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Hillside memories of Wilton's 'Little Switzerland'

A 1941 poster advertising the “Paul Bunyan Winter Carnival — Ice Follies,” lists skating, hockey and the special feature of Wilton’s "Little Switzerland.” The poster also advertised skiing, tobogganing and sleighing, with plenty of parking space, a warming house and a ski tow.

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The view from "Little Switzerland” as seen on Jan. 31, 2022, by Polly Scotland. This is the same view as taken in 1934 from the Larsmount Lookout Station, only Polly is not standing on the 35-foot fire tower. Grant Lake on the left is barely visible, but the unknown lake on the right is.
Contributed
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Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on  a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area . For more information about the Historical Society, visit  www.beltramihistory.org .

A 1941 poster advertising the “Paul Bunyan Winter Carnival — Ice Follies,” lists skating, hockey and the special feature of Wilton’s "Little Switzerland.” The poster also advertised skiing, tobogganing and sleighing, with plenty of parking space, a warming house and a ski tow.

This ski hill, also known as the “Larsmount Lookout” named for the 1928 fire tower, was simply called the “Wilton Hill.”

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A postcard from 1934 shows the view from the Larsmount Lookout Station. Grant Lake is to the left and an unknown lake on the right.
Contributed

In the 1940s the city of Wilton, population 139, had a sawmill and a mercantile/grocery store owned by the Rognlien Family. According to the December 1940 Pine Needles Press, a Conservation Corps Camp unit of 40 men, set out to develop a recreation area west of Wilton.

Plans included: alpine ski runs, a 2-mile, 1.25-mile cross-country ski trail, ski jump, toboggan hill, bobsled run and a parking area for 120 vehicles.

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Several Wilton residents still remember “Little Switzerland.” Jim Burford, retired owner of Wally’s Oil, recalls skiing when he was a kid in 1941. Burford said Henry Kramer, Sr., and his older sons Henry Jr. “Hank,” Bob and John were the main people involved in “Little Switzerland’s” operations.

Burford remarked, “Old man Kramer built the tow lift using a 1936 Chevy car engine transmission and clutch to engage the rope.”

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A poster from 1941 advertises the “Paul Bunyan Winter Carnival — Ice Follies,” including activites such as skating, hockey and the special feature of Wilton’s "Little Switzerland.”
Contributed

Childhood memories

Dick Johnson, was 8 when he skied “Little Switzerland.” Johnson’s dad, Oscar, made him six-foot skis out of black ash. Johnson’s bindings were two-inch straps tugged off of a horse harness. His ski boots were four buckle overshoes.

His dad worked on the lift and pulley system and Johnson remembers grabbing the tow rope and hanging on. “Woe to the guy behind me if I fell,” he said.

Johnson’s mom, Jenny, was the cook at the midway warming hut — a rough three-sided shack with benches along the wall. A fourth wall eventually was added as was a wood-fed stove. Johnson said that when the war came, skiing faded away in 1942.

“Once gasoline was rationed, there wasn’t any gas to run the engine for the tow lift,” he added.

When the war was over, there was renewed interest in the hill. Henry Kramer Sr.’s youngest son, Norman, remembers, “Wilton people started to ski again. My three older brothers (Henry Jr., Bob and John) and me, plus a few volunteers, worked the hill until January ‘51. That’s when Hank went to Fort Benning and Bob was deployed to Korea.”

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Henry Jr. “Hank,” Kramer, left, and Bob Kramer are pictured with an unnamed friend.
Contributed

That spring, Norman took the tractor, trailer and rope tow down by himself and stored the 1,200 feet of continuous rope, spliced by his dad, in the machine shop. Norman said someone got the tow rope and operated the hill after 1951, but he doesn’t know who. He didn’t think “they” were successful for more than a few years. Norman believes the hill had too much southern exposure to be an enduring success.

Elroy Rafferty, another Wilton boy, skied in the late 40s to mid-50s. Rafferty said that the main slope, with the tow rope lift, started at the top of the hill by the fire tower and went south.

“At first, the ski hill was flat before a very steep drop with a severe double-dip dropped us into a hollow before a quick lift. If you didn’t have strong knees, you’d sit on your skis at the secondary dip and fall. The run ran through the trees before allowing the skier to return to the tow rope.

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Wilton Hill is pictured in this undated historical photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

"Even though the hill only dropped 122 feet, it seemed like a thousand. For fifty cents, we could ski all day. And that included a burger and drink at the warming shack,” noted Rafferty.

The north slope was for toboggans. Once the toboggan slide was packed down, the run was slippery and fast and several people got hurt. The hill’s east slope, near the forestry cabin, was skiable, but there wasn’t a tow rope.

“It was a real workout to hike back up the east run,” quipped Rafferty. Like most of his friends, Rafferty had skis from the military surplus strapped onto rubber overshoes with leather bindings.

Not only did Rafferty ski, but during the autumn months, he helped the Kramer boys clear and cut the brush with whips. After the first snowfall, the boys cross-walked with skies to pack the snow down.

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Skiers are pictured on Wilton Hill in this undated historical photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

In the days that Jim Luadtke went to the big hill, he remembers skiing cross-country three miles before he could go downhill. “One had to be careful not to hit the large rock that stuck up like a lump with shrubs growing on top,” Luadtke said. “After a full day of skiing, I had to return home in time to milk the cattle and do chores.”

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Because of the distance involved, he only went four or five times a season in the early ‘50s, on maple skis with a strap running through. His poles were made of tamarack taken from the swamp.

Past its prime

Some say the heyday of the ski hill days stopped once the motor of the Chevy engine quit working in about 1955-56. However, people continued to visit the hill.

Memories solicited from Facebook about the 1960s to 1990s were varied. Former members of 4-H said they held cookouts there after sledding. A Bemidji State alumnus said that he used to take his 350 Yamaha Scrambler to the hill and try to climb it, but he never made it all the way up because it was too sandy.

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An unnamed skiier is pictured in typical attire for how people dressed in the 1940s and '50s.
Contributed

One 1998 Bemidji High School graduate said that he shredded the hill on his snowboard in the winter and did a lot of cliff-jumping into the gravel pit in the summer.

A local mother remembers hiking with her kids along a one-mile nature trail that meandered past remnants of Model A automobile rims once used for the tow rope operation, now overgrown with vegetation. The trail looped past posted signs, identifying such things as the Norway pine, poplar and cedar trees and area wildflowers.

Extraction begins

In the early 1990s, plans for the extraction of the sand and gravel in the “Little Switzerland” area began. A Bemidji sand and gravel company had held a surface lease to the State land since 1989 and asked the state for a permit to mine the hill.

Environmental impact statements and public hearings were conducted from 1992 to1993. In 1994, a limited permit for the removal of sand and gravel on state land was granted, but approval for further mining expansion was not given.

In 2007, legislation was enacted to formally recognize the public interest in a land exchange between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Beltrami County. In 2008, the state lease for mining was suspended and in 2013 a settlement was reached for the reclamation of the gravel site at Wilton Hill.

The land exchange project, formalized in either late 2014 or early 2015, was in large part due to the vision of Commissioner Jim Heltzer. With his effort, the centerpiece of the 230-acre reclaimed gravel pit was spared. In 2021, the lake west of Wilton Hill was named Heltzer Lake in honor of the late Commissioner.

Today, the full integrity of the 1,513-foot hill stands tall overlooking Rognlien Park on Grant Lake. “Little Switzerland” in the Wilton Hill Recreation Area has been preserved for the future enjoyment and pleasure of all.

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