This article was originally published in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of The Guide. It was the last issue of the publication. My thanks to Scott Nunn for the permission to reprint this.
The 1930s stand out as the hardest time in American history and the prelude to the Second World War; but during this period people flocked from all over the Midwest to Grayling to partake in winter sports at the Grayling Winter Sports Park.
A winter sports industry in Grayling came about during the late 1920s. The Grayling Chamber of Commerce took up the idea and a Winter Sports Association soon formed to carry out the work. A site was selected on the ridge between Grayling and Lake Margrethe, the divide between the Lake Huron and Lake Michigan watersheds. Cross country skiing, ski jumping, and ice skating were attractions, but by far the most popular activity was the toboggan run.
Ink White, writer for the Gladwin County Record, wrote an account of his midnight toboggan ride in 1939:
“There were five of us heavyweights on the toboggan Saturday night when Park Manager Johnnie Johnson shoved off from the heated shelter-house at the top of the slide. It was a crisp winter night and the thermometer stood at four below zero. I can’t remember any sensation that equals the first dip in that half-mile long run. ‘You were going 120 miles an hour’ said Johnson when we had finished our ride. And I didn’t doubt his word. I had simply closed my eyes and held tight, not even daring to take a breath during the 15-second descent. It was the greatest ride of any kind I’d ever experienced and well-worth the whole trip to Michigan’s winter sports capital.”
Thousands of sports enthusiasts came to Grayling every weekend during the 1930s. Many came by automobile; even more took the “snow train” from Bay City and Detroit. In 1939 train fare from Detroit to Grayling was a very affordable 35 cents! Six toboggan runs were packed from morning ‘til night, hundreds of people crowded the ice skating rinks and more were on the ski trails, including one trail that was thirty-one miles long. On one Sunday in 1939, 10,000 people set a single day record in park attendance. The park had an operating budget of $40,000, an annual Winter Queen who sat on the giant ice throne, a huge igloo, and a 36-foot snowman, all being illuminated at night.
The growth of the Grayling Sports Park was helped by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC had several camps in Crawford County, including Camp Hartwick Pines. Camp Hartwick Pines reopened in 1938.The primary project being the Grayling Winter Sports Park. Their major work was a $500,000 three-year construction project to build a bob-sled run to rival the track at Lake Placid, New York.
This was not the only winter sports site the CCC helped build. Caberfae, one of Michigan’s first downhill ski resorts, was constructed in the Manistee National Forest west of Cadillac, and the Silver Creek Winter Sports Park in the Huron National Forest near East Tawas was also built by the CCC at the same time.
The bobsled run was begun in 1939 but by the end of the year, national priorities changed after Germany invaded Poland. After Pearl Harbor the CCC was effectively finished, and all work shut down by the Spring of 1942. The bobsled run at the Grayling Winter Sports Park was never completed.
As World War II ended, the Grayling Winter Sports Park encountered new challenges. The 1950s saw a rise in popularity of downhill skiing and large ski resorts began to appear throughout the United States, many owned or managed by veterans of the US Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division. One such resort was in the Grayling Winter Sports Park’s backyard, Boyne Mountain. Other smaller downhill ski resorts also opened including Skyline in Grayling, and Sylvan Knob (now TreeTops Resort) in Gaylord.
Over time, the toboggan runs and ski jump gave way to downhill skiing. Name changes came as well; as Bear Mountain Resort it tried to compete with the bigger resorts for a time. Today it is Hanson Hills Recreation Area and is operated by the Crawford County Recreational Authority. It still offers downhill and cross country skiing, along with snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire mountain biking.