By LORAINE ANDERSON
Record-Eagle associate editor
TRAVERSE CITY — Ryan Ness and Molly Tompkins could have done a lot of things over their summer break.
Instead, the two high school juniors spent much of their free time researching the history of Hickory Hills for a book to help celebrate the city ski area's 60th birthday next year. Their volunteer research and writing will continue through much of 2011.
They originally planned to do a simple chronological history but quickly realized Hickory Hills is more than a community ski area. It's a Traverse City trail marker that shows what community spirit can create and maintain.
It holds a ski record of its own — one that adds a few twists, turns and ruddy-cheeked color to the timeline.
Hickory Hills survived, unlike other municipal ski areas founded in northern Michigan in the 1950s. It has operated continuously every winter since 1951 under the same owner — the City of Traverse City. It still has the same mission — to offer affordable skiing to individuals and families.
No one has exact figures, but possibly 30,000 people have learned to ski there over the last six decades, according to estimates culled from city, Grand Traverse Ski Club and Traverse City Record-Eagle Ski School files.
Hickory Hills also has recorded a few firsts for Traverse City. It was the first Michigan ski area to have lights, to offer night skiing and to host a high school race under lights.
Traverse City High School in 1954 became the first in Michigan to offer skiing as a varsity sport when Michigan made it a scholastic sport. Skiing also was the first varsity sport that allowed girls. The state's two first ski champions in 1954 were from Traverse City — Larry Bensley in downhill and Barbara (Sherberneau) Loveland, also the first-ever female state champion.
Ness and Tompkins, who honed their skiing at Hickory as youngsters, started research, interviews and collecting photos in April after their mothers approached them with the idea. By early August, they'd each spent about 200 hours.
"I've skied there since I was 5 and thought it was great idea," said Ness, now a member of Traverse City West Senior High's team. "It also was the time to do it. People who remembered its early days are getting older. The history needs to be written down."
Tompkins, a Traverse City Central High School ski team member, said raising money for Hickory is important, too. Profits from the book will go for improvements to the ski area, which today has eight ski runs, five rope tows and five kilometers of cross-country ski trails. The 125-acre Hickory Hills ski area also includes a terrain park for snowboarders and freestyle skiers.
Ness and Tompkins aren't working alone. Their moms are book project advisers and have helped form a several-member advisory committee to guide them. Ness is the son of Laura and Ed Ness and Molly the daughter of Maureen Madion and Tim Tompkins.
Larry Bensley, who had a front seat to much of Hickory Hills' early history, is on the advisory committee. His father, Loren, is considered the father of skiing in Traverse City. A city commissioner and downtown businessman, Loren Bensley was the leading advocate for a community ski hill in the late 1940s.
The city's first hill, CI-BO, was sponsored by the city (CI) and local school board (BO). It opened Dec. 29, 1950, on a small hill owned jointly by the city and the Traverse City Board of Education behind the former Flap Jack Restaurant along U.S. 31 South across from what is now Meijer. Local interest in skiing outgrew CI-BO from the moment it opened and planning began for Hickory Hills, which opened in December 1951 on 12 city-owned acres at the end of Randolph Street on the west edge of town.
At the time, the only place to buy ski equipment in Traverse City was at local hardware stores.
The founders' vision from the beginning was to provide area children and families the opportunity to ski at a nominal cost, Bensley said.
Other strong supporters included: Buck Williams, city parks and recreation director; civil engineer John Norton, who designed the ski runs at Boyne Mountain and did the same at Hickory Hills; local Dodge dealership owner Swede Johnson; Pete Batsakis, owner of two restaurants and the U&I Lounge; and Jack Bensley, who organized and ran weekly races.
Hans "Peppi" Teichner, a ski instructor and racing enthusiast, also played a big part. He was instrumental in the Traverse City school decision to turn skiing into a varsity sport. An Olympian skier and former member of the German national team, Teichner came to the Grand Traverse region in 1948 to manage the development of Sugar Loaf, a now-defunct ski resort in Leelanau County. He died in 1957 at age 49. In 1967, he was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming as the father of skiing in northern Lower Michigan.
The fledgling ski hill quickly became the training ground and home hill for school-age skiers with the help of the new Grand Traverse Ski Club and the Record-Eagle/Kiwanis Ski Schools. Volunteers and community fundraising helped build the lodge in the mid-1950s as well as expand and widen ski runs in 1957-58. Snowmaking came to Hickory in 1985.
Although Hickory no longer serves as the primary training site for the area's high school teams, Central and West continue to use the hill for practices. Additionally, the area middle school ski teams practice regularly at Hickory and busing is provided by the Grand Traverse Ski Club from Traverse City West and East middle schools three days a week for practice. The ski club continues to offer low-cost ski lessons six days a week for area youth. The Sunday race program brings approximately 125 young ski racers — plus their parents, siblings and volunteers — to Hickory once a week.
Last winter, almost 13,000 people skied at Hickory Hills, bringing in revenues of $82,950. Expenses totaled $201,326, but the city's general fund subsidy has dropped from $130,437 in 2007-2008 to $75,374 last winter because of increased revenue and improved operations.
In 2009, the Grand Traverse Ski Club contributed more than $100,000 for a new snowmaking machine. The contribution included a $40,000 Rotary Charities grant and a $10,000 Schmuckal Foundation gift. Over the years, the ski club has contributed to or purchased grooming equipment, the original snow-making system and a storage facility. It also uses net profits from its Annual Ski Sale — about $20,000 — to keep its ski programs as affordable as possible.