Petersons share Val Chatel memories

Helen Peterson and three of her six children talked about the fun and challenges of running a ski resort north of Park Rapids from 1953 to 1984.

Sharing memories and taking questions about Val Chatel on May 22, 2023, at Northwoods Bank in Park Rapids are Helen Peterson and three of her sons – from left, Scott, Thom and Jim.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Members of the Rod and Helen Peterson family reminisced about running the Val Chatel ski resort during the Hubbard County Historical Society’s program Monday, May 22 at Northwoods Bank in Park Rapids.

A participant in the Hubbard County Historical Society's May 22, 2023, program on the history of Val Chatel looks at a photo of the ski lodge on what Hubbard County is now developing as Deep Lake Park.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

The program was the historical society’s first monthly program of the year. Many of those participating in it were guests and/or worked at the resort between its opening in 1953 and 1984, when it closed.

“We moved from Fargo in about 1951,” said Thom Peterson, one of three sons of the couple who shared the floor with Helen. “Our parents started buying land up there by Val Chatel. I remember my dad said the first 40-acre piece he bought up there was for $400. That must have been 1951 or 52.”

When the ski area opened, he said, they had a little lodge heated by a barrel stove, “and we had electricity but no plumbing. So, we had men’s and women’s outhouses. Everybody thought it was pretty cool.”

In 1959, Helen started a restaurant. “There was no snow,” she said. “We had to have some way of living. We needed an income.”


To start, she recalled, they served an 8-oz. filet mignon for $4.50, with a relish plate, rolls and salad.

Lindy Lindeval, who owned the Whip-Poor-Will resort on Upper Bottle Lake at the time, helps out in the ski rental shop at Val Chatel. Peterson family members also recalled Lindy's wife, Elaine, cooked in the ski resort's restaurant.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Asked where she learned how to cook steaks, Helen said, “I learned on the grill, when I did it. I learned by guess and by gosh.”

“That was the day before any food trucks,” said Thom. “Everything was made for scratch. She had a recipe for butter crescent rolls and molasses brown rolls, and baked every day. Muffins, salad dressings.”

Tami Hensel said Val Chatel spoiled her to all other ski resorts. “I grew up coming up to Val Chatel,” she said. “I lived down in the Cities during the winter most of the time, and I joined the ski club thinking I’d go to all these ski resorts. Do you know what ski resorts were down there? They were concrete block buildings that you got to go in and warm up, and that was it.”

Liz Smith remembered hearing yodeling music outside at Val Chatel, and said her brother loved the place so much that he honeymooned there. “It just gave me such a love of skiing, I’ve never quit,” she said. “I think Val Chatel did a wonderful, wonderful thing for thousands of people in introducing us to a winter sport that we perhaps would not have had an opportunity to have.”

Dreaming and doing

According to this menu dated 1971, diners at Val Chatel could enjoy a filet mignon for $6.75, lobster with a half filet for $7.50, lobster tail for $7.25, a fried half chicken for $3 or hickory smoked ribs for $4.50.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Vallaurie Crawford asked how the resort turned out as “a perfect copy of the French side of Lake Geneva,” despite the design not being based on a particular European setting.

“It was all in Rod’s imagination,” said Helen. “He was a dreamer, and he dreamed everything up.”

Helen voiced amazement at how Val Chatel grew, starting with a single rope lift going up the bunny hill.


The first chair lift was built on-site in 1962, Thom said. Early on, the lifts were powered by tractor engines, with old tires used for pulleys.

This sign, pictured in the Peterson family's photo archive, advertised the entrance to Val Chatel until County Road 4, a.k.a. Lake George Road, was widened.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Rod Nordberg the Boy Scouts being hired to clear the land for the rope tow in 1952 or 53. “They were out there several days brushing it,” he said. “I think we got paid, either 15 cents or 20 cents an hour.”

“A lot of people just worked for fun,” Helen said. Others recalled how guests pitched in to cook, serve food, clean tables, wash dishes and sweep floors.

One participant remembered the Peterson boys being everywhere, running trucks, fixing rope tows, rescuing skiers when a chair lift broke down – “We had to jump out of the chair lift into the back of a truck,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody had a job,” said Thom. “Everybody did everything. Whatever had to be done. Scott was the most mechanical out of the group. He kept everything running, pretty much.”

Disasters and triumphs

A photo in the Peterson family collection shows deer hunters and their prey riding a chair lift in the 1960s at Val Chatel. Participants in the May 22, 2023, meeting of the Hubbard County Historical Society recalled this stunt making it into the Star Tribune.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

The sailing wasn’t always smooth. The Petersons recalled power outages that left candlelit diners wondering when their meal would come, and skiers on the slopes impatiently waiting for the chairlift to move.

At times, family and friends found themselves mending broken ropes and electrical wiring. “That was the backup we had,” said Jim.

Asked about their scariest moments, Scott recalled a girl’s hair getting caught in the pulley of the rope tow.


Norm Selberg, a WDAY photographer and friend of Val Chatel, painted this cartoon, complete with lyrics to an "O Tannenbaum" parody dedicated to the ski resort. Peterson family members led participants in a sing-along of the Val Chatel song during the Hubbard County Historical Society's meeting May 22, 2023, at Northwoods Bank in Park Rapids.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

“The lift shut off, an emergency shutoff,” Jim added, “but not until she was completely off the ground. And then a chunk of hair came out and she fell. It was just a big knot of hair on the lift. Fortunately, she had very thick hair.”

Jim’s wife, Sharon Peterson, remembered being driven into town at age 10 after breaking both of her legs on the slopes. Later, she said, her father disapproved of their marriage because of that connection.

Asked for favorite memories, Helen said, “I really don’t know. It was work. I guess it was having friends come around.”

“We had a few guest rooms there,” said Jim. “I remember just sitting around after the place was closing down, and getting into the evening, and somebody would talk about cross-country skiing. So we’d go open up the rental shop and fit everybody with skis, and we’d all go out on the cross country trails by the moonlight. That was fun.”

A combination of skiing and sledding was apparently a thing in the Val Chatel era, based on this picture from the Peterson family's collection.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Hensel recalled the TV show “Real People” coming to Val Chatel to film a bed race down the slopes. Another participant had her wedding shower and reception at Val Chatel. The Petersons said they hosted many weddings over the years.

Robb Swanson asked about Val Chatel’s dinner theater, which started in the late 1970s. Helen said a theater troupe from Bemidji was looking for another venue to play. Shows included as “I Do, I Do,” “Same Time Next Year,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Butterflies Are Free.”

“The food was always delicious, I remember that,” said Hensel.

Tom Conzemius reminisced about local kids being able to ski for $1 on Wednesday nights. Another participant remembered 4-H clubs having Christmas parties at Val Chatel. “You were a real community gathering place,” she said.


Asked if Helen skied, younger brother Jim said, “I’ve seen her standing on skis,” but didn’t remember seeing her actually skiing.

“I think once or twice,” said Helen.

Weird and wild

Peterson family photos show Val Chatel was a hoppin' ski resort in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and early 80s.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Scott remembered people from Fargo spending the weekend at Val Chatel bringing a can of gasoline with them, because gas stations were closed on Sunday.

Thom recalled how bears used to eat the food scraps out of Val Chatel’s landfill. Sometime after the landfill was closed, Rod kept a herd of goats on the slopes – “he’d tether one goat, and the rest of them would stay around that,” Thom said, moving them around from time to time to keep the grass under control.

This poster from the glory days of Val Chatel puts the resort's ski slopes in the context of Deep Lake and the adjacent Lake George Road, at right.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

“One day, they were tethered toward the bottom of the Bunny Duster, right across the bay,” he said. “We’re running around, trying to get food out, when all of a sudden everybody was up from their tables and they were all plastered against the windows.”

Family members went to look and saw a big, black bear coming down the hill toward the goats. The ones that weren’t tethered fled, Thom said, “and the one that was tethered went out to the end of her chain, and the bear came right down and grabbed her.

The back of a tri-fold menu from 1971 describes the Val Chatel ski resort north of Park Rapids as "a vision of Switzerland."
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

“The bear goes up the hill with the goat in its mouth, and some guy that I’d never seen before turned around and said, ‘Damn, you don’t get entertainment like that in Las Vegas.’”

In another favorite memory, Thom said, someone had shot a red squirrel and kitchen staff arranged it on a steak platter with its tail curled around, a red plastic sword in its side indicating “medium rare,” served with onion rings and a garnish, sent it up the dumbwaiter and called “order up” into the intercom, “and they sat in the kitchen waiting for the scream.”


Moving on

This advertising sign markets Val Chatel as the place where Paul Bunyan learned to ski, part of the Peterson family memorabilia presented to the Hubbard County Historical Society on May 22, 2023.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

After the resort closed down, the equipment in Val Chatel’s rental shop was dispersed between other ski areas in the region, including Detroit Mountain. It was there, Swanson said, that when he started skiing, his first pair of rentals had “Val Chatel” printed on them.

More of Val Chatel’s gear went to Andes Tower Hills in Kensington, including lift equipment, when that ski area was getting started.

Scott went on to a career in the St. Paul Public Works Department, Thom in real estate and Jim as an attorney with an investment firm. Their other siblings include Heidi, who lives in Wisconsin; William, in Colorado; and David, who died in his teens in a car accident.

“Whenever we get together as a family,” said Thom, “we tell all these stories, and they’re all true. I think if most people read a fiction book that was a collection of all these stories, they wouldn’t believe a one of them.”

All these people and more turned out May 22, 2023, at Northwoods Bank to hear Helen Peterson and sons Scott, Thom and Jim reminisce about their years running the Val Chatel ski resort north of Park Rapids. Attendees included former guests and workers who had memories of their own to share.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at or 218-252-3053.
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