SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s ski past runs deep and wide in time, as much as with any ski community in the world. The problem, as Dr. Gregory Thompson found, is that this history was as scattered as snowflakes on the mountainside.
Utah’s skiing history was, as he discovered, locked away in family scrapbooks, old boxes in dark closets and in fond memories.
So, he set about bringing it to one location — the Utah Ski Archives.
Today, a half-century later, the ski archives in the J. Willard Marriott Library on the University of Utah campus hold thousands of photos, films, books and recorded memories of Utah’s skiing past all in one location and all open for public review.
To begin with, Thompson was asked to include Utah into a national look into the history of skiing, but money was short and the effort failed.
At the time he was involved in building a customized archive for American Indian tribes. It was there he learned to organize archives.
“I learned the ins and outs of being an oral historian," he said.
Hired on to work on special collections in 1983 for the U. library, he met Sue Raemer, then assistant to the director and an avid skier.
“I kept telling her that we’ve got to document (Utah) skiing. Skiing was a major activity here in Utah and the founding fathers, the very backbone of skiing, were passing,’’ he added.
Together they approached the library director about opening a ski archives and were given permission to proceed.
Thompson and Raemer recognized early on that it would be impossible to write the history of skiing without dealing with Alf Engen and the Engen brothers, Sverre and Corey, and focusing on the early years of Alta and Sun Valley.
“We approached Alf about starting a ski archives and he was very supportive. His became the cornerstone collection and the Engen family collection absolutely became the cornerstone collection,’’ he said.
This brought Alan Engen, Alf’s son, into the picture.
“And he became a real driving force,’’ Thompson said.
First, of course, they needed funding and hit upon the idea of a Ski Affair, a dinner banquet for interested skiers. The first was held at the Fort Douglas Club in 1990.
“We felt we’d be lucky to get 50 people. We ended up with around 150. The next year was even larger and by the third year we’d outgrown the Fort Douglas Club," he said. "People who hadn’t seen each other for 30 to 40 years were delighted to see each other again . . . The event told us that, indeed, we could attract an audience."
The next step came with an agreement between the library and Alan Engen, who was working on establishing the Alf Engen Ski Museum in the Joe Quinney Winter Sports Center at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City. The museum officially opened in May of 2002 and today is the official artifact depository for ski history, displaying more than 300 trophies, medals and photos of the late Alf Engen. It also houses skiing equipment dating from the very early days to today’s latest and most modern, along with equipment, memorabilia and stories that came out of the 2002 Olympics.
The archives and museum, said Thompson, a perfect marriage. The archives became the intellectual part of Utah’s skiing history and the museum became the depository for skiing artifacts.
“Over time it became obvious this relationship was extremely important. Both were supportive and self-service at the same time. Together the sum was greater than the two parts," he said.
“Over the long haul it allowed us to develop and document a pretty incredible story . . . the depth and grassroots of skiing and the ski industry. Utah and Utahns have contributed an incredible number of innovations into the industry.’’
Since the very first Ski Affair, Thompson has been very active in searching out and acquiring historical skiing facts. One of the best tools has been word of mouth. Skiers, and sometimes the family of skiers, have been eager to donate everything from photos to books. And, with funding from the affair, he has been able to purchase important collections that probably wouldn’t have come to the archives as a gift.
"One of the real challenges has been that we’ve collected so much, especially photographs and film, we struggle to stay up with the tutorial side," he said.
“We thought in the beginning that in 10 to 12 years we’d top out on this initiative and have to move on to something else. That hasn’t been true at all. We’ve seen some of the best collections come in the past six and seven years. Success beget success. It has allowed us to develop and document a pretty amazing story . . . the depth and grassroots of skiing and the ski industry here in Utah."
As of a few years ago, there were more than 70,000 still images, 5,000 motion films, 200 DVDs, 400 oral histories, 300 manuscripts and several thousand books in the archive. Thompson said there are now nearly 50,000 images online. Ski Racing Magazine recently gave the archives 300,000 photos.
As for the future, Thompson feels the archives needs to focus more on the 1970s on up to the 2000s, “where we wind up with the type of (ski) industry we have today.’’
The 25th Annual Ski Affair will be held Thursday (Nov. 5) evening at the Grand America Hotel. Special recognition will be given to the late Dick Bass, co-founder of Snowbird. Social hour will begin at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7:15 p.m. and awards at 8:15 p.m. For information call 801-581-3421.
For information about the Utah Ski Archives call 801-581-8863 or visit the library website at www.lib.utah.edu. For information on the Alf Engen Museum call 435-658-4240 or visit the website at engenmuseum.org.