Eagle Cap Ski Club and Ferguson Ridge Ski Area History
Excerpted from recollections of Gardner Locke, written in 1993
Edited by Jon Rombach
I dedicate this story of the Eagle Cap Ski Club to all the people who made it happen. ~Gardner Locke, 1993
It started when a group of people who liked to ski would appoint a volunteer, called “The Captain,” to locate a good place to ski each Sunday. They would all gather at this chosen spot and ski all day, picnic and have a great time. In order to ski down you had to climb up. If a packed slope was wanted, everyone spent time packing it with their skis.
A big step forward was made in 1939 when a permanent location was selected and a rope tow constructed. The spot was on Stanley Hill, about two miles south of Joseph and a little south of where the Buhler Ranch is now. The tow was a continuous rope motivated by a Model A Ford engine. In 1948 the tow was moved to a slope at the end of what is now Ski Run Road.
In 1950, the Model A engine was replaced with a Plymouth motor and rope drive assembly purchased from Anthony Lake. The tow was relocated to a better part of the slope, to the south. The ski club was also incorporated, with members: Clyde Fisk, Jack Cathcart, Max Hayes, Warren Boner, Jack Dixon, Stan Farris and Lester Ruud.
(Note: A “Captain’s Diary” kept during this time is now in the Wallowa County Museum.)
During the 1970s, facilities at the Ski Run Road site included the rope tow, a small warming hut, a ticket shack, sort of a cook shack and an old snowmobile. In 1977 Joe Ehrler saw an ad for a used T-bar lift for sale. Harold Klages, Tom Butterfield, and Joe jumped in the flying club's little Cessna and Harold flew them up to Sweitzer Basin in Idaho, made a deal to buy it for $10,000, and struggled back home. On the way back they ran into a dust storm and had to turn back to Pullman to wait until the storm quieted down.
In the next few weeks Harold and Tom, with Alan Klages, took their farm trucks up to Sweitzer and hauled the various pieces of the tow back to Joseph. Gary Holmes, who operated the airport, said it could be stored there.
The rope tow was still driven by the Anthony Lakes drive mechanism, but I think the engine had been replaced with a more modern 1942 or 1946 model which was still in use into the 1990s after several Klages overhaul jobs.
On the way up, the rope ran over automobile wheels to keep it up off the snow. There was a trick to passing these wheels without getting smashed knuckles. When passing, you had to let go of the rope momentarily and let momentum carry you by before grasping the rope again on the other side. It’s a little amazing that more people didn’t get into trouble. I remember Judy Wandschneider getting her sweater caught in one of these contraptions, but luckily someone got the tow shut off before she became a pinwheel. One time the rope captured Clyde Hocketts’s new Christmas sweater, almost dragging him into the motor drive, but a safety gate shut things down before the only thing badly hurt was the sweater.
No doubt about it, the tow was definitely “homemade.” However, the club members who put it together had the safety of the skiers in mind. A safety wire paralleled the up-rope. At the bottom of the hill it was hooked to a “dead man” and at the top to a heavy spring attached to the motor shack and then drawn tight.
A string was connected from the end of the safety wire to a trip mechanism, which Harold Klages invented and built and which sort of resembled the bolt from a bolt-action rifle. This was the new, improved version which replaced a rat trap.
When the safety wire was pulled it tightened the string, which tripped the mechanism, which cut the engine and allowed a bucket of rocks to fall, which pulled a brake on the drive shaft to stop the momentum of the tow.
Tom Butterfield was president of the club at the time (late 1970s) and he and a few club members such as Ted Winchel, Kirk Hayes and Harold Klages seemed to do most of the work. Grace Bartlett and Ann Hayes often took tickets.
There were about 35 members and they got to ski free. Non-members had to pay 50 cents. It cost $150 for a family to join, which included kids under 18. It was a pretty relaxed atmosphere and I don’t remember anyone asking if you were a member or how old you were. I guess it was assumed that if you liked to ski, you were OK and would pay if you could.
Every so often, Tom would come up and run the tow at night. At first, kerosene lanterns were hung from trees to ski by. Later a few electric lights replaced the lanterns and Tom would bring his portable generator to provide power. There is nothing quite as exciting as skiing through the shadow of a tree at 10 below zero, not knowing what might be lurking there.
Everything took special skill to operate. Newcomers to the club, like myself, were essentially useless. Everything we tried to do would either not start, get stuck, or break. The old timers had the magic touch. They could hook a 12 volt battery into a 6 volt system without blowing things up. Take a carburetor apart and fix it in a roaring blizzard. Or thaw a frozen fuel line in ways you wouldn’t normally think of.
The most used tools seemed to be a heavy hammer or rock, visegrip pliers and a pocket knife with one broken blade which could be used as a screwdriver.
Membership meetings became more concerned with where and how to put up the T-Bar lift. The first question was, “where?”
There were three schools of thought on this: expand the present Ski Run Road location; develop Wing Ridge near Salt Creek Summit; or develop the area near Ferguson Ridge.
Ski Run Road
Serious disadvantages here. In order to accommodate the T-Bar, the slope would have to be extended into adjoining property. Complaints about the ski operation were already creeping in, and cabins were being built along the ski slope. It did not look good for the future.
Good location for a ski area and many members were in favor of it. On the down side, it was further away and owned by the Forest Service. Many meetings were held with the Forest Service to try and find out what their requirements were.
After at least a year, it became evident that their way was not our way. They visualized a first class ski area with things like flush toilets right off the bat, while we wanted to do a bootstrap operation.
Boise Cascade owned an area near Ferguson Ridge that Tom, Harold and Ted had scouted and thought would make a good ski area. At first, Boise acted as if they would be inclined to lease the area to the club, but then something happened and they got cooled off and decided they wouldn’t.
Enter Dave Monschke. As happened many times, you were at the bottom of a pit with no way to get out and someone kicked in a ladder. Dave, with others, owned Joseph Forest Products, which included the old stud mill, Joseph Log Homes and other timber interests. He liked the idea of a community ski run and said he would try to trade some timber land they owned for the Ferguson Ridge property and make some arrangement with the club so they could use it. He did and it happened.
The Ferguson Ridge development started in 1983. The first step was to find out what the terrain was like and where to put the tow and the runs. The area was so covered with brush and small trees you couldn’t see much. As a first stab at it Ray and I and Tim Locke went out there one day with a compass, a 100’ tape, hand level and a 20’ rod. We started at a place that Ted thought was about the bottom of the hill and headed due south for lack of better information. As luck would have it our line took us right up a ridge to the top and we now had a rough idea of what the hill was like.
The next Sunday Kris Bales and I decided to start clearing the slope. Kris cut down brush and small trees with his chain saw and I tried to drag the debris away with a little John Deere cat the club had bought. This was a ridiculous undertaking resembling the drop in a bucket. The little John Deere kept walking out of its tracks and I ended up spending more time putting tracks back on than dragging stuff away.
Later in the day a jeep load of bearded, timber cutting type-looking people drove up in a cloud of dust and watched for a while. Finally, they asked what we were trying to do and they said they would be back next Sunday to help. Before dark several other jeep loads of people showed up with the same result.
Next Sunday we had a crew. Dan Stein and Jim Russell came up with a TD-9 tractor and swarms of men, women and children arrived – most with chainsaws. The place crashed, screeched, whined and banged like a major construction zone. One free day of skiing was offered for each hour a member worked, and for every two hours a non-member worked. Tom Butterfield showed up with his tractor and loader and almost turned around and went home again. He said it looked like an impossible, uncontrolled mess. But he dove in anyway and in a few weekends some runs and a place to put the rope tow began to appear.
It was decided to make our own road instead of using the neighbors logging road. McCully Creek and three small streams had to be crossed. Mike O’Rourke scouted a possible way through Monschke’s property and Joel Svendsen and others cleared a road.
The club bought two large culverts from the county and the county people put them in McCully Creek during a weekend and put some rock on top to hold them. Culverts for the three streams just appeared along the road one day and a bunch of us put them in one evening in a snow storm.
Harold bulldozed out a parking area at the foot of the slope and since everything was freezing up, the road and parking lot would be usable for the winter.
Moving the Rope Tow
On a cold, blustery fall day in 1983, the rope tow and facilities from the old area were moved to Ferguson Ridge. People watching this strange procession creeping through Joseph wondered if maybe some old-fashioned carnival had finally decided to move out.
Part of the motor shack was dragging along the road, but most everything made it to Ferguson Ridge and was dumped in the half-frozen mud at the bottom of the slope. The motor shack was put on skids and dragged with a tractor up to the top. Ted Winchel had the job of seeing that the rope tow got installed. Tom Butterfield, Harold Klages, Dan Stein and Jim Russell were instrumental in getting the runs cleared.
Charlie Kissinger saw that the warming hut got put into shape. Many people helped. The slopes were covered with families hand-piling and burning slash every weekend. Harold Klages completely overhauled the tow motor in time for the ski season.
This organization was unique. At a board meeting, someone would suggest a certain thing should be done, then follow it up with the magic words, “I’ll do it.”
Also about this time, some new members such as Charlie and Paul Kissinger, Dan Stein and Jim Russell got involved and it seemed to inject new life into the club. A feeling of optimism was generated and infected the community. People did things to help the project even if they didn’t ski.
The winter of 1983-84 was the first ski season at Ferguson Ridge and it was a good one. Ben Banks, the manager of the gondola at the lake, volunteered to pack the slope whenever it was needed with their snow packer. The county said they would plow snow off the road when they could. They did this many times early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Mac Huff showed up at one of the meetings and suggested there should be a ski patrol. He organized it and has been an indispensable part of the operation ever since.
Lucky Snow Packer
We realized by the summer of 1984 that a regular snow packer would be needed and began making inquiries. They cost lots of money, even old ones. The gondola at the lake had been sold and the new owners had no use for the Thiokol snow packer that came with it. We let them know we needed one and one day when they needed money, one of them met Dan Stein in Joseph and quoted a price he thought was about right. We scrounged around, got the money together and bought it. It was a lucky thing.
There began to be a feeling that Joseph Forest Products, who owned the land, might not own it soon. Ten club members formed a corporation, called 10-280 Corp. because there were ten members and 280 acres.
A notice in the paper said the Sheriff would stand on the courthouse steps and auction off this land on February 25, 1985. 10-280 Corp. managed to get a loan and buy the property.
Installing the T-bar
1985 was the year the T-bar was put in. One thing for sure, we learned while doing.
At some point the T-Bar parts had been moved from the airport to the old stud mill owned by Joseph Forest Products. We noticed that some of the cross pieces to the towers had gone missing while in storage and I still look under farm bridges to see if I can’t spot them.
We moved the whole conglomeration out to Ferguson Ridge, spread it out and tried to figure out how it went together. At the stud mill we had noticed a pile of cylindrical towers that once belonged to a lift at Anthony Lake and thought they would be easier to install than the double-leg towers with missing cross pieces. A deal was made and we hauled them away too.
Now we discovered we were missing outriggers to the new towers. Then, one day, while talking to Dave Churchill, who ran the gondola at the lake at the time, he mentioned there was a bunch of stuff under the skating rink at the lake. He thought some of it might go to the old Anthony Lake lift and we could have it if we’d haul it away.
Sure enough, there were the outriggers. Dave even helped us and threw in an old can of castor oil to lubricate the cable – it is very expensive stuff. We used it after straining out dead mice. It worked well, but was smelly.
Surveys and Customs
Vern Russell and Jack Burris surveyed an accurate profile of the hill where the lift was to go. It was sent off to Rene Thoeni in California who had a contact in Austria or Switzerland that had a computer program to figure out the lift configuration. They sent back information as to where the towers should go, the angle of the towers from vertical and number and type of sheaves for each tower.
Rene helped us a lot in obtaining parts for the lift. The Doppelmayr Co. in Canada was also very helpful even though they could tell right away we were not big spenders. They called one time and told us they had a bunch of obsolete wooden T’s, the same kind we had, and they would let us have them cheap. We went up there and got a pickup load and had a time getting back through Customs, since Customs didn’t know what to charge us to get them back in the U.S. because nowhere were T-bar T’s listed in their book.
Ralph Swinehart helped lay out the system and designed the concrete foundations for each tower.
When the first foundation was poured, the ready-mix trucks came before everything was quite ready. Harold Klages was down in the pit welding in bolts for the tower while concrete was being poured in and kids and other people were frantically throwing in large rocks. He was pretty well covered with concrete by the time he was finished.
To erect the towers Hillocks lent us their truck crane and pick-up with a cherry picker on it. These were chained together and to Harold’s cat, all in a row, and let down the hill to get the towers up.
One Saturday a lot of heavy road building equipment showed up. It was Moffitt Bros. Construction and they said they heard we needed the road and parking lot fixed and where was our gravel pit? Well, we didn’t have one that we knew of, but they found one and went right to work. By Sunday evening they had the job almost done and came back the following Wednesday to finish up. When they build a road and parking lot- they don’t fool around.
A used generator with a World War II Cat diesel engine was located in a Portland junk yard. The person we bought it from was very sympathetic and threw in some electrical gear and four huge batteries. John Hillock spent many hours, donating his time, and hooked it up.
Harold rigged up a remote speed control which utilized a pulley he manufactured out of melted beer cans.
We were in business. A beer can was strapped to the first T assembly clamped onto the cable and run all the way around to make sure it would get back. It did. Much jubilation. This was February 22, 1986.
Charlie decided it would be a good time to build a lodge. He got a group of volunteers together and with materials mostly donated by Boise Cascade, they had one put up in a couple weekends.
In 1989 Doug McDaniel donated a lot of building material which had been given to him by the Forest Service for the use of his land during a large forest fire. It was used mostly for building a barn for the snow packer and improving the lodge.
That year an old but good ex-chicken house was brought in from the Elk Mountain area and fixed up for a shop. Jack Snyder wired it up and rigged it to have lights.
Every year improvements have been made. There are many people that have not been mentioned, like Bud Zollman who ran Bud’s Hardware, who either did not charge us for stuff or charged us the wholesale price.
Gathering at the lodge at Ferguson Ridge after a day of skiing, there is no greater pleasure than to listen to a small group recalling strange happening of the past. It is not unusual for this small group to grow as people gather around to listen and laugh – people that have nothing to do with the club. People from Portland even.
I dedicate this story of the Eagle Cap Ski Club to all the people who made it happen.
Gardner Locke, 1993