How Skiing Came To The South

01/16/2016  |  Randy Johnson
Travel USA
image

Fifty-three years ago skiing came south and here’s the beginning of the story. The rich story of Blowing Rock Ski Lodge, later Appalachian Ski Mtn., reveals more than just how dramatically the ski industry has progressed. It also shows the monumental impact skiing has had on the entire economy and culture of the High Country and Southern Appalachians.

The people of skiing’s first half-century are quite a cast of characters, a truly colorful group. Many are no longer living. Others are reaching the twilight of long lives.

When Blowing Rock Ski Lodge debuted in December 1962, West Virginia and Maryland had already seen several small ski areas come and go, some with primitive snowmaking. Virginia’s Homestead had birthed the South’s first “real” ski area in winter 1959-60, with successful snow making and a five-star resort atmosphere that electrified the media and helped raise Southern awareness of skiing. Winter 1961-62 saw two more Southern slopes open. Tom Alexander started Cataloochee east of the Smokies in Maggie Valley. He launched North Carolina’s first ski area in part to provide year-round work for summer employees of his dude ranch. Tennessee’s Ober Gatlinburg also opened that winter with a new wrinkle — the city purchased the land and leased it to local stockholders wanting skiing on the western side of the Smokies.

Skiing was on the South’s radar when Blowing Rock Ski Lodge opened in December of 1962. Surprisingly, there seems to have been little if any coordination among all these efforts.

Granted, Sepp Kober, ski area founder at the Homestead, later named the Father of Southern Skiing, was encouraging anyone he could — he was repping everything from ski clothes to chairlifts. Also, John Mathewson, representative of Connecticut’s Larchmont Snowmaking company, was making the rounds, meeting people, sparking interest. It appears a lot of great minds were thinking alike.

The big snows of 1960 didn’t hurt — when 83 inches of snow fell in Boone in February and March. Before the snow melted, members of the Boone Chamber of Commerce announced that the following winter, commercial winter sports would be available. The chamber appointed a committee of Alfred Adams, W.H. Gragg and Wade Brown to study winter tourism opportunities. Even as National Guard teams were just going home after ferrying food to snowed-in mountain residents, Brown staged a ski photo on the Boone golf course. George “Snowman” Flowers’ photo was widely circulated on the UPI wire service (TK).

How deep was it? “That 1960 snow was bad enough,” says Watauga High School’s legendary former basketball coach and teacher, Carter Lentz, who lived in one of only two houses on what would become “Ski Mountain.”

Lentz remembers, “We had a basketball goal up at the house there, and I have a picture of my 10 year-old son standing on the snow with his head up through the basketball hoop.” The 1960 snows had an impact. Spencer Robbins says, “After that snow, we noticed families started coming up from Hickory and Lenoir and Statesville and looking for a hillside to sled on. It was getting people’s attention that there was a place for winter activities up here.”

The following year in 1961, Blowing Rock Ski Lodge was under construction.

Surprisingly, the man who dreamed up that ski area—M.E. “Bill” Thalheimer — seems to have been completely uninvolved with the Boone chamber effort. Thalheimer made one of the great unheralded contributions to Southern skiing. The story of how this non-skier came to create the High Country’s first resort is so unlikely, it borders on unbelievable.

The Alabama native and Charlotte businessman (via West Virginia) had independently initiated the ski resort project with a letter requesting snowfall data from the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce. It appears he’d made regular visits to the Blowing Rock area in the summer. His son, Mark Thalheimer, says, “My dad was familiar with Mayview Manor, and he thought Blowing Rock had real cachet.” Bill Thalheimer reportedly thought “Blowing Rock was the best known resort between Newport, Rhode Island, and Fort Lauderdale.” But that doesn’t explain how after years in completely unrelated businesses — he was the owner of a West Virginia movie theater chain and a television film producer — Thalheimer just woke up and, boom, said, “I’m going to sell stock and help invent skiing in North Carolina!”

Thalheimer’s daughter, Lynne Thalheimer Nachman, remembers her father’s epiphany but can’t explain it. In the fall of 1960, recently married Lynne was having dinner with her husband, father and stepmother at a Chinese restaurant near her home in Manhattan. She remembers, “Daddy just casually mentioned that he was moving to Blowing Rock and going into the ski business. We were totally shocked!” Before that conversation in New York, no one in Thalheimer’s acquaintance, or anyone interviewed for this article, remembers when or if Thalheimer ever said, “I’m fascinated by skiing in the South and think I can make it work.”

“That was the first we’d ever heard of this,” Nachman says. “He said that he’d looked into skiing in the South and that he thought it could be done and he was going to do it.”

The rest is history.

How the Resorts Rate

Onthesnow.com rated all of the Ski Resorts in the southeast and here’s their 2014 top ten list.  Onthesnow.com rated all of the Ski Resorts in the southeast and here’s their 2014 top ten list.  http://www.onthesnow.com/

 

  1. Massanutten Resort
  2. Wintergreen Resort
  3. Canaan Valley Resort
  4. Snowshoe Mountain
  5. Wisp Resort
  6. Appalachian Ski Mountain
  7. Timberline Resort
  8. Beech Mountain Resort
  9. Wolf Ridge Resort
  10. Cataloochee Ski Area
Comments & Ratings
rating
  Comments

There is no comment.






Skip Navigation Links.