The following letter was written by Ralph Shoots in honor of our 40th anniversary that was celebrated in 2002. It tells the story of our early history and the origins of Valley High/Mad River Mountain. Thanks to Jim Brenneman for sharing.
VALLEY HIGH – The Beginning of a Dream
40th Year Anniversary – February 2, 2002
By Ralph S. Shoots
It is 1958 and I have just completed my second year in mechanical engineering at Ohio State University. I recently changed my major from engineering to agriculture having a desire to go back on the farm and pursue a career with my father on the farm. A few years earlier we had quit dairying (milking cows), as a modernization was necessary with pipeline milkers and a bulk tank to be able to continue. We went strictly to grain farming until I could finish school so that I could attend every other quarter at Ohio State University. This was winter and summer quarters and then I was able to farm spring and fall. Among other regular crops, we raised as cash crops sugar beets and popcorn; both unusual and specialized at that time. No one else within 70-80 miles was raising these crops. I guess that would describe my father’s desire to specialize into areas that were far from the norm. I believe building a ski area is not the normal farmer’s ambition. In earlier years my dad also had a sawmill and did custom sawing for the local farmers in the area who brought their logs in to be made into lumber. We also had a small bulldozer and we did custom clearing, excavating, pond building, etc. These activities are also far from the normal of ordinary livestock and grain farming. I guess my own desire for adventure and creating something unique and different has come naturally. I no doubt inherited this from my father.
Having made the decision to go back on the farm a near adjoining farm became available upon the death of the owner. Our prime interest at the time was the rich fertile Mad River valley farmland it contained. Of the 307 acres more than half of it was west of the Mad River and excellent cropland. We had a very special and friendly relationship with the owners of the old Longfellow farm so we were able to strike a deal for the purchase of it. Included with the 307 acres, was a beautiful well built home with full basement, 3 major outbuildings, one of which had been a prominent dairy operation in earlier years. The total price for the farm and buildings was $52,500.00. Roughly half of the farm, which was east of the Mad River, was the wooded hillside, which the previous owners looked at as practically no value. Many years before there had been a sugar camp operation there. However, most of the good old timber had been logged off. There were many young sugar maple trees left that we felt had a potential for tapping for production of maple syrup. The purpose of this idea was of course to generate additional income as we knew that $52,500.00 was an awfully lot of money to try to pay off.
Over the next year or so we made many trips into the hilly wooded area surveying it for the possible sugar camp. We even made contact with and had proposals from two major sugar camp equipment manufacturing companies (Leader Evaporator and Vermont Evaporator) and we were within a toss of a coin decision in making a commitment for a major purchase of everything necessary for operating a sugar camp. The numerous walks up the steep hill revealed to us that we could have a modern pipeline connecting all maple trees with plastic tubing so that all the maple sap would flow to the bottom, thus minimizing a lot of the old fashioned work of carrying the maple sap by buckets. The more we talked about it and knowing that Logan County and surrounding counties had numerous sugar camps we were ever so close to believing that this could be a very viable operation. During the late spring of 1959 someone came up with the idea of “why would you waste this valuable mountain for a sugar camp. Let’s turn it into a ski area.” I believe that person was Fred McPeck. Fred, an avid skier, became one of the earlier inspirations encouraging us to pursue the idea. Fred, at the time was an assistant sales manager for Miller-Meteor Divco Wayne Corporation and a Bellefontaine resident. He became a stockholder of Ohio Resorts, Inc. and served as a director, as President and later became General Manager of Valley High for a few years. Fred also helped in the early years of putting the whole thing together.
For a successful skiing mountain, we knew that the snow needed protection from the sun and due to the fact that we had a north exposure this was a strong plus. With all the trees and a north exposure, it seemed to be a natural. We also learned upon further research that an abundant supply of water was an absolute must for making artificial snow. With Mad River running through the property an available abundant supply of water was assured. We knew that making artificial snow was a new concept, but it was successfully being used in Michigan, Eastern states (New York & Pennsylvania) and of course the old ski areas of the west.
Sometime in late 1959 or early 1960 my dad and I made a trip into Michigan visiting many areas, the most of important of which was Boyne Mountain. At that time there were 94 ski areas in Michigan and none in Ohio. Prior to that time a young man by the name of Trimble also made trips to ski areas and did some research for us. We advanced him a few hundred dollars to do this. Months later he left the project. What we learned in Michigan was very exciting. We had a diamond in the rough. We had a resource that, some totally, equaled what we saw in Michigan. In talking to the principals at Boyne Mountain they gave us a lot of encouragement. They said “we may have better weather, a longer season, more cold for making snow and more natural snow, but you have something that we do not…you have the people.” A study indicated that we were within 2 hours of 8 million people. We anticipated that a high percent would be daily commuters from the major cities around; Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, etc. I believe that this is still an accurate assessment today. Not only did we have a northern exposure with lots of trees for protection of the snow, plenty of water for making snow, an excellent coastout area (which a lot of resorts do not have), a large enough area for parking and easy access, but it also happened to be the highest Mountain in the state. Campbell Hill in Bellefontaine has always been considered Ohio’s highest point, however, across the valley to the south and east was our current Mad River Mountain. We believed that it was every bit as high.
The next major obstacle was the cost and where to find the funds to make this dream all a reality. In those days there were more skeptics than supporters. We knew that it was a must to make artificial snow because we did not have enough natural snow on an average. Comments were heard, “you must be crazy, and no one has ever skied in Ohio! There is not enough snow in Ohio.” We then researched a weather study for the winter 2 months and determined that over the previous 10 year period there were 74 days out of 90 (Dec 15 – March 15) that the mercury dropped below freezing. This was very encouraging news. We believed that the odds were in our favor of being able to make artificial snow.
We knew that to make this dream come alive it was going to take many people with both know how and monies working together. As many local people were skeptical at the time, we determined that we probably were going to need to form a corporation and sell stock to bring all this about. To learn more about the requirements for forming a corporation, I took a course in corporate finance at Ohio State. About half way thru the course I got up enough courage to talk to my professor about this. His name was Dr. George S. Goodell, a professor in finance at Ohio State who was also an attorney and a financial consultant by profession. He had also been involved in Corporate Treasury work and in banking for 5 years. After class one day I approached him and explained what we were attempting to do. I said “would you have any interest in driving an hour to Bellefontaine to look at this hill?” He showed only moderate interest at first, but over the course of the rest of the quarter continued conversations with him got him more interested. He eventually came with me to visit our farm.
One thing led to another and we set out to try to learn what our needs and costs would be for such a development. By now we had pretty much learned through additional trips and correspondence into Michigan what most of the needs would be. We knew of course we had to make a clearing of most all the trees in the immediate area to be used as the main slope. Adequate parking facility needed to be made available as this was farm ground which would not support traffic without being graveled. We knew that a lodge facility of some sort would be required. Some rope tows would be necessary to transport the skiers to the top, and some snow making equipment and ski rental equipment would also be needed. We were told you needed a pro shop to supply ski parkas, pants, boots, skis, etc. Also a restaurant of some sort would be needed to provide food throughout the day. As the township was dry we knew that no liquor or beer could be made available in the beginning. As time went on we learned of another ski area near Mansfield being planned. Dr. Goodell, my dad and I met with Bucky Wirtz and Dave Girstner at the site of the future Snow Trails in Mansfield. They showed us their hill and we walked to the top. It was just a big wide-open hill with very few trees and not nearly as high or as long as ours. Bucky Wirtz told us they had just entered a contract the day before in purchasing the land on Possum Run Road. He was very surprised to hear of our project and of course said, “I would love to come and see your hill.” This we arranged and a few days later he came to see it. He was very much in awe at what he saw and said had we known this was in the works we would not have purchased here at Mansfield and would have loved to partner here with you for the developing of the first ski area in Ohio. He could see that our hill and its potential were far better than what they had at Mansfield. They of course went ahead and developed Snow Trails with it opening one season ahead of Valley High. However, all of our early research and feasibility studies were done well in advance of ever hearing of the prospects of another ski area in Ohio.
The next thing was to determine how elaborate the facilities should be to begin with. In the beginning we ruled out a chairlift, as we knew that would cost $50,000 or more. After many, many, many, many hours trying to make decisions and further research we made contact with a man who had ties to Boyne Mountain Michigan. Hence, the introduction of Royce Asher to Valley High. He was originally from Sun Valley, Idaho. After numerous discussions with Mr. Asher and many, many, many trips by foot up and down and all over the hill, we kicked around various options for its beginning. Royce Asher had been involved with Sun Valley Idaho for many years and had installed chair lifts there and also was instrumental in much of the development at Boyne Mountain. We determined that selling stock through an Ohio Corporation would be our choice of financing. Dr. Goodell and I proceeded to draw up the necessary paperwork to file with the division of securities and eventually Ohio Resorts, Inc. dba Valley High was born on September 28, 1961.
An individual that deserves a lot of credit and was quite active in the overall promotion and selling of stock was Tom Peters, brother of Jim Peters of the Jim Peters Insurance Agency of Bellefontaine. Tom worked with his brother in the field of selling insurance. Tom was a good promoter, a very good and experienced salesman, met people well, was enthusiastic and became an early shareholder and director of Ohio Resorts, Inc. serving for several years. He was a great asset in the early development of Valley High. Tom spread the good word about Valley High all over Logan and surrounding counties. Tom Peters also worked at the resort for several years in many areas – selling tickets, ski rental, worked in the office and banked the money, etc. After forming the corporation and determining a course of action we wished to pursue, we entered an agreement with Mr. Asher to assist in the engineering of the whole area, lifts, snow making equipment, the ski run layout, and ski rental equipment and minimum requirements for a building. He had a partner, Al Almond, who also helped. Mr. Asher had a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane and was able to fly in and out periodically to monitor the progress. My father and I actually oversaw and did much of the work. News of the skiing venture spread to ski enthusiasts and two young men who were very avid skiers became small investors in our stock. They were Bob Lumpe and Mike Harroun. They were from Columbus. Talk about adventure, they quit their jobs and came to work on the construction and installation. They took up residence in an old farm tenant house on our farm during the spring of 1962 and up thru the opening season. When Royce Asher was in town he stayed with Bob and Mike or “Mike & Lump” as we called them. Royce Asher also took some stock in lieu of compensation. As we all know he founded the original Ski School, which he ran for several years and then after the 1965 season it went to Hans Dorn and Jack Biehm, however, it continued the name the Royce Asher Ski School for at least a couple more years. Royce Asher became the General Manager during the skiing season the first years.
In the early stages of selling of the shares of stock in Ohio Resorts, Inc. a stipulation by the Division of Securities was that the first $75,000 in monies collected had to be held in escrow with an escrow agent. That agent was Huntington National Bank in Columbus. Also, my father’s, Dr. Goodell’s and my own shares were also held in escrow. In other words, no money could be spent until we reached the first $75,000. This stipulation was to protect the very first shareholders until it was assured we could sell enough shares to make the whole thing work. The first $50 – 60,000 was easy to sell. We reached a point of about $70,000 and at that time we met strong resistance. People then became skeptical that this would ever become a reality. The negativism was growing quickly … “who ever heard of skiing in Ohio, we don’t have enough snow, it’s not cold enough, it’s never been done before, etc. How could they as dumb farmers know how to run a ski slope?” Something had to be done to convince people that this was more than a pipe dream. What better way to show them, than to start some activity at the site? By now Dr. Goodell was very enthusiastic about the project and he said, “I believe that I can get the Faculty Club of Ohio State University to make us a loan so that we can hire someone to start clearing the land.” This he was able to do and the Faculty Club of Ohio State University made the corporation a $12,000 loan so we could start the tree clearing process and start building on the entrance road. At that time the whole hillside was thickly covered with trees. We inquired of several area contractors, but were encouraged the most by Roscoe “Dutch” Connolly of Connolly Construction Company of Marysville. He was instrumental in a lot of early speculative projects. He built the original race tract at Scioto Downs south of Columbus. He said this sounds exciting and I would like to become a part of it. He was hired and lots of equipment was brought up and we started clearing the trees in the main area of the slope and started improving the entrance driveway, which at that time was from Country Rd. 5. It was at the south edge of a large farm field and crossed a bridge over Mad River. Mr. Connolly also became a shareholder as he bought and took stock for construction work. He also became a director and served as President for a time.
We purchased a used 4-wheel drive Jeep, which saved our legs walking up and down the hillside. That poor Jeep made hundreds of trips up and down the slope giving people rides and showing prospective shareholders what we had. Throughout the summer and fall of 1962 from May or June through opening day the Jeep and one of us was busy touring people. Once the clearing began and people could see that this really was happening, selling stock became much easier. Many of the original stockholders were friends and individuals in Logan and surrounding counties. With Dr. Goodell involved in the sale of stock, we advertised and many came in from the Columbus area and others that Dr. Goodell knew. Besides the original three of us (my dad, Dr. Goodell and me) the two largest investors were Harold “Hap” Kitzmiller from Gahanna and Kenny Hoel from Blacklick. Kenny Hoel was a contractor and did construction work. Hap Kitzmiller was a jack-of-all-trades and very knowledgeable in construction. Both were very avid skiers.
Between the two of them they said, “We can build the lodge and save you a lot of money.” So it happened. The original lodge was 7200 square feet. I remember the construction of the lodge. A crew was brought in of bricklayers and all the walls were put up in one day – a Saturday. The same type of speed was done with the trusses and roof and many of us pitched in and helped with putting on of the shingles on the following weekend. This was the summer of 1962. Our target date for opening was December 15 1962. We still had two major services to fill. One was the ski shop and the other was food service. We determined the best way to handle these was to contract with professionals in their respective areas. The first restaurant was run by the Frank Shiveley family, of Shiveley’s Restaurant and Drive In on South Main Street in Bellefontaine. They did a good job for several years. Next was the ski shop. I can remember vividly my dad and me walking into the Buckenroth’s Men Store on West Columbus Street in Bellefontaine and talking to Dick & Herb Buckenroth, as they were specialists in the clothing business. I can’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but they turned us down. They said they knew nothing about running a ski shop. We then went across the street to the Armstrong and Allen Furniture Store and talked to Dick and Florence Adams. Dick Adams said, “I don’t know anything about running a ski shop, but I know I can do it and I would like to give it a try.” Thus was the beginning of Adams Ski Shop. Dick Adams had the same kind of airplane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, that Royce Asher had and no doubt this kindled a friendship. Because of this I am sure Royce Asher’s’ assistance helped to give Dick Adams much insight into how to run a ski shop.
After clearing of the trees, the hillside was full of huge stones and stumps. The final cleanup and grooming was an enormous undertaking. It then had to be seeded to prevent erosion. The installing of the 4 – 6 – 8” and some 10” pipelines for air and water was a major project. Holdren Brothers Welding Shop from West Liberty did all of the welding of the pipe and fittings joints. 4 large Ingersoll Rand Compressors provided the air supply, each powered by a 150 HP electric motor. They were located in a service building north of the slopes. One man that must be recognized by all means who has a vast knowledge of the original electrical installation was local electrician, Dwight “Sam” Walls. He did most of his work at the ski area in evenings and weekends. He did all the electrical installation for the compressors, lifts, lights, etc. He also was available for many years on 24-hour call on maintenance and when anything went wrong electrically he was always the first one to call. When an electrical problem occurred, Dwight knew how to fix it and kept things running. We were never down for long. Dwight even moved next to the slope for quicker access. In those early years the entrance was off County Rd. 5. Dwight and his family moved to the large farmhouse, which was the home at the entrance lane to Valley High. It was the home part of the 307-acre tract. It sits just to the south of the entrance and west of County Rd. 5. He could arrive on the scene in about 2 minutes. I know I learned a lot about electrical work from Dwight Walls. Many an evening I worked along side him in much of the installation. I enjoy electrical work today and I owe my early learning to Dwight Walls.
Through a miracle of nature we were able to open on time…December 15, 1962. We had a huge snowstorm 3 or 4 days prior to the opening day and were able to open without having to make snow. This was a blessing because the snow making equipment was a few days away from being completed and ready to run. Even the chair lift lacked a few days from being in full operation. What an opening day we had! Lots of snow everywhere. We knew that besides the skiers we would have numerous spectators. We decided to charge $1 per car for spectators just to come and observe. The spectators were an unbelievable sight. There was a solid line of cars all day long, both days. Traffic was backed up at times on County Rd 5 for miles in either direction. All the principles of us worked in all phases from selling tickets to the rental department to lift operators, making snow and maintenance.
It might be interesting to note some of the costs and prices as compared with today. For a lift ticket we charged $4 for weekdays and $5 for weekends. Rope Tows were $2.50 for weekdays and $3.50 for weekends. Rental prices were: skis – $2.00, Boots – $1.50 and poles – $.50. Ski School was $2 per hour for group lessons and $8 an hour for private lessons. In our cash flow projection it was interesting to note that wages ranged from $1.50 to $2.00 per hour. The original lodge cost $30,000. 500 sets of ski rental equipment cost us $16,500. The snow making machinery was purchased at a cost of $16,000. On the celebrated Grand Opening day Governor James Rhodes and State Representative Roger Cloud were in attendance among many others. We had a very successful first year. The second year was very good as well because of lots of snow and good weather. The next two years were not as good as they were warm and rainy much of the time. A report to the stockholders in May 1963 (our first annual shareholders meeting) stated, “that our profits for the year were largely used to pay for the installation. At present the land, buildings, chair lift, electrical work, all improvements, 500 sets of skis, boots, poles ad bindings, are all completely paid for.”
In retrospect there could be things that we could have done differently, you know hindsight is always 20/20, but it quite possible that we made two major mistakes during the selling of our stock issue. One, we had not budgeted putting in the $50,000 chair lift the first year. But, Royce Asher convinced us that a Chair Lift was a must and we believed it would benefit us in competing more favorably with Snow Trails. Two, we quit selling stock too soon. We had more authorized but unsold shares that we should have continued selling when selling was easy.
The first year was successful enough that cash flow permitted us to be able to take advantage of an opportunity to purchase the land to the north. An unmarried old man had passed away and we were able to make a reasonable purchase from the estate. This is the present day entrance and land that you see on both sides of the entry road. The little house on the hill half way back the entrance on the left is where Barbara and I lived when we were first married. At that time it was a one-lane dirt road back to the house. We lived there for over a year before a phone line was run to the house…. just before our first daughter, Rhonda, was born. There is 122 acres in this tract of land, which was purchased at $200 per acre for a total of $25,000. It is a very valuable part of the current operation.
After the second year, which was also successful, two other parcels of land were acquired. One parcel is part of the current Alpine Village or Valley Hi village, which would not have been possible without this additional land. Another small parcel was added to the north in anticipation of a year round resort. Although these expenditures caused a cash flow squeeze the third and fourth year due to perhaps two of the warmest wettest seasons of all time, the present expansion as we see it today would not have been possible without the early vision for acquiring those properties. We all know that warm and rainy is not good for skiing. Skiing is like farming; we are at the mercy of the weather.
As a result of perhaps too aggressive expansion and two bad seasons the corporation encountered some financial shortfalls. They were very mild by today’s standards, but at that time enough to cause some disagreements among some shareholders and directors. January of 1966, my grandmother (my father’s mother) went into Latham’s Nursing Home following a massive stroke. Over the period of three or four months that followed we became more acquainted with the Latham’s. Tom Latham became interested in the ski area. After becoming a stockholder, he was voted to the Board of Directors in May of 1966. Mr. Latham had had several years experience in the feed and elevator business; also, he built and owned the Latham’s Convalescent Home in Bellefontaine. As he had had experience in many business endeavors it was felt he could be of help in directing future operations. He said with his experience he could be instrumental in obtaining more and better financing.
William Saxbe, former Ohio Attorney General and later United States Attorney General, from Mechanicsburg, Ohio, later become involved as a stockholder. He replaced me on the Board of Directors when I sold my shares in the ski slope to Tom Latham early in 1967. One of my most vivid memories of Mr. Saxbe, is his ability to read fast – in other words to speed-read. This was most impressive to me. I had never seen anyone digest a several page document as quickly as he could. When I complimented him on it he said, “in my field you have lots of documents to read and have to make many quick decisions. You have lots of decisions to make and many of them will be wrong. But as long as you make more good decisions than bad, you will succeed.” That advice to me, as a young man was very impressive. That memory of Mr. Saxbe has had a strong influence on me.
I would have to say that my acquaintance with Mr. Saxbe has had a life long very positive effect on me. At the time, it perhaps caused me to make a hasty decision to sell my stock. When major disagreements occurred, and after being pushed again to sell my stock, I made a spontaneous decision, right or wrong and did so. And thus ended my ownership interest in Valley High. I of course had some regrets shortly thereafter, but in the long run everything happens for a reason and I would not have accomplished what I have been able to do since had that decision not been made. That decision allowed me to go back and finish my degree at Ohio State and become involved in a most successful family business. I have many fond memories of not only helping to create the dream – the steps that it took to create the corporation, of work in physically building it, but also, the physical work part that it took to keep it running the first few years. I remember many nights working all night long making snow. It was very crude in those days by today’s standards. We had to drag air and water hoses all over the slope by hand. There were always numerous repairs inside and out to be done and that is the part that I enjoyed most. I never enjoyed the spot light and never got a real opportunity to ski other than during snow making times. This we did with shorty skis at the time. In fact during the official grand opening day I did not even participate. As our snow making water pump was broken I was working on repairing it so that we could make snow later that night. I would say that the skiing business is very much like the farming business. You are at the mercy of the weather and you have to “make hay when the sun shines, so to speak.” The crew of us would work vigorously all night long putting down snow so we could be open the next day; especially after a mild or rainy spell of weather when a sudden drop in temperature allowed us to quickly make some snow.
My father continued being active with the ski slope until he retired and sold his shares in 1975 along with others when Charles P. Conrad took it over and renamed it Mad River Mountain.
My father was very much a people person and those of you who knew him can remember how he enjoyed visiting with people and telling his many, many stories and jokes over and over again. My father passed away in April of 2000 at the age of 90.