 1921. With the park board firmly behind the new skiing program in Glenwood Park skiing finally became what Ridgway predicted: a permanent feature of the winter program. On January 8, 1922 the Tribune reported that the Minneapolis Municipal Ski Club, “the first of its kind in the country,” had more than 200 members, which also made it the “largest club of its kind in the United States.” In the first meet of that year, the senior event was won by — Julius Blegen.
The ski club announced that its goal was to host the 1923 National Ski Meet, which it did. In preparation for that meet the park board agreed in December 1922 to contribute $1,500 toward the cost of new 100-foot steel ski slide also near the golf clubhouse. The remainder of the cost of the $4,500 slide was guaranteed by members of the Odin Club.
The importance of the golf clubhouse and the golf course in the park board’s commitment to the ski facilities can’t be over-stated. The park board had finally built a nine-hole golf course at Glenwood Park in 1916 after years of dithering. The course was a huge success leading to a second course at Columbia Park and, in 1919, to the expansion of the Glenwood course to 18 holes. One improvement that Theodore Wirth championed in Glenwood Park was a clubhouse for the golf course — at least something better than the warming houses moved from skating rinks to the course in the summer. In 1917 he had proposed a clubhouse designed to resemble a Swiss Chalet, perhaps a bit of nostalgia from a man who had emigrated from Switzerland in his 20s. Wirth likely calculated that the golf course was a better bet to get a chalet clubhouse if it could be used year-round instead of just during the golf season. An active winter sports program served the purpose of maximizing the impact of park board spending on a golf clubhouse.
But the golf course likely served skiers in another way, too. I hadn’t thought of it until I read an undated newspaper clip about Carl Erickson in a scrapbook. The article, written sometime in 1949, was about Erickson’s retirement from the employ of the Minneapolis park board after 28 years as the “hill captain” at the ski slide in Glenwood Park. While the article focused on Erickson’s contribution to ski jumping — the headline called him “Ski King” — it also referred to his other job: the rest of the year he was the greenskeeper of the Glenwood Golf Course. It was in that position that he was approached by (again!) Julius Blegen and other jumpers in 1920, he said, about holding a jumping tournament on the golf course. He eventually became a confidant of the great ski jumpers of his time, the Haugen brothers from Chippewa Falls, Hans Hansen, Casper Oimen and Carl Howelsen. “These vets toured the country,” the article claimed, “and took Carl along just to have an expert give the slide a look-see for defects before the meet.”
Carl Erickson Picks the Best Skiers of His Time
Asked to name the best skiers he had seen, Carl picked Torger Tokle, who should be on everybody’s all-name team. Torger Tokle came to the U.S. from Norway as a nineteen-year-old in 1939 and immediately started winning all the best jumping competitions in the eastern U.S. He was even featured in an article in Time magazine in 1941. After winning 44 of the 48 meets he entered and breaking records everywhere he jumped, Tokle enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the soon-to-be famous 10th Mountain Division. Tokle died in 1945 in the assault on German fortifications in the mountains of Italy.
After Tokle, Erickson picked Barney Riley, a skier from Virginia, Minnesota who seems to have accomplished much less on the national scene than Anders and Lars Haugen and Julius Blegen. Perhaps Riley stood out in Erickson’s memory because, really, what was an Irishman doing among all those Norwegian jumpers anyway?
The combination of Theodore Wirth wanting to build a clubhouse and Carl Erickson, the golf course greenskeeper, championing ski jumpers, not to mention a winter job for himself, was probably influential in getting the park board to commit to a skiing program.
With the success of the 1923 national championships, Glenwood Park also secured the official trials for the 1924 U.S. Winter Olympic team. The trials were held in January, 1924 and led Theodore Wirth to write in his 1924 annual report, “The prospects are that the Olympic winter sports games will be held in Minneapolis in 1928 or 1932.”
While that prediction did not materialize, with the park board’s involvement, the skiing program took hold and gradually expanded beyond Glenwood Park. By 1929 the park board’s annual report stated, “A few years ago it was rather unusual to find a native-born American taking part in the major ski tournaments. This is not the case now, as we are developing skiers by the hundreds on our junior and senior slides.” Notably, the language of the report still considered skiing to mean jumping. By 1930, park board reports listed five ski slides in parks: 2 at Glenwood, and 1 each at Columbia, Powderhorn and Minnehaha.
Over the years the ski program at Glenwood (Wirth) Park expanded to include downhill runs, extensive cross-country trails, even snowboarding facilities. Curiously, Minneapolis never hosted another national ski jumping championship after 1923, although both Red Wing and Duluth hosted the national championships twice after that. Perhaps even odder is that Minneapolis didn’t produce a national ski jumping champion until John Balfanz in 1964, followed by Jay Martin in 1968 and Jerry Martin in the 1970s. Jay Martin was among those who attempted to save the big jump at Theodore Wirth Park in the late 1970s to no avail. The park board determined that it was too old to be safe anymore and too expensive to replace.
Today the greatest skiing events in Minneapolis parks focus on the other half of the Nordic combined: cross-country racing, not jumping. As luck would have it, those marvelous hills west of Bryn Mawr in Glenwood Park are even better suited for modern-day cross-country skiing than they are for ski jumping. And they are more heavily used than they ever were when the jumping scaffolds stood taller than the trees.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
Post script, January 17, 2012: A post card image of the Keegan’s Lake ski jump and a description of it from Field and Stream magazine are posted at PostCardy. Worth checking out.
© David C. Smith