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Houghton life in the 50s: From hockey to skiing

In addition to hockey, my other winter sport was skiing. With the immense dependable snowfall that “blessed” the Copper Country, Michigan Tech’s Mont Ripley was, and is, a great resource — especially for the kids.

There was also an early ski area with rope tow in east Houghton, on the slopes near Vivian’s Field, just west of Clark Street. But Mont Ripley was it. In the 50s, the Mont had just a few rope tows — a small gas engine put-put for the bunny slope — and two electric-driven, high-speed rope tows that could get you all the way to the top at a fast clip if you could manage to hang onto the rough one-inch rope.

Built after World War II, the rope ran on pulleys made from old wire wheels from Model A’s. (In recent years, in California, I had a coincidental run-in with an older Houghton native, Gene Knaebel, who recalled that he and his brother worked on construction of the original rope tows, probably in the late 40s.) The only chalet was an old arch-roof military “Quonset” building, appropriately called “The Hut.”

It was crudely furnished with a couple old twin beds and a few picnic tables. The small office/ concession sold hot drinks, candy and some basic ski equipment – and tickets. A 25-cent ticket was a piece of colored paper stapled to your clothes.

Season passes ran $10 – 15. After a day on the slopes, we’d all simply stash our skis in a community storage room off the back of the Hut. Locks were unnecessary as theft was unheard of.

The skiers’ restroom was an outhouse. Amazingly there were enough outdoor lights for night skiing on Wednesdays. It was all managed by Tech’s “ski professor,” Fred Lansdorf.

For us advancing young skiers, nothing was more valuable than the annual Weber’s Ski School, sponsored by Cliff and Rip Weber of Weber’s Sporting Goods store in Houghton, and usually held during our Christmas vacation.

Instructors were the older high school skiers, whose only compensation was a nice group dinner at Gino’s hosted by the Weber’s. Ski racing was a varsity sport at several local high schools and Houghton High was always competitive. Standouts like Chuck “Cyclone” Ferris and his sister, Barb, and Naomi Foley went on to national and international fame after cutting their teeth on Riley.

In addition to hockey and skiing, basketball was the other winter sport that kids had to pick from, as most kids did only one winter sport. The big event of the 50s was Houghton High winning the 1955 Class C State Championship at the 12,000-seat Jenison Field House in Lansing.

They headed into the state final with a 22-0 record under the coaching of John L. Gaffney and defeated Wayland High School for the prize. With stars like the Einer Anderson, Ralph Hurley, Juan Mentink, Tom Prout, and Mel Kananen, they brought home the big trophy riding into town on a wintery night atop the Houghton fire truck, to a reception at the high school gym.

To me, as a fourth grader, this was Super Bowl stuff. What a great memory. (An interesting side note, reported by the Gazette, was that while downstate in the playoffs, the Gremlins received over 40 telegrams of support from Houghton fans, no doubt sent from the grand old Western Union office on Shelden, where the big wall clock was the official time we’d all set our watches by.)

The actual Christmas holiday was the high point to any kid’s winter, and it gave us the special thrill of staying up late to attend midnight mass at St. Ignatius, officiated by Father Tom (Drengatz) and his assistant, Father Weber, accompanied by the St. Ignatius school choir under the strict control of Sister Madonna.

Walking home in the very late hours of a cold Christmas eve is among the many experiences I’ll never forget.

Epilogue

After being gone from Houghton for over 50 years, my strong memories persist — they’re indelible. I only hope that the Copper Country is still as magical a place for today’s kids as it was for me. A place where kids could be independent – free from the coddling of over-protective parents – and free to roam and create their own forms of entertainment – with a heavy dose of ‘outdoors’ balancing out their indoor play.

While it will never again be the “Mayberry” that I knew and loved, I hope Houghton still offers young people opportunities to achieve balance in their lives in a community of supportive adults.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Roger Smith now resides in California and can be reached at: rdsmith2009@gmail.com.

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