Jumping off to success with Northland Skis
A wintry blast from the past
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
The Northland Ski Manufacturing Co. was started in St. Paul, Minn., around 1911 by Norwegian-born Christian A. Lund, or so he claimed. Nevertheless, by 1920, Lund’s hickory skis had gained a national reputation for unsurpassed quality and alleged to be “the largest manufacturer of skis in the world,” even exporting skis to Europe. Northland’s skis have been credited as the jump-off point for America’s love of skiing.
Their success was fueled by the availability of timber in Minnesota and a clientele of Norwegian immigrants, such as Henry Hall, who set the world’s record in 1917 by making 203 feet in ski-jumping wearing Northland skis at Steamboat Springs, Colo.
“I have used Northland Ski for years and have always found them unequalled,” he said.
The history of Northland has always been questionable. It seems Lund was an unabashed self-promoter, who claimed to begin the business earlier than possible and to introduce many innovations. Nonetheless, he did create an important niche for the sporting goods industry and in 1960 was elected to the U.S. Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame.
In his article for the International Skiing History Association Magazine entitled “Northland Skis: Fire and Feud in St. Paul, Greg Fargel,” he details the mystery behind Northland.
It seems Norwegian Martin Strand, a civil engineer from Rendalen, Norway, was already mass-producing skis in St. Paul, Minn. While working as a draftsman, Strand was experimenting with making skis in his basement. City records indicate Strand was a ski manufacturer in 1899 in Minneapolis, but he never left a day job and was selling insurance for New York Life when
he met Wisconsin Swede Frederick J. Youngquist. In 1905, they worked together; and together they hired Norwegian Ole Sigurd Ellevold. Little is known about what went on, but Strand was out and Youngquist was in. Strand came back and by 1909 was listed as a ski and oar manufacturer. Strand hired Ellevold and then in 1910, a fire consumed the entire plant.
In a factory with rooms filled with sawdust, varnish, and lumber, making wooden skis was a fire waiting to happen. Strand and Ellevold rebuilt the factory, but they lost that building to fire as well. Strand then went to New Richmond, Wis., where the chamber of commerce wanted new businesses and offered Strand a deal he couldn’t refuse with a “fireproof” masonry building thrown in.
Ellevold as president rebuilt the factory and in 1912 took the name Northland. Lund who arrived in Minneapolis in 1903 had his eye on the ski business. In 1913, he bought Northland stock. And as Fargel points out, “By 1916, Lund owned enough Northland stock to control the company.”
Not far from the Northland factory, another Norwegian, Hans Gregg, fashioned wooden farm implements and skis under the Park logo. By 1919, he was making high-quality skis for the Dartmouth Cooperative Society in Hanover, N.H.
Somehow Ellevold left Northland, moved to North Dakota, and began farming. Lund, the marketer, stepped in to grow the Northland brand. In 1927, he opened a factory in Hastings, Minn., to make skis, snowshoes, and toboggans. As Fangel points out, “Aside from aggressive marketing, Northland owed its success to hickory. Prohibitively expensive for European factories, hickory was a reasonable purchase in Minnesota. Northland bought boatloads, shipped from Louisiana sawmills as planks, ready to be carved into skis. Northland’s hickory skis became the first choice of ski jumpers, and after 1930, for Alpine downhillers.”
Then, the Hastings plant burned to the ground. Martin Strand filed for bankruptcy in 1945 and soon died. Lund’s former St. Paul plant, founded by Strand and rebuilt by Ellevold, burned also. Meanwhile, Lund purchased the Gregg factory, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. When Lund died in 1965, the wooden ski was becoming a relic of the past. The last Northland skis sold in 1970.
But wait a minute, the Northland name is alive again selling handcrafted wooden skis in Steamboat Springs, Colo., “honoring the past by building a ski for the future, Northland skis may look old school, but on the mountain, they are the apex of performance and aesthetic.” And so the story continues. But let us not forget that Norwegian immigrants started it all.
Images courtesy of Cynthia Elyce Rubin
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.