THE HISTORY OF CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN
A Mountain Built by Community
What is now recognized among North America’s premier family destinations by the likes of Conde Nast Traveler and Fodor’s Travel began with a dedicated group of neighbors from Benzie County simply looking for a place to ski. It is that spirit which has sustained Crystal Mountain for over 60 years and will see it endure in the decades ahead. Above all, this is the story of a mountain built by community.
The Beginning at Buck Hills
It began as a school project. Ward Creech, a geography teacher and principal of Benzonia High School, gave his students an assignment: find the best place in Benzie County to start a ski area. After much research and deliberation the class determined the Buck Hills Range offered the best combination of terrain and snowfall.
In 1956, Buck Hills Ski Area became a reality. The first rope tow was powered by an old pick-up truck engine. A warming hut was built from donated lumber procured in large part due to the tenacity of Althea Petritz. Grooming the three downhill trails, including Buck which remains a favorite today, was everyone’s job, sidestepping uphill to create what passed for ‘corduroy’ in those days. But this was only the beginning.
Making a Mountain out of Buck Hills
In 1960, Buck Hills made the leap to Crystal Mountain Resort in what was literally a leap year. Ed Abbey, a Toledo businessman, led the push as part of a group of 96 shareholders, many of whom had homes around Crystal Lake which is where the mountain got its name. With the change in moniker came many substantial upgrades including a new lodge with dining and 21 rooms for overnight guests as well as a heated pool slopeside that was open year-round.
Just a short jaunt from the Lodge would be the resort’s very first chairlift located on Main Street. Like any construction project there were obstacles. For instance, the lift itself had to be airlifted in from Switzerland. Then of course, there was a language barrier. The instructions were written in German requiring Keith Van Duzen, Crystal’s first mountain manager, to visit Karl Luedtke in Frankfort for a translation.
Foray into Four Seasons
As ownership narrowed to just a handful of people by 1966, it became evident that to remain a winter playground the resort would need to generate business year-round. Golf wouldn’t come along until the late-seventies but summer was still a time to gather at the mountain. The Wednesday Night Ox Roast was a favorite with a round of beef, corn-on-the-cob, coleslaw, baked beans and strawberry shortcake $2.95 for adults and $1.95 for children.
The cadence of marching band drums and the rhythm of bouncing basketballs kept up the tempo between ski seasons. An NBA Hall-of-Famer (who would later become mayor of Detroit), Dave Bing, hosted a summer basketball camp. While the neighboring Interlochen Center for the Arts may be more renowned for its talented artists, Crystal also hosted its share of high school musicians. If marching bands weren’t performing, you could always find the Crystalettes from Ball State University entertaining dinner crowds each Wednesday through Sunday.
The Flip of a Coin
Legend has it that in 1981 sole ownership of Crystal Mountain came down to a coin flip between George Petritz and Robert Meyer, more or less. The winner would make the first offer, leaving it to the other to accept or make a better one. After an eloquent collaboration of gravity and fate, the coin’s rise and descent saw Mr. Petritz make the first offer and Mr. Meyer accept.
Crystal Mountain has been a family-owned business ever since. And not to put too fine a point on it, owned by a family of skiers – downhill and cross-country. And kayakers. And the list goes on and on. When it comes to playing outdoors the Petritz kids get it honestly from George and Althea while the MacInnes family brought the same passion when they joined in the mid-eighties. A life of activity and appreciation of nature has been a labor of love since 1956.
The Family Business
Countless families have been etched into the resort’s story but two couples in particular have left an indelible mark. As individuals Althea, Chris, George and Jim each would bring distinct talents, work ethic, perspective and leadership recognized as undeniably exceptional by everyone from the United States Navy to the Governor of Michigan.
George and Althea Petritz were here from the very beginning. While George passed away in 2010, Althea continues to practice yoga and remains active well into her ninth decade. Just as her unbridled enthusiasm for winter sports helped nurture what is now 58 downhill ski trails, her many years of dedication in the resort’s gardens inspire its beauty today. A World War II veteran awarded the Navy Cross and an accomplished businessman, George would stroll the grounds in his trademark blue coat planting a seed that remains strongly rooted at the resort, “A company is known by the people it keeps.” He was careful to hire, interviewing candidates whether it was vice president of marketing or staff cleaning the rooms.
Jim and Chris MacInnes traveled from southern California in 1985 to help run the family business. Both have a taste for adrenaline. Chris, President, a hall-of-fame downhill skier from St. Lawrence University and Jim, CEO, a former moto-cross racer. Both also had successful careers out west, Jim as Director of Venture Management for Ultrapower Incorporated developing renewable energy generation projects and Chris a Consumer Products Manager for McCulloch. In life and business, the couple represents the perfect marriage of experience, expertise and vision that has guided Crystal Mountain through three decades of dynamic growth and development.
Vision to Village
In 1990, Crystal Mountain embarked on an iterative master plan that would guide the resort through over $100 million in development during the next quarter-century. It began in the very center of the resort with construction of the Peak Fitness Center, which would later go through an expansion in 2009 to include Crystal Spa. From the Crystal Center to the Park at Water’s Edge, Michigan Legacy Art Park to the Crystal Coaster Alpine Slide, MountainTop to the most recent expansion to the Inn at the Mountain, a pedestrian-friendly village emerged, piece by piece attracting as many, if not more, guests during the summer and fall as it does when the lifts are running the hills are covered in snow.
Crystal Mountain is many things to many people. It is 58 downhill trails and 36 championship holes of golf. A place where some exchange wedding vows and others share innovative ideas. It is a place where people connect with others and also disconnect for some much needed solitude. Althea Petritz refers to it as “our heart’s home,” and in that way it beckons people back each year, each season to blend the pages of their own lives into its storied history.