Wednesday, December 22, 2010

‘Looking to the skies for snow clouds’

Lack of snow didn’t hamper Sun Valley’s inaugural holiday in 1936

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Resort’s Austrian ski instructors were without much to do when the resort opened on Dec. 21, 1936, because of a lack of snow. Hans Hauser, mentioned in the story, is fourth from the left. Photo courtesy of The Community Library’s Regional History Department

A streamliner left New York City in the winter of 1936, deadset on a destination 2,500 miles to the west. The 160 passengers arrived in a record-setting 48 hours, stopping at a place so new it didn't even have its own dot on the map: Sun Valley.

Guests came from all over—Chicago, Dover, Mass., Detroit, Palm Beach, Fla., Newport, R.I., and more—to be the first at the country's first destination ski resort, set to open Dec. 21. The perfect setting for a white Christmas.

The numerous staff members needed to feed, entertain and pamper the guests arrived just mere days earlier, also travelling from various corners of the country and counting on a white Christmas.

Hap Miller and his band were a few of these workers hired to turn the sleepy little valley into the West's vacation destination, as was the intent of the Union Pacific Railroad, which built Sun Valley. Miller has died but his story is preserved in a transcribed interview conducted by The Community Library.

For Miller and his band, venturing here from the East in 1936 was a decision that didn't come easily.

"One of the guys said, 'Where's Sun Valley?'" Miller said of the day they received the offer to play Sun Valley for the winter.

The band was already planning to spend the winter playing in Florida.

"We said, 'Well, it's in Idaho.' Truthfully, some of the guys weren't sure where Idaho was, let alone Sun Valley."

They retrieved a map from the car.

"So we got it and we found Idaho," Miller said. "Then, we started looking for Sun Valley. Of course, it wasn't on the map. It hadn't existed yet."

However, they opted for adventure and signed the contract.

"Of course, all we could think of is lots of snow," Miller said of their trip by train to Shoshone and then by bus to Sun Valley. Then, they finally arrived. "We could see snow on the tops of the mountains, but there was no snow on the ground. Did we make the wrong move? We're coming to a ski resort, and there is no room to ski and no snow to ski on. Everybody was looking to the skies for snow clouds."

The next day, Miller and the band rode Dollar Mountain's chairlift to its summit.

"We rode up to the top of the mountain and were walking around in the grass up there, 6 to 8 inches high and not a drop of snow," he said. "And we were really worried."

The situation didn't change by Dec. 21 when the guests arrived.

"It was quite a thing, the opening here," Miller said, "because I know as the guests came in, they probably felt the same way we did. They were coming to a ski resort and no snow."

To appease the guests, Union Pacific provided everything on the house until skiing was possible. But come Christmas, there was still no skiing despite a storm, according to newspaper clippings from the time. The sagebrush hadn't been mowed down and it poked through the thin veil of snow covering Dollar Mountain.

However, that didn't hamper the holiday.

"Because the people didn't have anything to do, they were dancing in the afternoon and dancing during dinner, and dancing later at night," said Miller, whose band was playing nonstop. "They had all this energy that they were going to use for skiing. So, we started using it by letting them dance."

It wasn't a white Christmas, but it was a memorable one for Miller, who recalled David Selznick, producer of "Gone with the Wind," battling swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn in ping pong tournaments at Sun Valley Lodge—betting $1,000 a game. That's equivalent to near $16,000 in today's dollars.

"Of course, we were all bug eyes watching all these movie stars," Miller said.

Edward Seagle had an equally cheerful memory of that brown Christmas. Seagle was chief construction engineer during the resort's construction and became head of resort operations from 1936 to 1966. He vividly described the opening night's dinner in a transcribed interview held by The Community Library. He said about eight governors were in attendance among other guests. The guests found the food so exquisite that they had the chefs—all of whom were French—parade out of the kitchen and back, cheering for them all the while.

A preserved menu from that night is written in French and includes brioche with caviar, as an appetizer. Brioche is an egg-based French bread. Beef liver, filet mignon and "Union Pacific's pineapple surprise" were also served, with cigars and a variety of liquors at the meal's end.

Seagle said he was in the kitchen after the chefs' parade, and the guests ordered case upon case of champagne.

"They sent back five—five cases of champagne," he said. "Five cases, not five bottles."

Seagle said the kitchen crew each grabbed their own bottles and were having a party in the kitchen, including Seagle and the main chef, Martin.

"He and I were 'Vive la Sun Valley,' drink up and kiss each other,'" Seagle said.

The snow arrived just before New Year's Day, making for a white winter even though it wasn't in time for the holidays. But, looking back, its late timing was of little consequence.

Miller argued that the people made the first holiday historic, recalling an Austrian ski instructor by the name of Hans Hauser.

"He couldn't speak English very well, but Hans liked the girls, of course," Miller said. "Hans wanted to tell a high-society girl that he liked her. She was already into him."

Another worker, Harl Smith, knew some German and told Hauser what to say.

"But Harl was sort of a practical joker," Miller said. "Harl told the band, 'Now watch. I told Hans what to say. Watch what happens.' So, Hans is dancing with this girl and all of a sudden she backs away and slaps Hans in the face. And Hans is looking at her. 'What did I say?'

Harl replied, 'Well, you just didn't say it quite right.'"

Miller and his band returned for 34 more seasons in Sun Valley.


Resort wrangles Alaskan reindeer in 1937

The guests weren't the only ones coming from far and wide to visit America's first ski resort in the 1930s. Union Pacific railroad transported 13 reindeer to the remote Sun Valley Resort in its second winter of 1937. The reindeer came from the town of Teller at the western tip of Alaska, a town that even today has only 300 people. The reindeer were then brought to Nome, Alaska, then shipped to Seattle before reaching Sun Valley, where they'd pull sleighs carrying guests. Being wild animals, the reindeer were known to be ornery, biting children and often refusing to pull the sleighs. The Hailey Times reported that 100 bags of native tundra plants were brought here to feed the reindeer until they became accustomed to Idaho alfalfa. The resort named eight of the reindeer after Santa's sleigh-pullers, calling the others Streamer, Linder, Saint, Nick and Clipper.

Trevon Milliard:

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