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In 1948, Tony Wise—a squat, determined 26-year-old World War II veteran with a new Harvard Business School degree in hand—opened a ropetow on a 370-foot-high hill near his home in Hayward, Wis. Not one for understatement, Wise called it Mt. Telemark. Though it was already dwarfed by Aspen Mountain, Colo., which had opened the year before and would be further eclipsed by Squaw Valley, Calif., which opened the following year, little Mt. Telemark would one day boast something bigger than either resort has ever had: a base facility so immense that Billy Kidd once called Telemark “the only ski area where the lodge is bigger than the mountain.”
Of all the resort developers who ever lived, and they’re an exotic lot, Wise—who’d learned to ski at the U.S. Army’s ski center at Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany, during the war—was surely among the most exotic. He was one of the first to blanket an entire ski area with machine-made snow. He welcomed freestyle competitions when other areas shunned them. Nonetheless, Wise knew that a couple hundred acres of Midwestern hillside, far from a large airport and with 90 percent less vertical than Jackson Hole, wasn’t going to attract enough people to satisfy his ambitions—unless he did something about it. [NEXT “”]
In 1972, he did. Dropping the hyperbolic “Mt.” from Mt. Telemark, Wise ordered the cutting of miles of cross-country trails through the beautiful surrounding forest and boldly predicted that Telemark would one day be the Sun Valley of nordic skiing. The next winter, Telemark hosted the first U.S. cross-country ski marathon, the 51-kilometer American Birkebeiner.
The race finished at the base of the ski area—and what a base it had become! Wise had constructed the sprawling Telemark Lodge, with a 200-room hotel and 21,000 square feet of ballroom and convention space. It had a 55-foot-high stone fireplace, indoor swimming pool, restaurants, bars and a nightclub. Patrons came to see major headliners, including the orchestras of Count Basie, Harry James and Duke Ellington. Big names for a place Wise fondly called “the boonies.”
But trouble began in 1977. A week after King Olav of Norway honored Wise for his efforts on behalf of cross-country skiing, the Telemark Lodge burned down. Wise immediately set out to replace it with a $3.3 million center that would take three years to build. “He got the idea after seeing the Colosseum in Rome,” says Tom Kelly, who worked for Wise and is now the U.S. Ski Team’s vice president of marketing. Wise’s Wisconsin incarnation of the pride of Rome had indoor tennis courts and a gargantuan banquet room with seating for 2,000.
To no one’s surprise—except Wise’s—the project overwhelmed Telemark financially. By 1983, he owed $8 million to nearly 600 creditors, including the federal government. Four years later, he lost the palace of his dreams. The new owners dismantled the complex, selling it for scrap.
Not all of Tony Wise’s dream has vanished. Last winter, 10 years after he died, nearly 8,500 skiers amassed at Telemark for American Birkebeiner Week, including 4,400 racers for the legendary 51-kilometer marathon. And around the world, racers sought to complete all of the 14 marathons that make up the Worldloppet circuit, which he also created. The visionary ideas of a most improbable Wisconsin ski area operator do live on.