When Jane Solberg talks about the early days of ski racing, she still sounds competitive enough to test herself against anyone on the slopes.
As a student at Whitefish High School in the 1950s, Solberg had plenty of success racing, and she’s proud of it.
“I could out-ski most of the boys, except my brother and Martin [Hale],” she says with a sly grin.
Solberg’s history with skiing in Whitefish goes back to Big Mountain’s first days of resort skiing. For the price of 25 cents, 11-year-old Solberg (then Jane Seely) and her brother John took the first paid rides up the T-Bar on Big Mountain Ski Resort’s opening day, Dec. 14, 1947.
Their father, Whitefish Chamber of Commerce president Brad Seely, had spent the night up on the mountain working alongside Ed Schenck and others to fix the lift, which failed the day before it was set to open to the public.
With their father helping load the lift on opening day, Solberg and her brother got the opportunity to take the very first ride.
“They worked most of the night,” she recalled recently sitting down with the Pilot. “My dad came home in the morning and said, ‘OK, you’re going skiing.”
“[The ride] was kind of short. We had to get off at Tower 4, because for one we didn’t know how to ski [very well].”
That quickly changed.
Solberg said by the end of the week the two of them were cruising down from the mountain’s summit.
The Seelys came to Whitefish in 1946, moving from Helena after Brad Seely got out of the service.
A civil engineer for the Works Projects Administration, Seely had worked on the clubhouse at Whitefish Lake Golf Course and was quick to pick out Whitefish as his new destination.
The family purchased a summer resort called Glenwood Park and lived in a much more scaled-down home than what Solberg and her brother had come to know.
“We shared the same room in a split-log cabin, no insulation and an oil stove. We both couldn’t get out of bed at the same time because it was so small,” she remembers.
Her parents became involved in the creation of the ski resort — one often-told anecdote involves Seely locking the meeting room doors until shares for the resort were sold — and Solberg and her brother spent most of their time either up on the mountain while the adults worked, or riding some makeshift skis down “Street’s Hill,” a hill on Russ Street’s property near their home. Russ and Mary Jane Street ran Street’s Grocery on Central Avenue at the time and were instrumental in the ski resort’s development.
The skis they used then were a far cry from what kids are wearing today, she said.
“Bear trap bindings, the whole thing. We’d never seen skis in our life,” she recalled. “But after school, it shut us up. They sent us out on their skis to the rope tow.”
By the time she was in high school, Solberg was ready to put her skiing skills to the test.
In 1950, she and other students started a racing team under the direction of Lloyd “Mully” Muldown, teacher and later superintendent at Whitefish Schools.
“We started racing then, this motley bunch of kids from Whitefish, Montana, most of whom had never skied before in their life,” she said. “By the winter of 1952, we were looking pretty good.”
The girls team consisted of Sheila Lacy, Kaye Simons, Sharon Hileman, Fay McKenzie and Solberg.
They racked up a number of successful outings in races across the Pacific Northwest and Canada, including a first place in the Montana State High School Championships and a trip to the Junior Nationals in Winter Park, Colorado.
Solberg recalls one race in particular in Rossland, Canada, where the girls from Whitefish swept the trophies.
Having skied well in the girls division, Solberg said she also stepped in to fill a gap in the jumping competition on the boys side.
“Because my brother’s name was John, and I’m Jane, they just changed it to J. Seely,” she said with a laugh. “So I’m up on top, nobody really realizes until I get up with these guys. And I fell on the first jump, and a guy came over from the sidelines and somebody said, ‘Is he hurt?’ And the guy said, ‘He? Hell, it’s a she.’”
An injury cut her skiing season short her senior year.
Solberg took a hard spill during a race in Helena in 1953 and ended up with a bad neck injury. She spent the next four months in a tight neck brace that restricted most movement until she’d fully recovered.
“[The doctors] made me promise never to adjust it. I lowered it once in a while when I kissed him,” she said, pointing to her husband, Dick Solberg.
After high school, Solberg spent a year studying at the University of Montana before she and Dick got married in 1954. The couple went on to raise four kids, Jenanne, Christopher, Tina and Sannan.
In 1972 she completed her bachelor’s degree in speech pathology from the university and followed it up with a master’s degree two years later.
Thinking back to the early days of Big Mountain, what stands out to Solberg are the personal stories.
There’s the stories of the people who get passed down every time the resort hits a milestone anniversary, like Ed Schenck or Toni Matt.
Solberg said after so many years of visiting with Schenck in his office, she told him he felt like a second father to her. No matter what paths they were taking in life, she never lost touch with him or his wife, Marguerite.
And Matt, the Austrian ski celebrity and racing coach, always knew how to stoke the competitive fire in Solberg right before a race.
“If I’d hear somebody’s time, when I was up on top and haven’t started, he’d say, ‘Think you can beat that?’ He knew he could get to me,” she said.
Then there’s the names that aren’t passed down as much, but ones that stick out to Solberg and her husband.
There was Earnest and Marge Tapley, who got Solberg and her brother started on skiing with the Haskill rope tow on the lower mountain.
Mac MacDonald, Marguerite Schenck’s father, and Gene and Rhona Gillis continued their informal ski education in the early days.
At the lodge, Solberg recalls the favors Dot Overmeyer, who ran the kitchen, would hand out to someone willing to work.
“Nobody talks about that. She would let me do things like come in and wash dishes once in a while and I’d get a free hamburger,” she said. “She knew all of us, everybody up there, and she lived on the mountain.”