It’s All Downhill

Home & Family, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Outdoors
on December 24, 2000

“The sight of a snowflake used to make my heart flutter,” says Coy Hill, 73, of Ishpeming, Mich. “It was beautiful to fly through the air on skis.”

A three-time national ski jump champion, Hill retired his skis in the 1970s but still is a member of the 114-year-old Ishpeming Ski Club, one of the oldest organizations for skiers in the United States.

Winter sports have been a part of life in Ishpeming (pop. 5,420)a Native American word for “high place” or “heaven”since Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish immigrants settled the town in the mid-1800s and brought their passion for snow skiing, ski jumping, and tobogganing with them.

Carl Tellefsen, born in Norway in 1854, was among them. He also was the founding president of the National Ski Association of America (now the U.S. Ski Association) and onetime president of the Ishpeming Ski Club.

Skiing, particularly ski jumping, has changed greatly over the years, but Ishpeming always has been a center for the sport and home to such ski jump champions as Hill and the “Flying Bietila” brothers.

“When we were young, I think everybody skied a little bit,” says two-time Olympian Ralph Bietila, 80, an Ishpeming native. “It was easy for us to be skiers because most of our friends skied.”

Bietila, along with his brothers Paul and Walter, and cousin Coy Hill, were renowned for their skiing prowess from the 1930s through 1970s and are honored in the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum was established in Ishpeming in 1953 to chronicle the history of the sport and to honor its champions.

Ishpeming is, however, more than a winter wonderland for skiers. The community also has a rich mining heritage closely linked to the early development of the town. Iron ore was discovered in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1844, and Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. has been mining it since 1850. The company employs 2,000 local residents and is the town’s largest employer.

Cleveland-Cliffs also has played an important part in Ishpeming’s long skiing history. The company has leased land to the town for $1 a year since ski jumps were constructed there in 1925. The acreage is home to miles of ski trails and to Suicide Hill, where athletes from Northern Michigan University’s U.S. Olympic Education Center train. Suicide Hill also has been the site of an Ishpeming Ski Club ski jump competition since 1926. The 113th annual competition is scheduled Feb. 23-25.

Cleveland-Cliffs recently reclaimed the land to expand mining operations and offered $250,000 and acreage to develop new ski trails near Al Quaal Recreation Area north of town. Meanwhile, the Ishpeming Skiers Preservation Association is immersed in raising $2 million to relocate the Suicide Hill jumps and construct new training facilities downtown.

The “new” Suicide Hill will be even better than the old one, says Mary Jacobson, secretary of the Ishpeming Ski Club, because it will have state-of-the-art facilities that will attract young skiers from across the state.

“It’s kind of like a blessing in disguise,” Jacobson says. “(With the new facility) we’ll be able to build our junior program.”

Training the next generation of skiers is essential to continuing Ishpeming’s skiing legacy. Take 19-year-old Rhys Hecox, for example. Hecox, who lives in nearby Marquette, began his ski jumping career at the age of 6 because of an Ishpeming Ski Club invitation to try the sport. Today, he is a member of the U.S. Ski Team and a possible contender in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Hecox says of Suicide Hill: “I consider them my home jumpsthe only place that I can even come close to calling home.”

That familial affection is reciprocated by townspeople, who eagerly follow Hecox’s career in the sports pages of the Marquette Mining Journal. Hecox is among a handful of promising young skiers who got their start in Ishpeming, though the local ski club is confident its youth program will blossom with Suicide Hill’s relocation.

“We haven’t had an Olympic contender since 1980,” Jacobson says. “We’re all behind him (Hecox) because he’s our hope.”