Back in 1970, Dan Matthies was working in Saginaw in the banking industry when he received an invitation to move to Sugar Loaf for the winter to teach downhill skiing at the resort started by Jim Ganter six years prior. “They wanted to create the best ski school in the state,” Matthies says. The hook was teaching a new French ski technique when other Michigan resorts were teaching an Austrian technique.
Matthies started December 22 and was supposed to go back to Saginaw in the spring, but he became enthralled with Leelanau County and never left. For one, he was surprised to see that a ski instructor could make good money because of all the people coming in attracted to that new French technique. Toss in free housing, free three meals a day, “40 percent off booze,” and clients picking up the tab quite often, and, well, Dan Matthies was living large on Sugar Loaf Mountain. He began selling real estate at the resort, “condos, A frames, because I could tell this place was going to go bonkers,” he says.
In the off-season, Matthies would also help with marketing, hitting the ski show circuit with the other instructors in the ski school. They’d wear matching outfits and line up next to the booth like a team.
“We were the hit of the show,” he says. “It took a lot of money, but that’s what you needed to do to keep the people coming to Leelanau County.” And the people did come. Back then, on weekends at the height in the mid-70’s, cars jammed the parking lot and spilled out onto the approach road, lining both sides for half a mile and more, and 3,500 skiers a day would ride the hills.
Matthies was so sure of Sugar Loaf, he opened a ski shop inside the main lodge. He made his money on Friday night when busloads of ski-club guys, fresh from drinking on the bus on the long trip north, would stop in to the shop on their way through the lodge. They’d look dreamily at a hot set of skis and say, “Someday I’ll be skiing on those.” Matthies stood ready with his pitch line: “I can have you on those boards for the first run of the morning.”
One year he won a ski retailer of the year award for selling the most equipment from the smallest space. “It was a gold mine,” he says wistfully.
But despite the resort’s popularity, in 1981, Sugar Loaf declared bankruptcy, an ending that Matthies chalks up to borrowing money at too high an interest rate when expanding Sugar Loaf’s hotel in the 70’s. An investor group from near Detroit led by attorney John Sills picked up the resort for $7.5 million, which included one golf course, the airstrip, the hotel, the ski hill, a wastewater treatment plant and nearly 1,600 acres total.
But Matthies felt the new owners didn’t understand ski resort marketing. And by the late 1990’s, “the people weren’t coming,” he says. On a day in 1998, Matthies backed up a Ryder truck to the lodge and emptied his shop.