When Mt. Ashland opened to the public for skiing on Sunday Jan. 5, 1964, the slopes were coated with just one foot of hard-packed snow and about 4 inches of powder.
With beginner runs not yet built, about 150 intermediate and advanced skiers traveled past Lithia Park on Ashland Loop Road for the 10 a.m. opening.
A narrow, one-lane road funneled skiers to the mountain's summit, the culmination of several years of planning by county businessmen and thousands of dollars donated by the community to build the ski area lodge and the first permanent lifts.
"It was sort of a valley-wide project," said Dan Bulkley, who already had been carting Southern Oregon College students up the mountain for 10 years before the ski area opened to the public.
Medford Chamber of Commerce President Glenn Jackson used his considerable political connections to gather support for a ski area on Mount Ashland, and he fronted much of the startup money, Bulkley said.
Jackson, chairman of the board of Pacific Power and Light and an influential member of the Oregon State Highway Commission, had the idea for a ski area planted in his head by local engineer Jack Nichols, said Barbara Hanel, whose husband, Jack Hanel, attended Toastmasters club meetings with Nichols in the late 1950s.
Hanel said Nichols — at the suggestion of her husband — gave a speech on the potential to develop a ski area on Mount Ashland, and the idea went over so well with Jackson that he ended up laying the groundwork for a fundraising campaign and the formation of the Mt. Ashland Corp. in 1962.
"(Jackson) was a very powerful man," said Hanel. "He could flick a finger and get anything done."
By 1963, enough money had been raised to fund the building of a T-bar lift, rope tow and four-story lodge, and Medford's Batzer construction began work that year.
Hanel, now in her 80s and still a skier on Mount Ashland, said few members of the mountain's first board of directors skied or knew much about running a ski area.
"It was a rocky start," said Bulkley, who believes the ski area may not have survived at first if he hadn't brought so many skiers from the college up to the hill for lessons.
"We had 500 college kids going up there midweek for lessons," said Bulkley, now 95. "I'm sure that's what helped keep the mountain open."
Bulkley also helped form the Mt. Ashland Ski Patrol, serving as its first director and remaining a patroller for 28 years.
The ski area had developed a solid footing by the early 1970s, when skier Stewart McCollom moved to Ashland to take a job at Southern Oregon College as an assistant to the school president.
McCollom was appointed to the ski area's board to protect $100,000 in bonds the college had invested in the ski area, but after three bad snow years, and a bad winter storm that buried and destroyed one of the hill's T-bar lifts, the Mt. Ashland Corporation folded, transferring investor bonds to a private company.
"At that point, there was no future," said McCollom, 84, who still lives in Ashland. "We decided it was necessary to close down the mountain."
"I thought there was a good chance that another corporation could take the ski area over and run it," he continued, "if I could just get a group of people together who could run the mountain at least temporarily."
McCollom turned to his colleagues at the college for help. He was able to recruit the school registrar, business manager and groundskeeper to form the Southern Oregon Ski Association and run the area beginning in the winter of 1974.
The foursome would meet early each morning to discuss mountain operations — and to avoid getting hassled for using college time — and after three winters running Mt. A, offers to buy the ski area back from the bond company began to come in.
Interest came from a group of dentists in Medford, a radio producer from San Francisco and a pro football player, but none could pay the $1 million the bond company was requesting, McCollom said.
"But then, in walked Dick Hicks," said McCollom.
Hicks, a ski patroller and businessman from Grants Pass, wrote a note to the bond company saying, "this is my first and last offer," McCollom said, and he attached a check for $100,000.
McCollom said was shocked when he heard the company had accepted Hicks' offer.
Hicks ran the ski area from 1977 to 1983 and is credited with revitalizing the area into a profitable business.
In 1983, he sold the ski area to a Washington corporation that renamed the ski area Ski Ashland and spearheaded a campaign for expansion.
But after seven years of waiting for expansion approval and two years of bad snow, the corporation decided to cut its ties here.
With the company threatening to dismantle Mt. Ashland's lifts and move them to Washington, and no suitable buyer stepping forward, the community rallied and raised the money needed to save the ski area.
"It was this tidal wave of enthusiasm," said McCollom. "There was this great feeling about how important our little ski area really was."
Over the winter of 1991-92, the fundraising campaign, led by Rogue Ski Shop owner Bob Matthews, raised more than $1.3 million in three months.
By the summer of 1992, a newly formed nonprofit called the Mt. Ashland Association took control of the mountain and still oversees operations today.
Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or email@example.com.