As the demolition of the former Telemark Lodge continued for a second week, the Record dug into the long history of the lodge, a recreation destination for thousands of people for 40-plus years and an epicenter of cross-country skiing in the upper Midwest starting with the first American Birkebeiner in 1973.
The book “Telemark Memories” was published by Deb Nelson in 2002 — the 55th anniversary of the resort’s first development by entrepreneur Tony Wise. The lodge, with its massive stone fireplace, lobby, large convention rooms, 200 hotel rooms, ski shop, bars, restaurants, nightclub and theater, was built at a cost of $4 million in 1972.
Wise hired Herb Fritz, a student of legendary Wisconsin architect Frank Lloyd Wright, to render the concept of the star-shaped resort centered around a soaring 55-foot-tall fieldstone fireplace. The lodge opened in December 1972, together with cross-country ski trails designed by U.S. Olympic coach Sven Wiik.
Prior to the lodge’s construction, there was a ski chalet, according to “Telemark Memories,” as alpine skiing grew in popularity. Wise “kept Telemark at the peak of prestige in the Midwest by making it more than just a place to ski.
The colorful chalet with its Rathskeller bar, ski shop, heat lamp sun deck, restaurants and fireplace was the spot to be. In the swinging ’60s, it even had a dance club named ‘The Lovin’ Roomful.’”
“People just loved that chalet,” said longtime Cable business owner Tom Rondeau, 92. “In the spring, there was a big (snow-melt) pond in front of it and people would come down the hill and try to sky through the pond. People would sit on the chalet sun deck overlooking the pond and have a good time.”
Wise also had local Native Americans come and “make maple candy in the snow,” Rondeau said.
The ski chalet burned down in 1977.
After Wise had a huge coliseum with tennis courts built next to the lodge, he moved the entertainment into that facility, “and that kind of hurt him a little bit” financially, Rondeau said. The coliseum also hosted boxing and pro wrestling matches and events, including the American Birkebeiner opening ceremonies and awards banquet.
Rondeau said the area had its first snowless winter in the mid-1950s. The ‘60s saw Telemark pioneer man-made snow, creating at the time the world’s largest snow-making system.
Rondeau said the lodge’s hotel rooms “were not built on the spot. Those were built in the Twin Cities and hauled in, two units at a time on a truck.”
Telemark “drew a lot of people from the Twin Cities to the area,” particularly on weekends, Rondeau said. “Many of them built second homes here.”
“I have to give Tony credit; he was a good promoter,” Rondeau said. “He brought a lot of money and good will to the communities. Telemark helped the community grow a lot. They hired a lot of local people. People (visitors) got acquainted and found out what a nice area we had. A lot of conventions were held” at Telemark.
“The Birkebeiner started in Cable,” Rondeau added. “It brought in a lot of people from all over the world.”
“Tony would never allow snowmobiles, but snowmobiles are a big thing,” Rondeau added. “I hope they (new Telemark property owners) would have in mind doing those things, winter and summer. I hope they will promote the hills a little bit, with tubing, snowboarding, maybe even a toboggan slide. I also hope they take on the (adjacent golf course). That’s a big draw.”’
‘We sold fun’
Jerry Berard of Hayward was the lodge’s general manager for approximately 25 years. During high school, he worked part time at Telemark Resort. In 1954, he married Joan, became the first full-time employee at Telemark and joined the National Guard.
In a speech to the Sawyer County Historical Society in July 2018, Berard said, “The first thing we did in the morning (at the crowded Telemark ski chalet) was help Bill Hotze put the Coke bottles outside so they would get cold. Then at night, we would bring them back in so they didn’t freeze.”
He recalled that Telemark had four rope tows on its ski hill. “Some were long,” Berard said. “We used to say ‘Come ski at Telemark — your arms will be six inches longer by the end of the day.’ Eventually they had T-bars and chair lifts. It wasn’t much of a hill to start with — 370 vertical feet, with the longest run 2,500 feet. Skiers are used to something a little bigger.
“But really what we sold was fun,” Berard said. “People had fun at Telemark. They were guests, not customers.”
In 1960-61, “there was no snow at all,” he said. “Tony (Wise) made the big push for getting snowmaking equipment through SBA (Small Business Administration). He had everybody writing letters, and had no trouble getting (funding). Telemark had the largest snow-making (system) in the world at that time. Between snow-making and snow grooming equipment, they always kept good snow at Telemark and still sold fun.”
The number of downhill skiers at Telemark peaked around 1970, as high as 2,000 per day, Berard said. The ski area had 200 employees.
The 200-room lodge was built and opened in 1972. At that time, ski shops in the Twin Cities reported they were selling more cross-country skis than downhill skis. Jim Bauer, Fred Goold and Berard went to Colorado to meet with Sven Wiik and talked him into coming to Telemark to lay out a cross-country program.
“Sven was saying ‘You must have a race,’” Berard said. “Between him and Tony, they started developing thoughts of the Birkie.”
Wiik and Bob Treland laid out a 55-kilometer course between Lumberjack Bowl in Hayward and Telemark, the same distance as the Norwegian Birkebeiner. The first Birkie race was in 1973, and the skiers finished at the base chalet amidst a crowd of 1,500 downhill skiers there.
It “was almost a non-event,” Berard said.
Berard served as chief of race for five Birkies. Telemark had about 400 employees at its peak, he said.
Gary Crandall of Cable and his spouse Sara Balbin operated the Creative Touch shop in Telemark’s west wing for 25 years. He also managed the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival from an office at Telemark for many years.
“While I was never an employee at Telemark, its operations, good, bad or not at all, impacted what I did in my professional life for decades,” Crandall said.
“The entire community has waited a long time for a successful redevelopment of the Mt. Telemark property,” Crandall said. “Through several owners over decades of mismanagement, Telemark Lodge and the associated property had fallen in great disrepair,” he said.
“While he had no intentions of operating the resort, we were fortunate that Clif Louis had acquired the property and had the financial wherewithal to retain it intact over his ownership,” Crandall said.
“How fortunate for the community that the American Birkebeiner has a vision for the property that over time will bring a positive focus back to the name Telemark,” he added.
“Everyone has mixed feelings about the lodge building being torn down,” Crandall said. “Matter of fact, the property would not move forward unless the lodge in its greatly deteriorated condition was removed to make way for new sustainable and successful development.
“While the building may be going, going, gone, all of our fond memories of Telemark Lodge will remain in our hearts forever,” Crandall said. “It is upon this new foundation, with a new vision that better days are on the horizon.
“I hope the community supports and encourages the sensible redevelopment plans of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation,” Crandall added. “They have a solid track record of setting goals, raising funds and completing their projects in the community. With commercial partners, community support and continued good decision making, the ABSF is well suited to redevelop the Telemark property to a world class recreational facility that will benefit the area for many years to come.”