Snowflake Ski Club celebrates 100 years
Sailing through the skies of Westby, Wis.
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
For a century now, there’s been something to get excited about in Westby, Wis., as daredevil ski jumpers fly through the air at the Snowflake Ski Jump. Their annual Ski Jumping Tournament is an event that the entire community gets excited about. International and U.S. jumpers compete on the large hill on the edge of town, often traveling down the jump with speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour and then flying for hundreds of feet through the sky. As the Snowflake Ski Club’s website site states, “Ski jumping truly is the original extreme sport.”
So, why Westby? you might ask. When you drive through the town for the first time, you are struck by its peaceful, laid-back atmosphere. But the answer to this question is quite simple: Westby, located on scenic Coon Prairie, is a Norwegian immigrant enclave, and it was the Norwegians who brought the sport there.
There are many reminders of Westby’s Norwegian roots wherever you go in Westby. One of your first stops might be at the tourist bureau, at home in a Norwegian stabbur. It’s a great place to take your selfie, with the log structure in the background, and the Norwegian-American fun doesn’t stop there.
On my second trip to Westby with my friends Walter and Louise Hanson from Rochester, Minn., I decided to explore the history of ski jumping. I couldn’t have had a better set of guides, since Louise’s parents hailed from Westby. Louise has many fond childhood memories, and Walter is a big fan of ski jumping and winter sports. So, like three norskie musketeers, we set off on our adventure, with our first stop at Westby Area Historical Society, with its own museum in a historical house. There, we were met at by Kathy Anderson, the society’s secretary/treasurer, who gave us a thorough introduction to the history of ski jumping in Westby.
I learned that the Snowflake Ski Club was founded in 1922, and the first ski jump was completed the following year. From the beginning, ski jumping in Westby has been driven by volunteers, and today, in a town of about 2,000, the ski club can boast 500 members. It is one of two remaining all-volunteer large-hill ski-jumping clubs in the Western hemisphere, and the town is proud to provide a place for both recreation and entertainment. There is a lot of community spirit and goodwill in Westby—and I can give a firsthand testimonial to how friendly the people there are.
What I didn’t expect that day was to be met by an entire entourage of Westby volunteers from the Snowflake Ski Club, some who were ski jumpers. Much to my surprise, some of them were able to speak Norwegian with me! But somehow, Westby is full of surprises, and I was amazed at what I came to learn.
The “motley crew”
Kathy Anderson has lovingly described the group we met as a “motley crew,” as they all have very colorful personalities.
Fred Jefson’s father was a very involved board member of the Snowflake Ski Club. The younger Jefson went to a tournament to help out and very much enjoyed the party! Sadly, Jefson died on July 14, 2022.
Clinton Bagstad volunteered for many years and was particularly involved in placing the railroad tie “steps” that go up the left side of the hill.
Russell Holte was a board member for many years. Russell served as president of the club as long ago as 1975. As of today, there is no one alive that served before that.
Mike Fremstad was a jumper in his younger days and an ardent volunteer by default. Mike’s dad, Alden “Frem” Fremstad, is the longest or second-longest-serving board member and probably the longest-serving volunteer of all time.
Trygve Thompson is a legend at the Snowflake Ski Club. He served on the board for over five years and has been the historian of the club for many years. He has provided comic relief and antics that will be the talk of the club for years to come. One of his best known was to come down the hill in a canoe!
Randy Lunde was a skier as a teenager but took a bad fall and “lost his edge,” as he tells the story. His uncle, Eddie Lunde Jr., convinced him he could still be involved in ski jumping if he became a judge. Randy traveled all over the United States and Europe and was inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame as a judge in 2017.
The Snowflake Ski Club has two other inductees to the Hall of Fame. Dr. Phillips T. Bland was the team doctor and became interested in ski jumping when he came to Westby out of his concern for the safety of the skiers. He was inducted in 2011 because he designed hills and jumps to make them safe.
Lyle Swenson was inducted in 2021. He was the captain of the 1964 Olympics skijumping team in Innsbruck, Austria. After the Olympics, Swenson came back to Westby and worked as a volunteer until his early death in 1982, when he was only 42 years old.
Out at the jump
The Snowflake Ski Club’s ski-jump facility is located in Timber Coulee, just north of Westby. This is also the location of the Snowflake Ski Club’s clubhouse. The hill was the venue for the USA Ski Jumping Championships in 1968, 1983, 1990, 1993, and 1997. The K106 hill has been used in the International Ski Federation (FIS) Continental Cup in special jumping, most recently in 2007. The hill record is 130 meters, set by Fredrik Bjerkeengen of Norway in a FIS race on Feb. 10, 2008. In addition to U.S. and international events, Snowflake is also host to an annual junior ski-jumping event on the smaller hills adjacent to the large hill.
Seeing the hill in summer is, of course, somewhat less dramatic than seeing it in winter when the action is going on, but, nonetheless, I was impressed by its magnitude. I wondered how in the world the guys I just met—or anyone for that matter—had the guts to make it down and land on their feet. I stood in awe as I took it all in, and wondered what it would be like to climb to the top and look down.
But a visit to the Snowflake Ski Club’s clubhouse seemed like a more reasonable proposition for Walter, Louise, and me on a hot summer’s day, and Trygve Thompson was there to meet us and show us around.
Inside the clubhouse, you can learn more about the history of the Snowflake Ski Club, photos and memorabilia abounding. There is an easy, relaxed atmosphere, and it came as no surprise that it is a popular place for locals to gather. It’s a great place to grab a hamburger or a soda or beer at the polished marble bar. You can shoot the breeze with the locals, who will welcome you with open arms. For extra warmth in the winter, there is a fireplace, and the clubhouse is kept cool by air-conditioning in the summer.
All refreshed, Walter, Louise, and I went back outside to soak in the scenery and check out the golf course. There is the natural beauty and tranquility of Timber Coulee all around you, with lush shade trees abounding.
Golfers can enjoy a beautiful, well-manicured nine-hole, par-three golf course at the base of the five ski jumps, with a spring-fed stream running through it. The golf course is open three seasons of the year when the snow is gone and it is quiet on the hill.
When in Westby, it feels like you’ve returned to a little piece of Norway set in the Midwest, yet it is unique in its own enchanting way. On this day, I almost felt like I had stumbled onto some sort of Norwegian-American Brigadoon. In Westby, there seems to be a feeling for life all its own, and it draws you in like magic.
The centennial celebration
The next tournament on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4 has the theme “100 Years of Volunteers,” because the Snowflake Ski Club has always been a volunteer club and wouldn’t exist without all the work of its members. There will be six buttons available for the tournament. A veterans button gets the person in for free. A $100 button has been created to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the first tournament (only 100 have been made). There are also four “regular entry” buttons featuring: 1) Howard Johnson, who reactivated the club after World War II and has held the club president position the longest; 2) Phillps T. “Doc” Bland; 3) Lyle Swenson as an Olympic skier; and 4) a group of volunteers.
You are probably wondering if I have plans to return to Westby, and yes—you guessed it—I am going back there with Walter and Louise for this year’s Ski Jumping Tournament. I can’t wait to see it all unfold in real-time and to visit my friends there, to experience more magical moments as the Snowflake Ski Club celebrates 100 years.
To learn more about the Snowflake Ski Club and the upcoming tournament, visit: snowflakeskiclub.com.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.