Sunday Feature: A Half-Century of Boone Area Skiing, Appalachian Ski Mtn.; Starting and Sustaining Southern Skiing: Celebrating Its 50th Birthday on December 15

Published Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

 Dec. 2, 2012. Appalachian Ski Mountain is entering its 51st year and celebrating the 50 years of being open during 2012. This Sunday, we feature a prior story from High Country Magazine about them.

By Randy Johnson

Left to right, Grady Moretz, wife Reba, daughter Brenda and son Brad, now general manager of Appalachian Ski Mountain.

2012 is a landmark year in the history of how skiing came South—the 50th anniversary of the Boone area’s first ski area.

That rich story of Blowing Rock Ski Lodge, later Appalachian Ski Mtn., reveals more than just how dramatically the ski industry has progressed. It also shows the monumental impact skiing has had on the entire economy and culture of the High Country and Southern Appalachians.

The people of skiing’s first half-century are quite a cast of characters, a truly colorful group. Many are no longer living. Others are reaching the twilight of long lives.

Setting the Stage

When Blowing Rock Ski Lodge debuted in December 1962, West Virginia and Maryland had already seen several small ski areas come and go, some with primitive snowmaking. Virginia’s Homestead had birthed the South’s first “real” ski area in winter 1959-60, with successful snowmaking and a five-star resort atmosphere that electrified the media and helped raise Southern awareness of skiing. Winter 1961-62 saw two more Southern slopes open. Tom Alexander started Cataloochee east of the Smokies in Maggie Valley. He launched North Carolina’s first ski area in part to provide year-round work for summer employees of his dude ranch. Tennessee’s Ober Gatlinburg also opened that winter with a new wrinkle—the city purchased the land and leased it to local stockholders wanting skiing on the western side of the Smokies.

Skiing was on the South’s radar when Blowing Rock Ski Lodge opened in December of 1962. Surprisingly, there seems to have been little if any coordination among all these efforts.

Granted, Sepp Kober, ski area founder at the Homestead, later named the Father of Southern Skiing, was encouraging anyone he could (he was repping everything from ski clothes to chairlifts). Also, John Mathewson, representative of Connecticut’s Larchmont Snowmaking company, was making the rounds, meeting people, sparking interest. It appears a lot of great minds were thinking alike.

A Role for Old Man Winter?

The big snows of 1960 didn’t hurt (when 83 inches of snow fell in Boone in February and March). Before the snow melted, members of the Boone Chamber of Commerce announced that the following winter, commercial winter sports would be available. The chamber appointed a committee of Alfred Adams, W.H. Gragg and Wade Brown to study winter tourism opportunities. Even as National Guard teams were just going home after ferrying food to snowed-in mountain residents, Brown staged a ski photo on the Boone golf course. George “Snowman” Flowers’ photo was widely circulated on the UPI wire service (TK).

How deep was it? “That ‘60 snow was bad enough,” says Watauga High School’s legendary former basketball coach and teacher, Carter Lentz, who lived in one of only two houses on what would become “Ski Mountain.” Lentz remembers, “We had a basketball goal up at the house there, and I have a picture of my 10 year-old son standing on the snow with his head up through the basketball hoop.” The ‘60 snows had an impact. Spencer Robbins says, “After that snow, we noticed families started coming up from Hickory and Lenoir and Statesville and looking for a hillside to sled on. It was getting people’s attention that there was a place for winter activities up here.”

The Leading Man Steps on Stage

The following year in 1961, Blowing Rock Ski Lodge was under construction.

Surprisingly, the man who dreamed up that ski area—M.E. “Bill” Thalheimer—seems to have been completely uninvolved with the Boone chamber effort. Thalheimer made one of the great unheralded contributions to Southern skiing. The story of how this non-skier came to create the High Country’s first resort is so unlikely, it borders on unbelievable.

The Alabama native and Charlotte businessman (via West Virginia) had independently initiated the ski resort project with a letter requesting snowfall data from the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce. It appears he’d made regular visits to the Blowing Rock area in the summer. His son, Mark Thalheimer, says, “My dad was familiar with Mayview Manor, and he thought Blowing Rock had real cachet.” Bill Thalheimer reportedly thought “Blowing Rock was the best known resort between Newport, Rhode Island, and Fort Lauderdale.” But that doesn’t explain how after years in completely unrelated businesses—he was the owner of a West Virginia movie theater chain and a television film producer—Thalheimer just woke up and, boom, said, “I’m going to sell stock and help invent skiing in North Carolina!”

Thalheimer’s daughter, Lynne Thalheimer Nachman, remembers her father’s epiphany but can’t explain it. In the fall of 1960, recently married Lynne was having dinner with her husband, father and stepmother at a Chinese restaurant near her home in Manhattan. She remembers, “Daddy just casually mentioned that he was moving to Blowing Rock and going into the ski business. We were totally shocked!” Before that conversation in New York, no one in Thalheimer’s acquaintance, or anyone interviewed for this article, remembers when or if Thalheimer ever said, “I’m fascinated by skiing in the South and think I can make it work.”

“That was the first we’d ever heard of this,” Nachman says. “He said that he’d looked into skiing in the South and that he thought it could be done and he was going to do it.”

The rest is history. Bill Thalheimer did successfully start the High Country’s first ski area, today one of the South’s foremost ski resorts under the name Appalachian Ski Mountain.

Nachman says, “The person that we see today in the history of the Blowing Rock Ski Lodge is so unlike the father that I grew up with. West Virginia was just not the place to be, so we moved to Charlotte. Before then he’d been pretty predictable, easy going. He became a whole new person that my brothers knew that I never knew—kind of a renaissance man. To my sister and me, he was always a Southern gentleman. He was like two people, a Jekyll and Hyde. I don’t know where the ski phase came from. It’s just so weird.”

Son Mark Thalheimer says, “He must have quietly thought about it for years—he was not a spontaneous person. But, I never could understand the logic behind it. There was no skiing in our family. He never physically moved three feet on skis.” Mark and Lynne say their father may have wanted what so many people still find in the High Country. “He always loved being around people and being in a town where everybody knew him,” Lynne says. “He never liked Charlotte. He was definitely looking for something.”

“He just loved people,” Mark says, “and the ski industry may have seemed familial to him.”

Skiing is a small town of sorts, a family of people who find the passion for it. “Skiing is a family,” says Brad Moretz, Appalachian Ski Mtn.’s general manager, whose father Grady Moretz eventually took over Thalheimer’s dream. The Moretzes ought to know. In the 40 years since Brad’s father—also a non-skier—became owner of the resort, virtually the entire Moretz family has become involved in a resort aimed at the family-friendly ski experience.

Getting It Done

Thalheimer’s idea was based on selling stock, but because the idea was so speculative, the North Carolina secretary of state required that shares couldn’t be sold for more than $1 a piece and that the certificate say “this is strictly a speculation.” Stock sales capped out at  $305,000, and Thalheimer completed the project by borrowing another $85,000. Thalheimer, president and manager of the resort, was such a sharp businessman that the amount of the loan was the exact difference between stock sales and his original cost estimate for the project.

Forty-five acres were purchased from Grover Robbins (Thalheimer was ever after sorry that he didn’t own more developable land around the slopes). He engaged the L.A. Reynolds Construction Co., of Winston-Salem to grade the resort’s slopes and parking lots and the V.L. Moretz & Son Lumber Co. for building materials. The project succeeded in selling stock, but because the resort was required to hold all funds in escrow until $200,000 had been collected, major suppliers were “encouraged” to take payment in stock. “They were having trouble selling stock,” Grady Moretz remembers. “I didn’t realize it, but I was doing the financing by bringing material up here and not getting paid for it. When it came down to pay day, they said a lot of the other contractors were taking their pay in stock. When they asked, ‘would you take some,’ I didn’t think long, but I thought yes, I guess we could, would, and did.” Thus contractors Herb Reynolds and D. Grady Moretz, Jr., became members of the board of directors and received stock in the ski lodge. Over the years, both families were sucked further into the ski industry. At the time, Moretz says, “I’d never been involved in the tourist industry. I guess you could say I didn’t know what a tourist was.”

Grading and Getting Set

For a while the goal—unrealized—was to tie Cataloochee as North Carolina’s first ski slope, and the entire enterprise got ahead of itself with signs promising skiing in late 1961. That didn’t happen, but work was underway. Bill Thalheimer chose the slope “because it was oriented to keep snow,” said Mark Thalheimer. The huge graders set to work sculpting the main run and the easier slope at left, still much the same today. The flat parking lots that flank the slopes were originally a hilltop that was dozed flat. The road getting in was atrocious—much of the road into the ski area was brand new. “My next door neighbor was an N.C. DOT official,” says Grady Moretz, “so I’d impose on him and say ‘couldn’t you get a motor grader over there and get the ditches smoothed out?’ He would.” Nevertheless, access still wasn’t easy. “Before [the] ski area opened, the road in was horrible,” said Ann Jones, Bill Thalheimer’s secretary. “I drove the Thalheimers’ little station wagon into the ditch one day because of the mud. And that was on a dry day.”

Still grassy, the area’s first ski slope being smoothed and cleared for runs.

“The road getting in here wasn’t 221 or 321—it was crooked as a black snake,” says Moretz. “We went to Governor Sanford for help, and he said we do have a fund for farm to market roads. He considered this would be an industry that would justify the expense, and it got better.” Cement mixers descended the main hill placing footers for the Hall T-bar, while a used rope tow went up on the other slope. The snowmaking pond was dug. (Later, when it filled up with water, Thalheimer was said to have pulled a bottle of bourbon from his desk and drank a toast.)

Now, primitive air compressors and water pumps were installed, much of it secondhand. Son Mark Thalheimer says that’s a tribute to the unrecognized business sense of a man who eventually lost control of his dream. “He knew how to run a very lean shop,” Mark Thalheimer says. “He knew how to start with secondhand equipment, like the rope tows and air compressors and stuff. He did that with his later cable business. He’d say, ‘If I keep my expenses low I know I don’t have to have a big income.’” (In later years, Thalheimer started Boone Cablevision.)

Frank Coffey, chief engineer of Tweetsie Railroad, installed the snowmaking at Appalachian and later went on to slopes at Hound Ears and Beech Mountain. The lodge site was prepared. A massive concrete slab was poured the night before temperatures dipped below zero. Fires had to be built all around the perimeter to keep it from freezing. The lodge is where Grady Moretz’ influence could be seen in 1961—and can still be seen today. Some of the beautiful white pine lumber for the lodge was logged from Moretz land and prepared at V.L. Moretz Lumber Co. in Deep Gap (named for Virgil Lafayette Moretz, Grady’s grandfather. It’s still visible today beside U.S. 421).

“They wanted to use this wavy edge white pine siding on the building, and I said, ‘I’ve got a sawmill cutting some right now.’ It takes large logs because it laps over. It sorta acquired the name of Blowing Rock siding.” Some of the major timbers look hand-hewn because “They took an adze and roughed up the beams. You can still see that rough-hewn look in the dining room,” Moretz says.

Grady remembers Ab Hayes being among the first employees. The Hayes family “here in Watauga were stone masons, who lived for several years in Durham to build Duke University,” Moretz says. “The Hayes family laid the stone for that big fireplace in the lodge. The field stone came off of Sugar Mountain.”

The European Influence

Thalheimer couldn’t have pulled off a ski area without at least one indispensable ski pro—and that man was Tony Krasovic (cra-za-vic). Like so many other people instrumental in skiing throughout the South—and the United States—Krasovic was European. The earliest Ski Lodge stock prospectus heaped praise on the Innsbruck, Austria, native. In hindsight, this man so little remembered in the Boone area played a bigger role than has ever been acknowledged, much less imagined.

Krasovic had been racing in Europe with Sepp Kober “in what you’d now call world cup races,” Krasovic says. Both decided to go to the United States and surprisingly, Krasovic came over the year before Kober. The owner of Sugar Bowl Ski Area in Lake Tahoe, California, had seen Krasovic race and hired him as ski coach for the University of California at Berkeley. Then Krasovic found himself in Sun Valley. “One of the first American movies I saw after the war was Sun Valley Serenade. At that time I said, somehow I have to get to America. After Sugar Bowl, I got to Sun Valley, finally, my dream.”

There Krasovic became friends with Stein Erickson, met Ernest Hemingway, taught Gary Cooper’s family to ski and coached Gretchen Fraser, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1948 Olympics.

In 1960, Krasovic was in Colorado Springs running the slopes and directing the ski school at The Broadmoor. Kober had made it to the U.S. in 1957 to teach at Stowe, Vermont, and by 1960, when he called Krasovic, Kober was at The Homestead working hard to invent Southern skiing. Kober made the connection for Bill Thalheimer, who “called me up,” says Krasovic. “He was wondering if I was interested in opening a ski area in the South, the first one that far down South in Blowing Rock, NC. I met him in Charlotte.” Krasovic moved to Blowing Rock “when the only thing there was the parking lot.”

Krasovic was a classic, the very icon of a European ski instructor: tall, athletic, dark-haired, with a ubiquitous turtleneck that seemed to defy the cold while others shivered. “We were so taken by Tony,” says Jones. “Talk about a nice looking man. He was such a handsome guy.” Krasovic had other qualifications—he’d been an experienced snowmaker at The Broadmoor. “Tony was hands on with the snowmaking,” says Jones. “Bill depended on him tremendously to guide him and help in that first couple years.” Krasovic knew John Mathewson, of the Larchmont Snowmaking Company, who came down to train a few local snowmakers. “We opened with the snow in good shape,” says Krasovic. “We hired some guys from the Teacher College who had skied before, trained them for the ski school.”

In 1962, Krasovic and Kober became the only Southerners present at the founding of the National Ski Areas Association at a meeting held at the Broadmoor, Krasovic’s former employer.

Making the High Country’s First Snow

After some training, the resort’s local snowmakers became an effective team. One of those men was Clyde Ellison. Now in his mid-80s, Ellison could pass for the early 60s. He’s a short, powerfully built, former bosun in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine, a Jack Lalane kind of character who “took all the weight lifting magazines” and ate health foods long before either were popular. He too noticed Krasovic’s imperviousness to cold. “That first winter we’d be out there freezing to death, but it wasn’t bothering Tony,” Ellison says.

Krasovic laughs at his reputation. “I was just used to Sun Valley, Colorado, and the Alps. NC was just on the border of winter for me,” he says.

It was tough work. “You needed to be on the slope all the time, all night, moving the guns so they’ve cover the slope and not freeze up,” says Ellison. Snowmaking suffered when Ellison left. “I don’t know what they were doing wrong,” Ellison says, “but I know what they weren’t doing—they weren’t staying out there in the cold, which is what you had to do. You can’t make snow in the lodge.”

Ellison remembers, “After a year under those snow guns, I was an Eskimo. And it carried over to the next winter. Making snow, I could live in my trailer without even turning on the heat. We got so good at it, when it was cold—we could really pile it up.”

Wrestling the guns was just a great workout for Ellison. Lentz knew Ellison and says, “We used to have wrestling matches at the high school, and one day these two big old wrestlers come in there. They were big shots. They thought they were going to beat up old Clyde, but they done got a’hold of a bear. Those boys ended up just wanting to get out of there.”

Skiing Debuts at Blowing Rock

“It was so nice to drive in when we finally started to make snow, and see the snow being blown on the slopes against the blue sky,” Jones remembers. “It was gorgeous.”

Indeed it was. Snowmaking had gone well and, “We had a lot of snow those first couple years,” Jones says. Frank Coffey remembered the last T-bar was hung a half-hour before the slopes opened. The slopes opened to huge crowds. “The cars probably backed up to the highway,” says Jones. “The rich and famous came in droves,” Grady Moretz recalls. Colorado’s Vail ski area opened the same year.

There were issues. “Opening day I remember everything being very hectic,” Jones says. “Everybody was telling everybody what to do, but no one knew what to do.”

“One reason for financial problems was lack of knowledge of the ski business,” Reba Moretz says. “At that time, everything about the industry was brand new to everybody involved. There was no way they could anticipate expenses.”

“We have an example of that posted outside the lodge office to this day,” Grady says. “There’s a letter from a refrigeration company offering to make ice to spread on the slopes. They were that naïve. They had no earthly idea—and we didn’t either.”

Those Early Years of Operation

For a new ski area with all new skiers, the early years were relatively uneventful from an injury standpoint.

“There were always accidents every weekend because it was packed,” Jones says. “No horrible accidents, but I’m sure we kept the local hospitals busy.” Even employees got to ski. “There were times when the road was so bad that no one could get up the highways,” Jones says. “We employees loved that because we got to ski. Of course, I was 5-foot-3 and they put me on 6-foot metal skis! And I still loved it enough to learn.”

One of the skiing employees is still remembered. “I don’t think anyone broke a leg except this kid who worked for the ski area,” Krasovic recalled. “Yes, I remember that,” Jones says. “Butch Triplett rented equipment. He was the first employee to break a leg. He had to stay inside and answer the telephone while we went out to ski.” Triplett is co-owner of the Blowing Rock landmark Woodlands Barbecue.

Thalheimer’s second wife Joan “was always here and helpful,” Jones says. “She sold tickets—just a little piece of paper with a number. We looped it through anything we could and stapled it. On weekends we’d have a lucky number of the day. Winner won a lift ticket for later.”

After a few years, Krasovic was followed by another Austrian, Eugene (pronounced “Oigen”) Schuster, a “Bavarian from Munich,” said Krasovic, and another German, Peter Reinecke, both referred by Kober. Reinecke remained in the area for years operating a variety of businesses.

Krasovic took his Southern snowmaking experience to Ski Windham in New York to initiate the snowmaking effort in 19__. He followed that up at Missouri’s only ski area then returned to Austria in 1970 to buy the resort of Seefeld where he and his family eventually owned and ran a resort hotel for 35 years. Now retired, the 79-year-old Krasovic divides his year between Europe and Naples, Florida.

Thalheimer’s Times of Trouble

During the first two years, the ski area did pretty well—made some money—despite there being no ski market. What followed was a Machiavellian nightmare for Thalheimer.

One day a man named Les Cohen (third largest stockholder) showed up on a busy weekend and cashed a check for $2,000 that bounced. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that name,” Mark Thalheimer says. Bill Thalheimer had to dog him to get the money back. Thalheimer had friends on the board of directors who admired him, Moretz among them. But there was another group, one that Cohen had poisoned against him, and they managed to get enough proxies to vote out Thalheimer as manager. Nachman says, “He never recovered from that. He got some strange illness. He was just distraught. He put his heart and soul into it and from what we thought, they just voted him out.”

The third season, a consultant from a Sun Valley-based company ran the area. It’s believed he came from a small Maryland ski area with night skiing, and that third season, Blowing Rock Ski Lodge also added night skiing. In an interesting arrangement, the night concession was sold to the Charlotte Coin Shop—the owner would install lights for half the lift ticket revenue. (Thalheimer had organized it.) At the end of the third season the note came up for renewal, funds were scarce, and the bank called in the loan. But the bank wouldn’t lend money to the group that had staged the coup against Thalheimer. The bank would only renew the note with the support of the original endorsers—men who had personally guaranteed the loan for the corporation. That group supported Thalheimer. One of those was Moretz. Back in power, the group brought Thalheimer back for season four.

Brad Moretz, who’s been studying the Ski Lodge files, says, “The minutes of those meetings tell a fascinating story.” The season started, but on February 1, 1966, Thalheimer resigned. Brad Moretz says, “The written record doesn’t explain why what happened.” Thalheimer satisfied his debt to the bank, but the ski area still owed him money. Speculation suggests that Thalheimer perhaps just couldn’t go on not being paid. Mark Thalheimer says, “My dad used to joke that he had the most expensive wallpaper in America with that stock.” Thalheimer was the largest stockholder—with $35,000.

Management was turned over to Jack Seibert during the rest of winter 1965-66. The slope lost more money, Grady Moretz said in the 1980s, and the following year, Fred Allen became manager. The year after that, 1967-68, the slope was leased to International Speedway for $15,000—the amount owed on the note. There still wasn’t enough money to pay the loans, so the bank again called the note. Moretz, Reynolds and Earl B. Searcy, all original directors, brought in Lloyd C. Caudle and W. Harold Mitchell and bought the Blowing Rock Ski Lodge by paying the bank.

Grady’s Time of Trouble

It could have all gone down the tube, even after all that. After the sale, says Reba Moretz, “Grady had a great group involved, but they were from down the mountain. After the sale they asked Grady, ‘Would you just look after it for us?!’ That was the terminology.”

“The way I looked at it,” Grady says, “if my money’s going to be involved, maybe it’d be good if I did look after it.”

“Bad debt, bad reputation, bad behavior, equipment in bad condition,” that’s what Grady inherited, says Reba. “It was daunting. He had to cope with just about every problem you can imagine in a business.

“Finally on December 5, everything was settled,” Reba says. “It was like the world had caved in on us. The grass had been mowed—and that was it. Grady hadn’t known whether he’d be outbid, so he had to hire every employee in a business he knew little or nothing about. He got the area open.”

Thalheimer had moved on.

“My father was a very private person, but I know he was heartbroken,” Nachman says. “He just loved the ski business. Being a person who believed in people, he just felt like they let him down. He couldn’t get over that. I am very proud of what he was able to do.”

The Take on Thalheimer

Looking back on Bill Thalheimer’s time at Blowing Rock Ski Lodge, it’s apparent most people liked him, especially those working with and for him. “Everyone was equal,” says Mark Thalheimer. “If you were working with him, he didn’t hold people up or down.” Richard Gragg, former golf pro at the Blowing Rock Country Club, tells the tale of when he and Butch Triplett took a ladder up the T-bar and slid down the slope on it. They hit the lodge so hard with the ends of the ladder that it pierced the wall. Thalheimer came out and said, “Well, it looks like you boys will be working to pay off a ladder today.” Gragg remembers, “He never charged us…he was the nicest man I ever worked for.”

It’s also apparent that despite the stockholder rebellions of the time, Thalheimer was a prudent businessman who put the ski area first and actually made money. But ultimately. Thalheimer was in it for more than money. “It wasn’t just the financial reward,” says Nachman. “He loved to make the snow. My husband remembers him coming in and saying, ‘Oh boy, tonight we made snow.’” Though it didn’t last, Thalheimer could take singular satisfaction in being a successful pioneer.

Grady Takes Over

Under the revised ownership, the resort reopened in the winter of 1968-69 with “old wooden skis,” a rope tow, and a new name—Appalachian Ski Mountain. Grady says, “Secretary of State Thad Eure said that since we’d gone bankrupt, we should change the name.” The local name for the area was just “Ski Mountain,” so a Moretz neighbor, the new director of skiing and former ski patroller, Eric DeGroat, suggested, add “Appalachian” to it. “That was original thinking,” says Brad Moretz. “Virtually all other ski areas are named after their mountain or a rock formation.”

French-Swiss Attracts Attention

A significant event in the history of Southern skiing occurred in 1968, when Boone native and former ski patrol director at Blowing Rock Ski Lodge Jim Cottrell met up with Grady Moretz. Cottrell, a Charlotte college instructor, was organizing a physical education course in downhill skiing. He aimed to bring students up to Appalachian to learn to ski over five weekends for college credit. Moretz agreed, and that winter Jim Cottrell, his brother Jones, and a few other novice ski instructors initiated an independent ski school at Appalachian. In all, 114 students answered the call.

The following summer, Cottrell was living in Charlotte next door to a man named Jack Lester. The aging Lester sported a shaved head; an intense, charismatic and driven personality; a flair for the dramatic. He claimed an amazing background. Articles a few years later would say that Atlanta native was the first American to graduate from Australia’s West Point and a former manager for Marilyn Monroe. Lester had met Clif Taylor, originator of the Graduated Length Method (GLM) of ski instruction. He was teaching former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford at Beech Mountain using the short skis when the Austrian ski school director ordered him off the slopes over the public address system.

A New Era in Ski Instruction

Lester was mortified. When he met Jim Cottrell, the French-Swiss Ski College was born. Appalachian Ski Mountain was where Lester would show the arrogant Austrians that Americans would have American ski instructors. No one imagined how successful he would be.

The next winter, 1969-70, Lester and Cottrell launched their business from a card table in the Appalachian Lodge with Cottrell’s group booking concept. Outlandish success followed. The fledgling ski instructors taught thousands of military personnel from the U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy Seals and more. In 1974, French-Swiss affiliated with the new Sports Award Program of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. The school awarded more of the patches for alpine skiing than any resort in the country.

Meanwhile, Lester was doing the promoting. While some newspaper articles called him a huckster, others claimed he was a promotional genius. To prove that, Lester brought Jean Claude Killy to Boone in 1972. Unbelievably, Killy’s first feature film, Snow Job, premiered in Boone during that three-day visit. Killy and Lester, the latter resplendent in his silk ski pants, fur boots and American eagle-embroidered sweater, were the center of a major media event.

Lester’s eventual goal was to franchise the French-Swiss ski school, but he never realized his plan. The following summer he underwent open-heart surgery, and less than a year later, a massive heart attack killed him.

After Lester

Cottrell carried on. In 1976, Cottrell hosted the first North Carolina Winter Special Olympics. Every year since, Appalachian has hosted the Southeastern Winter Special Olympics. In 1982, Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver attended the Southeastern games. 

When Jack Lester died, his style of promotion ceased at French-Swiss. The focus shifted from major media events to Cottrell’s group marketing approach. Lester’s promotions and Cottrell’s methods helped turn Appalachian Ski Mountain and French-Swiss into one of the major creators of the Southern ski market.

The Second 25 Years

“At the end of winter 1968-69,” Grady Moretz says, “I got $5,000 for running the ski area. I put it in the pot for the next season, and some of the partners matched it.”

The partnership continued on good terms for years. “We finally had a really super year,” Moretz says. Boone’s snowy weather had helped start the ski scene—first with the 1960 snows, then again from 1976-77 through the early 1980s, when great snow solidified the industry. The resort had been expanding. Appalachian got its first double chairlift in 1969 and its second, along with a lodge expansion, in 1972. Sadly for all local slopes, three of the top 10 warmest winters occurred between 1968 and 1974. Unlike other High Country slopes, Appalachian relied on skiing rather than real estate and so was able to avoid financial problems during the early-‘70s surge of resort bankruptcies. Moretz became sole owner in 1986.

Along the way, Moretz had discovered how profitable the ski shop could be and asked his wife Reba to run it. Daughter Brenda spent her post-college years in Colorado, working in ski shop retail sales and today heads the retail gift shop side of the resort.

North Carolina’s first quad chairlift was installed in 1984, and another lodge expansion more than doubled the size of the first facility at Blowing Rock Ski Lodge. Two subsequent quads went in, in 1984 and couple years later.

Appalachian would say no to snowboarding until 2000—making it one of the nation’s last holdouts. In a landmark turnaround, Appalachian Ski Mtn. welcomed boarders with Southern ski pioneer Grady Moretz dressed up like the ultimate “rad dude” boarder—and ended up in local papers. Between 1999 and 2009, the resort evolved to a total of 3 terrain parks with more than 60 features and the status of a Burton Learn to Ride School.

In 2001-02, French-Swiss Ski College at Appalachian Ski Mtn. taught its one millionth ski lesson. Major expansion arrived in __ with the construction of Orchard Run. In 2005, Grady Moretz suffered a minor stroke, and Brad took over as general manager. With the entire Moretz family involved and Appalachian Ski Mtn. known as one of the region’s most successful, stable, and appealing ski sites, it’s hard to resist reflecting on the significance of Appalachian and Southern skiing itself.

In a recent conversation with Brad Moretz. Bill Thalheimer’s daughter Lynne said, “My dad felt that there was something important there at the Blowing Rock Ski Lodge and it was eventually gonna be a good thing. It worked, didn’t it, Brad? You’re doing what he envisioned, aren’t you?”

“Yes we are,” Moretz replied. “My family’s put a lifetime into it. It’s a passion.” Nachman replied, “I guess the people who originally backed the idea didn’t have that passion.”

Astounding Impact

How times have changed. Despite the 1960 snows, skiing was an enigma in the early ‘60s. “I didn’t know of anyone who knew how to ski or had ever skied,” says Jones. That soon changed, in part because of skiing’s impact on the economy. “Skiing was the first business to really employ people in the winter other than a few small businesses in Blowing Rock and Appalachian State,” Jones says.

Spencer Robbins remembers those days. “It was tough. In Blowing Rock, you got up in the morning, got your mail, went to the drug store to play a hand of gin rummy or stop at Sonny’s Grill to find out the local news. That’s about it. That’s why I spent winters in Southern Pines—there was nothing to do.”

Jones immediately applied for a job when the slope opened. “It was wonderful. It brought economic activity to Blowing Rock in the wintertime when there was none. Jobs were scarce,” Jones says. “Everyone felt very fortunate to have work and be a part of the beginning of skiing.”

Believe it or not, there was reticence from local businesses. “Blowing Rock rolled up the streets in winter,” Jones says. “It was really upsetting to Mr. Thalheimer that some owners almost refused to open up motels for skiers. Boone was far more interested.”

The local lifestyle has changed, too.

Early on, “I don’t remember my classmates even coming out to ski,” says Mark Thalheimer. “It wasn’t marketed locally. Now there’s a local ski culture—a local tradition—first it was winter jobs; now it’s a passion for the sport.”

Longtime local business figure Wade Wilmoth experienced that change. “My children came to ski at Appalachian often, especially on snow days. A lot of people would drop their kids off and come back later. I remember one day my daughter called me at Boone Drug where I was having coffee and she wanted me to pick up so and so and her and take them skiing. I said, ‘April, you’ve been three days this week. I’m not going to take you.’ I couldn’t think of anything, so I said, ‘I can’t afford for you to go skiing today.’ She politely said, ‘If you didn’t spend so much time at Boone Drug you could.’ Needless to say, she did not go skiing that day. Now my children’s children ski.”

More evidence? “Some of the local boarders at App are ready for the next season the day the old one ends,” says Drew Stanley, Appalachian Ski Mtn.’s terrain park manager.

Back in Ski Lodge days, “Just the experience of watching people learn to ski was exciting,” Jones says. “Imagine, my husband Bob and I have gone out West to ski most every year for the last 35 years—and he skis free now—he’s going to be 80. We never would have had that opportunity.”

Time Passing

A story like the saga of Blowing Rock Ski Lodge resonates with the passing of time, people—and trees. Once bald knobs near the slopes are now tree-covered. Delve into how a parcel of land becomes a ski area, and the tale quickly devolves backward, through the coming of the earliest roads, to the paths before them.

It’s amazing how fast “Ski Mountain” came from a lone cabin in the ‘30s to a few homes in 1961—to 400 homes today. From those hundreds of modern families, the story quickly recedes to a handful of early residents scattered through sparsely settled hollows. To this day, the descendants of some of those earliest families work at Appalachian Ski Mtn.

Half a century after starting Blowing Rock Ski Lodge, Bill Thalheimer’s final resting place in a Blowing Rock cemetery is so close to the ski area he started, you could hear the whine of snowguns—or a yodel—while you read his epitaph:

“Dreams and Foresight became Reality through Toil.”


Randy Johnson’s first book signing took place at Appalachian Ski Mountain for his first book, Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie. That was in 1987, the start of Appalachian Ski Mountain’s second 25 years.

 

Jack Lester and Jim Cottrell flanked by instructors of the French-Swiss Ski College

 

Hugh Morton captured skiing in the first brochures.

 

The lodge and slopes weren’t even completed by the original planned opening date in late 1961. That would wait another year until Dec. 15, 1962. Nevertheless, fun-seekers came out the winter before with sleds and skis to frolic in the snow.

 

Jack Lester and Jim Cottrell

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