Museum shows Colorado ski history In Vail: Displays include mining, mail delivery, military exercises and traveling ministry in snow-covered area.

November 12, 1995|By Syd Kearney | Syd Kearney,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Attractive and airy, the Colorado Ski Museum in Vail is filled with red-faced schussers during the winter.

Perhaps the skiers are here to thaw after a chilly morning on the slopes. Maybe a Grateful Dead knit cap in the gift shop caught their attention as they trooped past for lunch. But most likely they ventured here as pilgrims, giving thanks for their sport.

The first Colorado skiers were miners looking for gold and silver in the 1860s. They used Norwegian snowshoes to get around. The "snowshoes" were hand-carved wooden boards that we call skis.

Ministers and mailmen also were among the first skiers in the Rocky Mountains. They used single poles to push along, the mailmen carrying up to 90 pounds.

One skiing minister has been inducted into Colorado's Ski Hall of Fame, which is featured here. John Lewis "Father" Dyer (1812-1901) preached the gospel in mining camps on Colorado's western slopes. He got around on 11-foot, handmade skis. (Dyer's church, with its stained-glass rendering of the skiing minister, can be visited in Breckenridge.)

The popularity of Colorado's snow sports grew out of winter carnivals that began as early as 1911 and featured ski events. Steamboat Springs' festival has taken place annually since 1914.

One of the early promoters of these carnivals was Hall of Famer Carl Howelsen (1877-1955). Howelsen, known as the Flying Norseman in Barnum & Bailey's Circus in the early 1900s, is remembered here as the "Father of Colorado Skiing" for his promotion of carnivals and the sport.

Colorado's first downhill ski trails opened in the 1930s, and the first chairlift hoisted skiers up the slopes at the Pioneer Ski Area in 1939. Before lifts, people trudged up or used cars or any other means they could find to get to the top.

The heroes of Vail Valley -- and the Colorado Ski Museum -- are the members of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, which was stationed at nearby Camp Hale. The skiing troops trained on Colorado's mountains. The Army division eventually entered World War II in northern Italy and broke German defenses by skiing into enemy territory.

The 10th Division's heroics also increased the popularity of recreational skiing.

Ski equipment also gets its due at the museum. The evolution of ski equipment is interesting even for the nonskier. Ski fashion is traced from leather shoes to high-tech boots. Even mittens get a hand here.

Other exhibits at the Colorado Ski Museum focus on racing, avalanche control, Olympic competitors and the ski patrol. An interactive display looks at the role of the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining ski areas.

The Colorado Ski Museum, in the Vail Village Transportation Center, opens for the ski season in mid-November. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Closed on Mondays. Call (303) 476-1876.

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