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Celebrating 70 years on the slopes: Buena Vista commemorates a milestone

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Suzanne Thomas, holding her granddaughter Lily, and her daughter, Laurie Schaper, pose with photos of their forebearers to illustrate the five generations of family to own and operate Buena Vista Ski Area. The photos show Leonard and Agnes Dickinson (left), who were the founders of the ski area, and their son Earle Dickinson, along with his wife Mariann (right). (Bria Barton | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI — With a sentimental smile and a gentle touch, Suzanne Thomas pores over decades-old photos of her family – some yellowed with age, others pristine in laminated binders – revealing their stories and what it means for five generations to call Buena Vista Ski Area home for 70 years.

“We step back in time often,” said Thomas, who is the third generation to own and operate the ski area.

Because, to visit Buena Vista is to visit a museum, and Thomas is just one of its many curators.

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Suzanne Thomas delights in reminiscing about Buena Vista's past. (Bria Barton | Bemidji Pioneer)

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From daughter, Laurie, who organizes group retreats, to grandson, Riley, who can be found stamping tickets on occasion, each member of Thomas’s family plays a role in sustaining an institution built by its original pioneering patriarchs.

“It makes it fun because we all work together, and we all get to be together quite often,” Thomas said. “They all do their part and are always on deck. I enjoy just being with our family and our employees and seeing a lot of smiling faces.”

She refers to an old photo of her father, Earle Dickinson, who is pictured standing in line with a horse at the chalet’s indoor ticket counter.

“We had to have a garbage can ready to take that photo,” Thomas said with a laugh. “But that was dad, such a character.”

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Suzanne Thomas reveals a name tag that belonged to her father Earle. It reads: "Lives on the slopes." (Bria Barton | Bemidji Pioneer)

Although Earle Dickinson died in 2006, he – along with his father Leonard – left behind an enduring legacy that has carried on through the succeeding generations of Buena Vista.

While their logging and pioneering heritage can be detected in the events they hold, now – as they celebrate their 70th year in business – the family culture of the ski area continues to be a staple that lures guests in and allows them to create their own traditions, year after year.

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“Our theme is ‘come home to Buena Vista.’ It means the families from the past will be able to come back here and bring another generation,” Thomas said. “We want them to feel the warmth of the area and feel comfortable – like this is a place they can call home forever.”

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Earle and Dick Dickinson at Buena Vista Ski Area. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

The 'Top of the World'

It was established early on – before the Dickinson family even broke ground on their current business – that the spot, now known as Buena Vista Ski Area, was a special place.

Here, on the Continental Divide, the village of Buena Vista was founded in the late 1800s, and its earliest settler, John W. Speelman, built the Summit Hotel on the “Top of the World.”

He advertised that when it rained, the water – which fell onto the roof of his hotel – found its way either to the Hudson Bay or to the Gulf of Mexico, depending on whether it drained off to the north or off to the south.

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The old Summit Hotel at Buena Vista was built in 1896. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

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However, as the years went by, the village failed to prosper and people moved away, but the Dickinson family remained.

Skiing had been a main mode of transportation – along with walking and horse-drawn wagons – from the time the first settlers arrived.

So, it was only natural that in 1936, Leonard Dickinson – a successful businessman who ran the Dickinson Lumber Co. and would become a state representative and senator – cleared some trees off a hill on his property for friends and family to enjoy alpine skiing, a sport that had also gained attention after its debut in the Winter Olympics that same year.

But it was Earle Dickinson, along with his brother Dick, who developed the business and opened their slopes to the public on Christmas Day for the 1949-50 winter season.

The first tow rope was installed that same season and was rigged to run off a tractor. The original chalet was made out of a grain bin.

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Skiers are pulled up the hill via tow rope with the early Buena Vista chalet in the background. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

For 20 years, the ski area relied on Mother Nature to provide the snow needed for operations, but in 1970, snow-making equipment was added. Chairlifts were also added in 1975, and between 1976 and 1978, the existing chalet was constructed.

“The ‘70s, that was really the popular time for everybody,” Thomas said in a 2014 interview. “It was big then. If you can believe it, I think the crowds were bigger back then.”

Over the years, however, more slopes were created, and as interest grew, snow-tubing was started in 2002.

Keeping up with tradition

While it’s a family affair running the ski area, Thomas admits it’s a constant job – even during their off season.

“It’s always been an ongoing list of things to do,” Thomas said. “We’re still working on the list that dad left us.”

In the warmer months, Buena Vista hosts weddings and occasional concerts as well as the Fall Colors Festival, an event that draws the public in with covered wagon rides along the Continental Divide and a history lesson from the days of the pioneers and lumberjacks.

In the wintertime, skiing events, such as the Snowjourn, take center stage.

Vintage memorabilia has been preserved throughout Buena Vista's history, and Suzanne Thomas hopes to one day have them displayed in a museum. (Bria Barton | Bemidji Pioneer)

“(Dad and Dick) wanted to always have an event that had something to do with preserving history. They always had a purpose,” Thomas said. “It’s a tradition that people mark their calendars for.”

And while Thomas envisions a new run to be added in the near future, she said she still takes delight in carrying out her father’s vision of “being here for the next generation” – providing a fulfilling destination for those looking to enjoy “socializing, exercise and old-fashioned family fun.”

“I think it's meaningful and quite an accomplishment that a business can meet its 70th year,” Thomas said. “It's definitely grand, and it takes a lot of people to keep this place going. It’s special, and I know dad would be proud that we are continuing on.”

The village of Buena Vista

If a booming little logging village had gotten its way in 1897, Buena Vista – not Bemidji – would have become the county seat of Beltrami County, and the Buena Vista Ski Area might very well not have been built.

The village of Buena Vista was established in the late 1800s, 75 years after Giacomo Constantino Beltrami explored the area in 1823.

Ralph Dickinson, whose son Leonard would start the Buena Vista Ski Area several years later, was another early settler. Logging camps were set up on Larson Lake and at a site between Turtle River and Buena Vista.

Dickinson built a trading post and a general store and later a box factory that made crates for eggs, berries and apples. By the early 1900s, Buena Vista included a post office and school, at least two more hotels or boarding houses, two sawmills, a Presbyterian church, two or three saloons, two blacksmith shops and two feed barns.

When the railroad route from Bemidji to Red Lake bypassed the village by about two miles, Buena Vista’s hopes for a larger dot on the map were squelched. In 1904, the village hosted “the first Beltrami County Fair,” but without the county seat designation or a railroad through town, businesses eventually closed and settlers moved away, but the Dickinson family remained.

Today, only the old schoolhouse survives and serves as a township hall. In 1981, the Alida schoolhouse was transplanted from its original site southeast of Bemidji and construction began on a log replica of the old Presbyterian church.

The two buildings stand side by side on the grounds of Buena Vista Ski Area. Train cars were moved onto the site to be converted into bunks for church groups and to recreate the Buena Vista “village.” One Pioneer writer noted the irony of the village having train cars, as it was the lack of a train that caused its demise.

Suzanne Thomas acknowledges that the ski area started by her grandfather Leonard Dickinson in 1936, might never have been built if the village had become the county seat.

Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society partners with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. Sue Bruns provided and wrote about many of the historical aspects of Buena Vista for this story. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org .

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