Ferguson Ridge: Farmer ingenuity affects evolution of ski area

Eagle Cap Ski Club members and friends get together for some fun and entertainment.

Last week we published the first part of a series on the history of skiing in Wallowa County where we covered the very beginnings of the Eagle Cap Ski Club from 1939 thru to the '60s. Then, Harold Klages shared the direction and work over to Tom Butterfield whom was president for a number of years until Gardner Locke got involved. At that time, Ted Winchel (new blood), had been joined-up and taken an active role in the operations with the existing members. These four Harold, Kirk, Tom, and Ted, were the main "spark plugs" of the organization whom without the lift would never operate.

One of the things that one might consider interesting about these times in the valley is that the economy was terrible. Yet, people still found it affordable to contribute time and energy toward this local skiing venture. For Ted there was the possibility of renting or selling sports equipment thru the ski area, but put some much into it, he still could never hope to break-even. For the rest, it didn't matter what commodity prices were in the agricultural sector, because they never considered spending money as a good alternative to their problems on the ski hill or farm.

All the same, above average "wheels of progress" started to turn and what most might consider "unlikely things to succeed" started to take place, lets rejoin the story:

In-Between Years

Our family became involved with the ski club sometime around 1976. The facilities included the rope tow at the end of Ski Run Road, a small warming hut, a ticket shack, a classic Klages cook wagon, and a very old snowmobile with lots of issues. In 1977 Joe Ehrler discovered in a publication an ad for a used T-bar lift at the Schwitzer Basin Ski Area in Idaho. Tom and Joe jumped in to the flying club's little Cessna, with Harold at the stick and flew up and made a deal to buy the thing for $10,000 and struggled back home.

In the next few weeks Tom, Harold, and his son Alan took their farm trucks up to Schwitzer and hauled the various pieces of the T-bar Lift back to Joseph. There Gary Holmes provided space for them store it at the airport. One had to wonder if there was even the slightest idea what the future held for the ski area at this point.

The rope tow was still driven by the drive mechanism from Anthony Lakes but the original 1939 Plymouth engine had been replaced by a 1942 or 1946 model, with many "Klages Rebuild." This motor was in use even at the new area until about '99, when Alan replaced it with a 250 Chevy six cylinder motor, which has been quite an improvement.

As was originally designed, the rope ran over several automobile rims mounted on poles to keep the rope off the snow. There was a trick to passing these wheels without getting smashed knuckles. One had to let go the rope momentarily and let the momentum of an uphill assent carry you by before grasping the rope again on the other side of the wheel. It's a little amazing that more people didn't get into trouble. Like the time Judy Wandschneider got 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 Hockett's new Christmas sweater, almost dragging him into the motor drive but a safety gate shut things down. The only thing badly hurt was the sweater.

There is 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" type tie-down. At the top it was hooked 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 invented, designed, and built sort of resembling the bolt from a bolt-action rifle (this was the new, improved version replacing the rat trap). When the safety wire was pulled it tightened a string, which tripped a mechanism and cut the ignition to the engine then allowed a bucket of rocks to fall and through a small cable pulled on a brake to the drive shaft, stopping the momentum of the tow. There was also a wire safety gate a few feet from the motor shack, which would stop the motor if someone went through it (didn't or couldn't get off the rope in time).

Tom Butterfield was president of the club at that time and he and a few club members such as Ted Winchel, Kirk Hayes, and Harold Klagas seemed to do most of the work. Grace Bartlett and Ann Hayes took tickets very often. There were about 35 members in the club and they got to ski free. Non-members had to pay 50 cents for a days ride on the lift, which included all your kids under the age of 18. It was a pretty relaxed atmosphere and I don't remember anyone asking if they were a member or how old they were. I guess it was assumed that if you liked to ski you were OK and would pay if you could. On top of all this fun, often Tom would come up and run the tow at night. At first, kerosene lanterns were hung from the trees to ski by. Later a few electric lights replaced the lanterns and Tom would bring his portable generator up to provide the 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 us, were essentially useless. Everything we tried to do would either not start, gets stuck, or breaks. 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 knife blade, which would be used as a screwdriver.

Membership meetings became more and 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 location, develop Wing Ridge near Salt Creek Summit, or an area near Ferguson Ridge.

This concludes another edition of Gardner's "History of the Eagle Cap Ski Club." Hope you enjoyed it enough to read another segment next week.

In the meantime, be aware that in order to operate a great ski area such as "Fergie" on the locals' pocket book, we keep needing a large variety of input and innovations from people who like to be activist in entertainment. So, join in the many who like to make an appearance at the base of the Wallowa Mountians, Ferguson Ski Area and participate in another year of incredible skiing or boarding. Join us at 12 o'clock Sunday, weekly at the area 8 miles east of Joseph up Tuckerdown Road. Call 432-5252, 432-2401, or 426-6581.

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