History – Oakland Ski Club: The Early Years

Oakland Ski Club: The Early Years

The history of the Oakland Ski Club is rich and multifaceted. Send some time to read about our founding, growth, and background.

Please keep in mind that this account was written long ago and reflects its time. The first chapters were completed before 1950, the rest over 20 years ago, and it goes only through 1978. We’re working on bringing it up to date. In the beginning, the members referred to the club as OSKI. We’re not quite sure when that changed.

The Story Of Oski

These first chapters were written by: Norm and Evelyn Brown; Lou and Claire Elliott; Charles and Judy Dondero; Eric and Ruth Johnson; Bob and Jean Maier; and Carson and Vi White.

Some things happen, some things are planned, and some things just grow. The infant OSKI emerged into this bright shiny world in the most unconventional manner.


It all began back in 1937, the year of the “Big Snow” (27 feet at Soda Springs), in H. C. Capwell’s Tea Room in Oakland [Capwell’s was the major department store in downtown Oakland. The current Sears occupies the old Capwell’s building at Broadway and 20th]. Four Capwell employees, while lingering over a cup of tea, conceived the idea of forming a ski club. Their initial purpose was to promote the sale of skiing equipment and apparel, and to further stimulate interest in snow excursions organized by the store’s travel bureau.

Eventually, many employees and interested skiers became steady enthusiasts of these events, and the ski club idea began to grow. Through the advantages of group participation, long and luxurious trips were possible at low cost.

Since the majority of this group were young working fellows and girls with limited funds, this aspect of the club idea tied in very neatly with the size of their pocketbooks. With their element of adventure, these Sunday bus trips became most popular.

Their destinations were far-reaching in all directions: well-planned trips for some sporting activity such as skiing, water skiing, sand skiing, indoor skiing, bar skiing, swimming, picnicking, fishing, dancing, bicycling, and almost every other sport imaginable. Some well-remembered trips include those conducted to Cold Springs and Donner Summit. The “Mystery Trip” ended in a cow pasture near Jackson, where city officials turned out with quite a clambake, a steak dinner, and all the trimmings!

In the early days, the ski club investigated many skiing locales during one-day excursions, but the majority came to favor the Donner Summit area. The group members were fast becoming die-hard skiers and refused to give up the hill after only one day of skiing. Thus, they commenced seeking week-end accommodations, confronted by the fact that no commercial lodges could handle large groups around Donner Summit. The only alternative was to split up into smaller groups and seek scattered lodgings. Some occupied cabins, while others stayed in the dormitories at the old Donner Lake Resort, where the group was first introduced to folk dancing.

Many will remember with reluctance the gay times at the Malutes Cabin, sometimes known as the “Sardine Can,” at the old Fox Farm, where as many as twenty-five crowded into a four-room cabin. And the North Pole Annex at the House of Vanderford’s can hardly be overlooked, with its emphasis on frozen heat and natural ventilation.

To overcome these difficulties, the group was fortunate in discovering an old sanatorium building in Colfax. The members spent the following summer preparing it as the club’s winter headquarters. The lodge became known as Snowline Lodge, but it proved most discouraging because of the 38-mile, gruesome trip back and forth from the summit. However, it did confirm the need for a private lodge on the summit and stimulated interest in that project.


The first official club meeting was held in November at Hotel Oakland: Officers were elected, constitution and by-laws were written, and committee chairmen were appointed. Fifty members signed the charter, many of whom were notable leaders of the city’s government and businesses. Thus with much ado, the Oakland Ski Club was born.

A series of club meetings was held at various places, beginning with the Hotel Oakland. The girls found it most interesting when meetings were held at the Y.M.C.A., where members practiced their first pre-war city blackout. One meeting was held at the Oakland High School in the little theatre. The fellows found meetings more interesting when they settled down for a stay at the Women’s City Club. However, for the next several years, the Park Boulevard Club House became the well-rooted meeting place.

The club paper was first introduced under the name of “The Upski Downski” and later reduced to The UPSKI. The monthly paper became outstanding during the early days because of the many advertisements it published and its large distribution through various sporting goods stores.


The plans conceived in the club’s infancy of having a private lodge in a good ski area were put into high gear, hastened along by the hardships experienced at Snowline Lodge. With less than $500 in the treasury, a building committee was formed to select a site and commence the project.

Donner Summit already meant “home” to all the members, so there was no difficulty in selecting an area. The sites available here were near the Sierra Club Lodge or near the McClellan Field Lodge, situated on the Old Summit Road, one-half mile west of the summit. The latter site was chosen. It was one of five adjoining lots, open to ski club organizations only, in a new tract with water

rights. The federal government granted the club a 99-year lease for $25 a year. Late in the summer, large groups of members came forth to break ground. They felled trees and blasted stumps to clear the area. Excavation commenced, but the solid rock strata presented difficulties that were not conquered until the following summer.

Winter found all Oskis with one obsession in mind–to raise money for the lodge. With dances, raffles, and social affairs of all descriptions, the treasury began to grow. Members subscribed freely when building-fund bonds were issued, later to be repaid in lodging. Architect Frank Merwin, who had taken on the job of designing the lodge, completed the plans to the last degree of perfection. It was his ambition to create an ideal ski lodge. His creation has since proven so successful that other lodges have been built along these lines.


With the completion of the excavation, work parties commenced the construction of the granite foundation, announced by a blast in the August UPSKI headline, “Oakland Ski Club Starts Lodge.” The foundation, however, was found to be most difficult for weekend labor. Though manpower was abundant, the 30-by-50-foot foundation proved too great a task. Stone masons were called in, and, with their help, the job was completed the following spring. On the home front, folk dancing was organized and held at the Big Bear Tavern to raise funds.


Many Oskis spent their vacations at hard labor on the structure. Our membership “melting pot” included skilled and unskilled hands at every trade. Friends skilled in building trades were enticed to lend a helping hand. The dream soon took shape, and the structure rose out of the wilderness by the grace of God and the hard-working Oskis. Every week, 40 to 60 eager fellows and gals hauled,

sawed, and nailed lumber from dawn ’til dusk.

The gals cooked over an open fire even in a blizzard to feed the laboring crew. In rough weather, the workers sheltered under large bomber crates donated by the McClellan Field Lodge. The OSC gang became known as the “scavengers of Donner Summit,” for using many a snow-shed timber discarded by Southern Pacific for lodge construction. The crew was working feverishly against an approaching snow storm when news of the Pearl Harbor disaster reached them. Upon the declaration of war, all work was suspended on the nearly completed structure. As the area was isolated by government control of the railroad sheds, the lodge was boarded up to protect it from the winter storms, and the task of defending the country began.


February brought notice that the lumber debt of $1200 was overdue. The lumber company seemed interested in obtaining a ski lodge of its own and threatened foreclosure. The call went out to the members, and again they rallied with the usual Oski spirit prevailing. They saved the lodge by the purchase of the second bond issue and some generous help in the way of loans.


With great difficulty, the club obtained government permission for work parties to make periodic surveys of the lodge and repair damage caused by the heavy snow loads.


The war was over, and the government lifted restrictions. Since winter had set in, no work could be done, but plans were made for the completion of the lodge. Quarters were leased adjacent to the Ski Hi for the winter skiing season, with profitable results. The club ambitiously inaugurated the Annual Skiers Ball, which was acclaimed a social and financial success.


The lodge was rushed towards completion, with plumbing, wiring, and inside carpentry among the finishing touches. A forced-draft oil furnace and stove were moved in. During late fall, the cornerstone was laid, bearing the inscription “1941,” the year of tremendous achievement in the building of the lodge.


Work parties installed the three oil storage tanks and oil water-heater with bunks and settees and kitchen equipment. New constitutional changes took place at the meetings. The lodge was pronounced officially open for operation. After a very successful season, our lodge caretaker disappeared–and at the same time several hundred dollars of club funds were also found missing.


The club embellished the lodge with several accessories: the aluminum roof, additional heating ducts, lockers in the basement, colorful drapes in the lounge, and–most important–the “Polar Club” in the basement ski room. The year saw the Oskis sponsoring the C.S.A. Class “B” divisional races.


Lodge upgrades included painting the inside and outside trimming, installing a new sink, arranging additional fire equipment, and placing drainage tile around the lodge underground. At the request of the Forest Service, members painted the aluminum roof.

The lodge will always need “loving care,” even though no more “slave gangs” need toil. It stands today as a living memorial to all the Oskis who, through their ambition, saw their dream realized. It is a true tribute to unselfish cooperation. As members, we must remember that we are all part owners of this $50,000 enterprise. Many junior skiers have been sponsored into the club, and a ski patrol service has been well organized.

1949-1978: The Story Of OSKI Continues

The following chapters were written by Nicki Millor and Loretta Jacobs

Over the years, the Oakland Ski Club grew in size and pursuits. It maintained its nearly 200 regular members and greatly increased its junior and inactive membership. Some of the latter lived as far away as Connecticut and Honolulu. Club meetings were held the first Thursday of each month. Members continued to meet at the Park Boulevard Club House until the fall of 1964, when they moved to the Lake Merritt Boat House.

1n 1972, the members, tired of the boat-house draftiness and spurred by an increase in rent, moved to Shakey’s Pizza Parlor at Jack London Square for a number of years. Pre- and post-meeting socializing was an integral part of club activities and often the source of UPSKI columns such as “Sitzmarks–or, What We Left Behind Us” (1939-1978), “Grumelda Grundge and Heel Releases,” and “Sierra Sue.” [Alas, copies of these do not seem to have survived.]

From 1939 to 1941, the UPSKI had been professionally printed. Rising costs and dwindling advertisers created the need for the club to type stencils and run off the newsletter on a mimeograph machine. With great joy, in 1978, the club replaced the old Roneo duplicator with a Gestetner, and the presses continued to keep Oskis well informed. The members also published the DOWNSKI, an annual membership roster.

Activities of the club reflected the interests and talents of members. Perhaps each ten-year period has its own personality exemplified by the variety of club activities. Families with growing children predominated the ranks. Annual family-oriented activities included: bike riding through the wine country, water-skiing on the Delta, tennis tournaments, and an August potluck dinner meeting, A beach party brightened September, and a Christmas Party topped off the year. The club even held a ski-fashion show!

1n 1973, 40 Oskis went down the Stanislaus River on rafts. In 1974, they went down the Truckee River in anything that floated. Adult-only activities included bridge and golf tournaments. One weekend per winter was designated “adults only” at the lodge. These latter weekends encouraged highjinx and high spirits. The club photo album visually brings back memories of frivolities in the Polar Club.

Over the years, the club organized ski trips to Banff/Lake Louise, Jackson Hole, Alta and Mammoth Mountain. On the other hand, some mornings require a lot of organizing just to get members over the hill to Squaw Valley! Oskis are really spoiled by the proximity of Sugar Bowl!

Many OSC men and women have been members of the National Ski Patrol at the Bowl. Other Oskis have provided leadership in running the Sugar Bowl races or getting cold toes as race gatekeepers and timers.

Enthusiasm for the club race weekend runs high in March each year. Rather than race by traditional levels of ski ability, Oskis race in age groups 16-25, 40-55, and 56+ years for men and women. This arrangement encourages Oskis to enter the contest regardless of race experience. Winning the “Can Up” trophy is almost as much fun as winning an Olympic gold medal! As one’s racing ability

improves, age competitors become more aware of each other’s birthdays. The level of “39-and-holding” remained a popular category.

Junior race weekend was initiated in 1954 and remains exciting for most juniors under 16 years old. The obstacle race course is just as challenging as any downhill-course.


The Oakland Ski Club sponsored the annual showing of John Jay’s latest ski movie. This involved many side activities such as participation in the Berkeley Football Parade where we advertised the movie with a succession of skating snowmen and pretty girls and abominable snowmen on floats.

We enjoyed pre-ticket sales parties and a splendid state of solvency.

To keep pace with the membership’s growing needs, the following years saw expansions and renovations of our lodge.


This was the summer the kitchen was moved east about 30 feet – unbelievable but true! Just ask any old-timer who was there when the outside wall was moved. The dorm bathrooms were enlarged, and stainless steel showers were added. Also, a cozy apartment was added above the kitchen for the winter caretakers. The competition for these quarters on Friday evening of a summer work party is high. First couple to arrive usually wins. A large window facing Sugar Bowl was put in during the summer of 1977, which adds to the attractiveness of the room.


This year saw our first major constitutional change, recognizing the need for an additional vice-president to lessen the work load of both summer and winter lodge operations. The first vice-president became the winter chairman, with the second vice-president taking over the summer responsibilities. Bill Freitas, a popular and active member, died in an automobile accident. That

year, under the direction of Reg Robinson, we sponsored the first dual-slalom team-race ever run in Northern California. The race was called the Bill Freitas Memorial Race. An average of ten teams, involving 100-plus racers, participated. The winning team received the Bill Freitas Memorial Perpetual Trophy. The Oakland Ski Club held this race every year until 1969, when sponsorship was taken over by the Bay Area Council.


The Winter Olympics came to Squaw Valley. Oskies arrived in special buses departing Donner Summit each morning and returning in the evenings to a pre-planned party and activities. Bunk assignments were made in advance so members had an opportunity to view the games. [Ed. note: That’s what it says; I don’t know what it means!]


Following a “floor-plan contest,” the Polar Club was rebuilt, increasing its size and comfort. Improvements included asphalt floor tiles, additional lighting and heating, and a Swedish fireplace on a new rock hearth. Under the direction of stone mason and member Tony Fiorese, plaster was chopped away from the original stone foundation wall, exposing its natural beauty. Everything was

changed but the enthusiasm of the pre-dinner parties. The decor remains rustic.

Thanks to Ken Fenley, a new wet-bar and handsome durable wooden coffee tables were added to Polar Club furnishings in 1967.Usually a warm fire and simmering hot soup was available to greet Oskies when they arrived on Friday night with cold noses and laden with gear. Lockers lined

the basement corridors. Having one’s own locker at the lodge was H A P P I N E S S!

These years saw the addition of the third-level metal fire escape. Let’s hope it is never needed! The volleyball court was reconditioned down behind the lodge, but it was often overgrown with weeds. Swimming and boating at Donner Lake or Maiden’s Retreat were the usual summer activities after the day’s work was done. For many years, summer work parties involved maintenance, care of the lodge, and improvements in creature comforts. The furnace, jukebox, and roof received the most attention. The work was proportionate to club finances and/or the degree of impending disaster.


This was an exciting summer at the lodge. Under the creative direction of Ruth Moen, the lounge was redecorated with comfortable, attractive furniture and drapes in bright colors of lemon, orange, and avocado. Wrought-iron table lamps and chandeliers appropriate to a ski lodge atmosphere added to the appeal of the main lounge. This was a large undertaking for the club, and skiers were surprised by the new appearance and comfort of the lounge that winter. It is so easy to snuggle into the corner of a couch and sleepily gaze at the fire after an exhilarating day on the slopes. The lodge was invitingly pleasant year-round.


At last the “game” room was finished. It took three summers and many winter evenings of hard labor by young and older Oskies to complete the spacious recreation room at the southwest corner of the lodge. Walt Bearden was the architect and supervisor for the project. The club originally envisioned it as an area for the growing number of teenagers in the junior ranks. However, most of these young people went off to college or became senior members by the time the room was completed. Ping-pong and poker games in the rec room could get pretty lively and noisy late at night without disturbing the slumber of skiers in the dorms. The deck above the game room was a pleasant place for parties during the summer. When the mounds of snow were shoveled off the deck in winter, it was a great place for nonskiers to work on a winter tan.


These were the years of the California drought! During Christmas week of 1976, Oskies could drive up to the front door to unload gear. New Year’s weekend became a work party. There was not enough snow to insulate the water pipe from the spring, and the water froze in the line. Despite the bitter cold weather, a hardy group of men and women using pickaxes dug up the frozen ground, put hay around the pipe, and got the water flowing to the lodge.

Despite those who like to wash dishes, pots and pans, and such by hand, Vivian Nesbitt, our second woman president (1973-74), promoted modernization of the kitchen. . . . A dishwasher was installed! The men seemed to get out of the kitchen and down to the Polar Club within an hour after dinner. [For most of OSC’s history, it was traditional for men only to do the dishes.]

During these years, many Oskies discovered cross-country skiing. The Alpine skiers soon learned not to scoff at Nordic skiers when they attempted to schuss down Nob Hill on skinny skies for the first time. Each winter, starting in 1972, there was a cross-country weekend. Tours frequently started out from the lodge and proceeded around lake Van Norden to the bridge above the lake. Or skiers explored the back side of Boreal Ridge or Mt. Judah. For some families, this was a way to beat the rising cost of lift tickets. For others, it was their favorite way to enjoy the snow. And for some Oskies, it was the way to commute to Sugar Bowl and avoid the long lines at the Magic Carpet. Old-time members like to remind new members that they used to hike into the Bowl through knee- (chest-?) deep snow!


The rain and snow returned to California. Water rationing was over, and the lodge again filled to capacity. Oskies who had forgotten about the leaks in the roof were damply reminded of the need for a new roof. Due to a successful ski season, the club was once again financially solvent. Thanks to the direction of Fred Allen and the multiple talents, skills, and resourcefulness of club members as work crews, an entirely new roof was put on in record time….Three work parties! Tots, teens, and Oskis of all ages were put to work. Those not on the roof shoveling off old shingles and metal or placing sheets of aluminum on the bare roof were assigned to pick up nails and other debris.

The old aluminum was swapped for a cord of firewood. By mid-August 1978, the lodge roof and grounds looked beautiful and were ready to pass the annual inspection by the Forest Service.

As the warm summer days passed, one could stand on the deck and see traces of last year’s snow on Silver Belt and begin to anticipate another ski season. For 40 years, the Oakland Ski Club has fostered fellowship among skiers in the Bay Area. For 31 years, the lodge has been home away from home for Oskies. With 59 more years on our lease, the Oakland Ski Club will continue to promote skiing and friendships and to provide a comfortable lodge for year-round use by members.

To be continued . . .

Your Reservations
Your reservation cart is empty.