Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 13, 2012

TC celebrates Hickory Hills' 60th


TRAVERSE CITY — Growing up, Larry Bensley hopped in the car and took the short trip from his family's Seventh Street house to Hickory Hills Ski Area.

"Ten minutes and you're there. Fifteen minutes we had our skis on, and 16 minutes we were coming down the hill," he said.

His father, Loren, was among Traverse City leaders who helped open the city-owned ski hill in January 1952. This year, the city celebrates Hickory Hills' 60th anniversary with a museum exhibit, history book and other events.

Hickory's past provided local skiers such as Bensley with "some of my most memorable moments" -- competing on racing teams and skiing under bright lights during long, dark winter nights. Hickory's future could usher in changes, brought on by present-day budget concerns.

Hickory's past

Old black-and-white photographs depict Hickory's early skiers in lumberjack plaids and Alpine sweaters, gripping ski poles and -- very often -- grinning widely.

The ski area was named for the hard, durable wood used to make the sport's old equipment.

"(In the) early days it was the hickory skis and bamboo poles," said Bensley, who now lives in Omena.

He learned to ski at the old Sugar Loaf in Leelanau County, but his father had an idea to develop a ski hill closer to home, similar to a Steamboat Springs, Colo. hill he had read about.

"He thought, as he looked out to the west of Traverse City at all the hills ... 'We can do that, too,'" Bensley said of his father's vision.

The community started with a small ski hill at another site, but skiing proved so popular the operation soon moved to its present location -- Hickory Hills. Bensley was a teenager when Hickory opened and he recalled how hardware stores began to stock skis to meet the new demand.

Hickory Hills, located off Randolph Street in Garfield Township, now has eight ski runs. The ski area remains a city treasure to those who learned to ski there or swoop down its slopes on Sunday race days.

Its history is chronicled in a new book by Traverse City high school students Molly Tompkins and Ryan Ness. Their book "Light the Night" includes interviews with dozens of Hickory skiers and photographs from the Bensley family collection.

Ryan's mother, Laura, served as president of the Grand Traverse Ski Club, based at Hickory. Preserving the hill and its history became something of "a family project," she said. Supporters raised donations to pay for the book's publication so sale proceeds could go to the new nonprofit Preserve Hickory, created to support the ski area.

The book, and the nonprofit, "heightened awareness" for the hill and highlighted the importance of "keeping it open for future generations," Laura Ness said.

Residents and visitors can learn more about Hickory Hills and its early years at the History Center of Traverse City's new exhibit Winter Sports Spectacular. The exhibit runs through March 1 and features hundreds of photographs, antique snowmobiles and bobsled, skis, apparel and "everything to help folks reconnect" with memories of "growing up with Hickory Hills," said the center's Executive Director Bill Kennis.

Hickory's future

The city has tried to trim expenses at the hill by closing earlier at night, raising the cost of ski passes, cutting employee overtime and other personnel changes.

Still, Hickory required a city subsidy of $85,426 last year. City officials hope to find more ways to save money and continue to work with the ski club. City Manager Ben Bifoss praised the ski club as a "wonderful" partner and said the club eventually could take over the hill's operations, though the city would retain ownership of the 125-acre property.

The ski club's involvement and volunteer effort has helped, said Mary Ann Moore, a city commissioner who serves on an advisory committee charged with studying Hickory's operations.

"The idea is to get the subsidizing down," Moore said. "It had been getting out of hand."

Costs exceeded ski hill revenues by as much as $130,430 in 2007-08. Moore said some city taxpayers who don't ski "have resentments" over the ski hill's cost to the city. But, she said the hill is "important" to the community and has value beyond downhill skiing. Hickory also offers cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and disc golf.

Officials considered adding a snow tubing operation to increase revenue. But a study estimated a tubing park and an adventure center building would cost $1,028,677. That proposal isn't feasible for now, officials said.

Ness, who also serves on the advisory committee, said it's key to view Hickory Hills "as a city park, not just as a ski hill."

"Hickory has changed with the times, and I think that's part of its success," Ness said. "We would love to see that hill open for another 60 years."