Published March 18, 2011
I’ve been working on my autobiography and ran across a 1938 sales brochure from Sun Valley, printed in black and white. All of the information is applicable today except for the cost. It stated, in broad headlines:
$88.35 ALL EXPENSE FROM CHICAGO
No place in America or elsewhere offers more delightful conditions for skiing than in this primitive region in Idaho. The slopes of the Sawtooth, which border the valley, provide a near perfect, timber-free terrain. The sun has summer warmth that allows you to ski without heavy clothing and the deep snow lasts until late spring.
Chair ski lifts and snow tractors available to all guests make it possible to pack more skiing into a few hours than any other place in the world. During the evening hours you may dance, play billiards or table tennis in the game room or visit the nearby town of Ketchum with its typical old West atmosphere or see a first-run movie in the Opera House.
How expensive was a ski week?
A seven-and-a-half-day round trip from Chicago including train ticket, a room at Sun Valley, all meals, ski lift ticket and lessons was $88.35. If you wanted to add an extra day or so to your trip, each day of meals, room, ski lift ticket and ski lessons cost $6.75 per day.
The skis you would be using would have been made of laminated ash and hickory and if you wanted metal edges the skis would have cost $17.95. You probably could have talked the department store clerk who sold them to you to include a pair of bindings for free, or at most $5.
Then you would need boots and poles and ski pants and gloves, so you would have had to budget $2 for poles, $17.95 for a pair of top-of-the-line genuine leather ski boots with big box toes, and around $4 or $5 for a pair of genuine, gabardine ski pants.
All told, including buying equipment, you could do the weeklong trip for about $120.
However, here is the bad side of the coin—in those days minimum wage was 25 cents an hour and the average clerk or office worker took home less than $500 a year. So this “Learn To Ski Week” was only for the well-to-do people of Chicago.
When I taught skiing in Sun Valley in 1948-49, I had a lot of just-off-of-the-train, for-the-first-time pupils because I taught the class for people who had never been on skis before. It was exciting for me to teach them about skiing and freedom and it was amazing for them to learn about it.
How can you estimate the good that came out of a lot of those “Learn To Ski Week” pupils? Actually there is no need to try and figure it out because it all adds up to life-changing moments when they finally got to ride the Half Dollar lift for the first time and make snowplow turns at 3 mph down to the very bottom of Dollar Mountain.
I had at least a half dozen people who took a train ride to paradise and then came back later in the winter for another dose of freedom.
In the late 1940s our teaching method was as inefficient as the skis were at the time. I had the occasional beginning pupil who showed up with skis without edges. They could sure do a snowplow a lot easier than the people with edges but they wound up going own the hill a lot faster even though they were not supposed to.
There was a special ski school pin for pupils who could ski down from the top of Baldy without falling. Little did they know that there was a catwalk from the top to the bottom.
I was paid 25 percent of the cost of a private lesson if I gave one on Sunday. I got in trouble with Otto Lang, the ski school director, one day because I had too many Sunday private lessons. I just assumed it was my job to encourage private lessons.
For many of my pupils that $88.35 represented almost 360 hours of work somewhere in Chicago or 45 days salary. A family of four could make the trip for about $360.
After the war when Sun Valley reopened, that “Learn To Ski Week” package had gone up to $125 a week—still an incredible bargain compared to today’s inflated prices. However, Ward Baker and I wanted to ski all winter. So I bought a $200, 8-foot-long trailer with some of the money I saved when I was overseas so we had a place to live. We dined on hot oatmeal for breakfast and free oyster crackers and ketchup at the Roundhouse for lunch. The rabbits we shot were cooked a lot of different ways.
When we did the accounting at the end of the year our learn-to-ski three months at Sun Valley cost us an average of 18 cents a day. With inflation today, that record will probably never be broken.