Helmuth M.g. Heise

Founder Of Wisp Ski And Golf Resorts Transformed A Summer Camp Into A Year-round Recreational Destination

August 19, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Helmuth Martin Gustav "Ace" Heise, founder and developer of Western Maryland's Will O' the Wisp and Wisp Ski and Golf resorts, died of heart failure Aug. 11 at Garrett County Memorial Hospital. He was 81.

Mr. Heise, the son of German immigrant parents, was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He was a graduate of Turtle Creek High School.

Mr. Heise first visited Deep Creek Lake with his parents and sister in the late 1930s, when they stayed at Will O' the Wisp, a summer camp with 23 batten-and-board cabins built by Dr. Thurl Bullard, a Garrett County dentist. Mr. Heise's father bought the property from Dr. Bullard in 1943.

During World War II, Mr. Heise served as a physical education instructor with the Army Air Corps and at war's end, enrolled at Temple University, where he earned a degree in business administration.

In 1947, he married the former Evelyn Juanita Lambert, and after graduating from college, the couple returned to Deep Creek Lake.

In 1952, they purchased the cabins and a recreation hall from his parents and began transforming Wisp into a year-round resort.

A year later, Mr. Heise and his father built a modern 10-unit, year-round motel with indoor plumbing and electric heat, which, according to an early advertisement, were "Designed for Gracious Vacationing."

"Despite the new units, they took in a total of $14 during the month of February, and that's when Dad decided they had to do something else," said a son, Martin Helmuth Heise of Oakland.

Anxious to expand his business from strictly summer only, Mr. Heise realized the potential of winter sports.

In 1955, Mr. Heise, who had been joined by several businessmen, established Recreational Industries Inc., leased a farm on Marsh Mountain, near McHenry, for a ski area, and named it Will O' the Wisp.

Winter skiing began during the winter of 1955-1956. A one-room hut with a coal-fired potbellied stove served as the "lodge" while ski equipment was rented from the back of a pickup truck. One slope that had been fitted with a rope tow hauled skiers to the top of the trail.

In the intervening decade, Mr. Heise added additional trails, purchased state-of-the-art snow-making equipment and chair lifts, improved the lodge and installed lighting for night skiing by the late 1960s.

More motel units were added along with a restaurant in 1962.

In 1971, Mr. Heise added a 48-room hotel which he named the Village Inn, which was followed four years later by the Prestige Condominiums, a seven-floor complex that had been built on the site of the original motel that dated to the 1950s.

An 18-hole golf course, the Village Green, later renamed the Golf Club at Wisp, was added in 1981, and the Village Inn Motel was renovated in 1985 into a condominium-hotel and renamed the Wisp Resort Hotel.

A town-house community, the Villages at Wisp, were built alongside the East Ridge Trail in the late 1980s.

"I felt we could achieve anything if we just tried to do each thing better," Mr. Heise said in an interview last year with Mountain Discoveries.

"I just kept at it," he said. "I was never one to give up, and Evelyn was always working right alongside me."

In 2001, D.C. Development purchased Recreational Industries Inc. and the Wisp resort from Mr. Heise, whose family continues to own and operate the Four Seasons restaurant and the condominium.

Mr. Heise continued to work with D.C. Development as a consultant and still went into the office six days a week.

Karen Myers, a Friendsville native, who is president of Recreational Industries and a managing partner of D.C. Development, has known Mr. Heise for years.

"After we purchased the company, he continued to work with us. I'd go to him and ask, 'Are we doing this right?' and he'd offer small changes and guidance," she said. "He was pleased that we were continuing his vision and that he was still part of the team"

Ms. Myers recalled Mr. Heise instilling in her a basic business principle.

"He pointed to the mountain and said, 'If it's not white, they won't come.' I think that's as sound a business principle as they come," she said.

Ms. Myers said that in Garrett County, Mr. Heise was sometime perceived as being a "stubborn and obstinate German."

"I call that resolve. When he made up his mind, nothing would change him from his path," she said.

In 1998, in recognition of years of hard work in transforming Wisp into a major vacation destination in the state, the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce established the Helmuth and Evelyn Heise Entrepreneurial Spirit Award.

"He really had no hobbies. His life's work was his hobby," his son said.

Services were held at the resort on Sunday.

In addition to his wife of 62 years and son, Mr. Heise is survived by another son, Gary Lambert Heise of Ambler, Pa.; a sister, Doris Jean Smith of Oakland; and two granddaughters.

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