From the Archives: Wooden Skis

Scandinavians have long been known for their beautiful wooden skis. These northern European countries are no stranger to snow and the use of two wooden planks strapped to a person’s feet meant the difference between thriving in cold conditions or not. Previous to our modern day notions of skis as a winter past time, skis were used for work purposes. Whether it was transporting the user, goods and messages from village to village, or hunting and protecting territories, skis allowed an individual to stay above the snow and the winter elements.

Scandinavians (primarily from Norway and Sweden) make up a major segment of Leelanau’s early European settlers. It was common for immigrants of similar cultures and languages to travel together and settle in establishments near one another. It is said that the Leelanau Peninsula offers a similar climate to that of Norway or other Scandinavian countries, and that fact appealed to the farmers and fisherman who were seeking a better life here in America. As the Erie Canal opened allowing more maritime travel throughout the Great Lakes, the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula and many of its safe harbors became the final destination for Scandinavian immigrants.

Living in a rural and under-developed area, such as Leelanau was in the mid-late 1800’s throughout the early 1900’s, skis were an essential mode of winter travel. Within the archives at the Leelanau Historical Society, we have several very old skis made and used around the turn of the century for daily life chores and winter fun from Leelanau’s past residents.

Nicholas Feilen (b.1851 – d.1938) made the maple skis pictured above. He lived near the school house on North Manitou Island and worked as a farmer and carpenter. In 1928, Mr. John A. Basch (b.1884 – d.1959), stationed on North Manitou as a Surfman for the U.S. Coast Guard, commissioned Nicholas to make the skis as a present for his 10 year old son, Sherwood J. Basch (b.1917 – d.2012).

In 2001, Sherwood donated these skis to the Leelanau Historical Society. Sherwood recounted fond memories of skiing to school from the Coast Guard Station with other boys from school. They would also ski at recess and made ski jumps on a nearby sand dune. The single leather straps held their feet in place and Sherwood recalls never using poles. Unlike modern times, they did not use special boots, but simply their everyday leather boots.

The double grooves found on the bottom of the skis were a later addition. They were cut with a table saw and allowed for better traction in the snow, something Sherwood said he struggled with prior to the grooves being added. He recalls waxing the bottom of the skis with paraffin wax. Evidence of this is still visible on the skis.

Sherwood does not remember the girls using skis, but he remembers many of the islanders also used snowshoes, probably purchased from mail order catalogs.

Another set of handmade wooden skis in the archives are pictured above. These incredibly tall skis belonged to Nelson “Nels” Frederickson (b.1887 – d.1964), a farmer in Northport. He apparently used them when he was in his 20s. They were made by a Swedish immigrant and well-known boat builder of Northport, Oscar Peterson (b.1854 – d.1921). These skis exhibit beautiful Scandinavian-inspired carvings on the tip and along the entire length of the skis.

This pair of skis belonged to Robert L. Viskochil (b.1892 – d.1965), who lived and worked on his family’s farm on the east side of Sugar Loaf. The skis were made of ash by Robert’s father Victor (b.1861 – d.1947), who applied heat to the wood in order to bend the tips of the skis. Gold plaques reading “Robert Viskochil 1908” were later added to each ski. Robert’s grandparents, Karel (b.1817 – d.1885) and Barbora Viskochil (b.1825 – d.1907), established their homestead at Sugar Loaf in 1855. In the wintertime, Robert and his siblings would ski halfway to the Shetland schoolhouse near Little Traverse Lake and walk the rest of the way. These skis once hung on display in the lodge at Sugar Loaf Resort and were billed as the first pair of skis used on the hill. They later returned to the Viskochil family cottage on Little Traverse Lake before being donated to the Leelanau Historical Society.

These wooden skis were donated to the Leelanau Historical Society by Dick Grout, who found them in a barn on his farm on Swede Road, Leelanau Township. The farm was originally owned by Oscar L. Johnson (b.1887 – d.1972), a Swedish immigrant who was a farmer in Omena for many years. The skis are handmade, with leather straps and painted details on the top. The tips are carved in a diamond shape.

These wooden skis were owned by Elizabeth Minczinski Sbonek (b.1859 – d.1933) of Cedar. Elizabeth was born in Poland and came to America at the age of 5. In 1876, she married Joseph Sbonek (b.1950 – d.1921). These skis were donated to the Leelanau Historical Society in 1989 by Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Phyllis Sbonek Carnahan. They are wooden, likely made of spruce, and have fittings made of metal, leather, and string. The tips of the skis are carved into a pointed shape. The skis were made by Strand Co., a ski manufacturer based in New Richmond, WI that produced skis between the 1870s and 1940s. The Strand trademark label is still visible on one of the skis.

This horsehide coat belonged to John N. Smith (b.1875 – d.1941) of Suttons Bay. It has a quilted cotton lining with red stitching and wooden buttons. Smith’s grandson Keith recalls, “I remember Grand Dad wearing this coat during cold winter months. He traveled to and from the village with horses and sleigh. He delivered wood to homes. Sometimes he met the train, taking a carcass of beef or veal. Other times, just to visit friends or cut ice out of the bay for ice house storage.”

With the lightweight and brightly colored skis that dominate the market today, it’s hard to fathom strapping two very long heavy chunks of wood to your feet and taking off cross country to your destination. It’s pretty rare to see someone skiing with wooden equipment anymore, and its more common to see these beautiful old skis in antique shops and hanging in someone’s home as decoration.

Do you have recollections or pictures of skiing in Leelanau county?
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Unidentified man and child standing with wooden skis on South Manitou Island. 1934