Challenging the Mountains
The Life and Times of Wendell T. Robie
Bill G. Wilson 1998 249 pages, large format
Here’s an example of our readers helping out. The 1952 snow articles and pictures about snow removal in the November, ’19 Heirloom interested Phil Sexton who used to be the Big Bend ranger and who now works for the State Parks in Sacramento at the Capitol. He remembered this book and sent the title along to our editorial staff. (Let this paragraph serve as an encouragement for you to send along your own ideas.) The book is available on the internet.
Wendell Robie was an amazing man who made huge contributions to his local community and to the Sierra. Unfortunately this book does not rise to Robie’s level and so is a disappointment. Even though this book is a disappointment we’ll include it in our collection of Donner Summit related book reviews. We can acquaint our readers with Mr. Robie as we have with other Summit personalities: Norm Sayler, Hannes Schroll, Bill Klein, Dennis Jones, Edvi Aro, Moses Schallenburger, Dick Buek, Emil Papplau, Herb and Lina Frederickson, Margie Powell, etc. (check out our Heirloom article index on each Heirloom page on our website).
Here, let’s have a change in strategy. Normally one would talk about the book and go on and talk about the subject. We are sensitive to our readers, however. You may not want to read the criticisms of the book and are more interested in the subject. So let’s put the critique after the subject.
The Subject: Wendell T. Robie
The book does give us a fairly good outline of Wendell Robie and his contributions to his community and the Sierra. First we learn about his character in the first few chapters which we can view as the exposition since we have here “novelized” non-fiction. These character traits are perhaps what’s needed to make the contributions Mr. Robie made. He was stubborn, hard driving (both literally and as a character trait), impetuous, tough, a businessman, dare-devil, a man of action, generous, controlling, determined and a problem solver. He was also a prankster and a dreamer. He loved the Sierra and the outdoors.
There were negative characteristics as well. He had a temper, once throwing a copy machine out the window. He could be rude. He once sideswiped a car and did not stop. Confronted later by the sideswipee (literary license) Robie told him to sue him, “I haven’t got time to talk about it.” He once told his workers he never took vacations and so they didn’t need them either, “I can replace any of you by going down the sidewalk.”). He was unfaithful.
We learn about those traits through a series of vignettes of his life: working with the convent, getting his first horse, cutting the Christmas tree, his first foray into business, almost getting expelled from U.C. Berkeley, etc.
Those character traits, good and bad, were what Wendell used to make his big contributions. First, although Wilson has Robie’s father thinking over and over that Wendell would not amount to much and was a dreamer instead of a doer, Wendell Robie headed up a number of successful businesses that grew immensely even after his father’s presence was gone. Those businesses improved the local communities around Auburn and the Central Valley. The biggest contribution was in helping people into their own homes with loans from his various banking endeavors and lumber from his Auburn Lumber Co.
One of Robie’s dreams was to popularize winter sports and he seemed to work tirelessly at that. He founded the Auburn Ski Club which became the largest ski club in the west. The Club hosted ski jumping and slalom competitions and provided people with the opportunity to play in the snow. There was a 1,000 foot toboggan run. See the Placer Herald article below from January, 1931. It’s not in the book but our researchers found it as a good example of how the Auburn Ski Club worked to popularize winter sports. The events garnered publicity and newspaper articles carried Robie’s quotes, “We’re at the same gateway that the gold miners of 1849 were at when they came to California. We must open that gate and let the people into winter sports.” “The snow covered slopes were like gold, You have to mine skiing. You have to tell the people of its benefits, of its healthful nature and of a place in winter where anyone can compete. The true mountaineer enjoys skiing because it brings him near to his beloved mountains.”
Robie brought top competitors to the club and gave them jobs in the off-season. Those top competitors drew spectators and fame to the Club. He brought ski jumping exhibitions to Berkeley and Treasure Island. He advocated for the Olympics. He also did things like hold mid-summer ski contests at Sugar Bowl. The publicity encouraged attendance and then the spectators wanted to participate. A whole new set of California recreational activities and the winter sports industry were born.
One big piece of that popularization was his scheme to open Highway 40 in winter. In January, 1931 he invited the State legislature to a skiing exhibition. He even let legislators try skiing as well as bourbon (it was Prohibtion time). The event had been well publicized and about 2,431 private vehicles followed a State police motorcycle escort and the 65 automobiles carrying the legislators. It was a monumental traffic jam but it showed the legislature that people driving to winter sports would produce enough gas tax money to pay for road clearing. It was a genius idea and belied Wendell's father’s scoffing.
Those efforts also earned Robie the title of “Father of organized skiing in Northern California.”
Another accomplishment was the 100 mile Tevis Cup horse race which he started by laying out the route and then publicizing the race. There are quite a few anecdotes about Robie and the race. Here we get an example of the true meddle of the man. Going one hundred miles outside of an automobile is difficult. Doing it on a horse in no more than 24 hours is hard on the rider and the horse. Only, according to the Tevis Cup people, 54% of contestants finish the race. The trail, used by 19th Century travelers heading for the Comstock or back is really REALLY rough. There are places where the narrow trail drops a thousand feet and then immediately rises a thousand feet. The steepness, the dust, and the mosquitoes are almost unbearable (editor's personal experience). They have vets check the condition of the horses during the race, pulling out those that are exhausted. Robie not only started the annual Tevis Cup race but he won it a number of times (including the first four he ran) starting in 1955 when he was 61. Amazingly, Robie, at the time of the book’s printing, had also been the oldest contestant to finish the race - age 79 in 1974. That’s one tough guy.
There were a myriad of other things too that Robie did to support his local community. He helped save a grove of redwoods east of Foresthill. He helped with fundraisers. He actively supported the Republican Party.
The book’s concluding paragraph says, “He was a man who was not only a visionary, but a man with such substance that he enthusiastically and with an enduring purpose lived every day of his life as if it was his last. Robie was a man of challenges.”
The Auburn Ski Club operations
“The Auburn Ski Club has done much to popularize that sport in northern California and is now the largest club of its kind west of the Mississippi. Their “hill” is located a few miles east of Towle [between Alta and Drum Forebay on I-80], on the Auburn-Tahoe highway. Here, with a few steps of his car, the ski sportsman is afforded fast runs over an open course.
“On tournament days the spectators can see the ski jumpers in the most spectacular feature of all winter sports. Sig Vettestad, the 1930 California amateur champion, is a member of this club. The amateur is by o means excluded, however; scores of youthful Californians are gamely trying to learn “how to fly like the wind” on skis. On the weekends when tournaments are not being held, ski tours into the mountains over the old trails of the pioneers, are on the program. For visitors who do not care to ski, the Club has a fast toboggan slide, 1000 feet long.
“The Auburn winter sports area is readily accessible to California motorists via the Auburn-Tahoe Highway Victory Highway (U.S. 40). Like an old Indian trail this road follows the main ridge of Railroad Divide through the scenic Sierra country. Trailing backward to the day when California highways were trails worn smooth by the incessant tread of oxen and the constant rolling cumbersome wagons, we may dwell upon that region made famous in the writings of Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and others who have perpetuated the lore of the ‘diggings.’ Today motorists may travel in comfort throughout this romantic region.
“Last year 23,000 motorists visited the Auburn winter-sports area, single Sundays breaking all records for travel on the Auburn-Tahoe Highway. Such a road leading to the mountain snow areas marks a path to a new appreciation of the value of life in California.”
Placer Herald January 3, 1931