By Barb Krause | Photos provided by The Grunow Family
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in our Winter 2014 issue. It has been updated and re-edited to appear in our special 25th anniversary commemorative issue.
For many of us who spent time in Lake Geneva from the 1950s through the 1980s, Majestic Hills Ski Area is a fond memory. Many of us learned to ski there, spent our Saturdays with friends in the chalet or attended summer concerts at the bandstand. Many locals over the years worked the rental counter or taught ski school. For all of us who have fond memories of “Majestic,” as it was familiarly called, we have lifelong resident Bill Grunow Jr., (1931-2012) to thank.
As a young man, Grunow was passionate about skiing. He decided to turn his favorite activity into a business, so he set out with Melita Frankfurth, another avid skier who he happened to be dating at the time, and began scouting the entire region. They found the ideal place for a new ski hill in Grunow’s own backyard. His father had owned Val-Lo-Will chicken farm, the world’s largest supplier of fresh and rotisserie chicken, which closed in the mid-1950s, leaving the farm’s site on the south shore of Geneva Lake unused. Grunow built the ski hill on this former Val-Lo-Will land; the ski chalet was constructed from a former chicken coop by adding A-frames to the exterior. When Majestic Hills opened in December 1957, the property contained a ski shop, a cafeteria, and a bar and lounge area with fireplaces.
The aesthetic was rustic, yet romantic. Many an area couple can recount love blooming in front of a blazing fire in the chalet. At least one local skier fell for, and later married, the ski instructor. And in 1958, less than a year after opening Majestic Hills, Grunow married his avid ski companion, Melita.
Dr. Peter Arnold, a retired dentist, worked at Majestic Hills from 1958 to 1960. “I worked the rentals,” he remembered. “People from the city … came out by the busloads — anything to get out there and have the experience. Bill told me we had 1,000 sets of skis and sometimes we’d rent them out three times over in a day.”
“The chalet would smell like burning wool because everyone was cold and wet, and sitting so close to the fire,” Arnold recalls warmly. “Even though it was a chicken coop, it had quite a ski atmosphere when there was snow.”
The ski hill was an almost immediate success, but Grunow didn’t stop there. In 1960, he opened a driving range and a nine-hole golf course, which traversed the ski hill, and featured a rail car and lights for nighttime play.
And then there was the Majestic Bandstand. “I honestly think the bandstand was the highlight of the ski business,” Grunow said in a 2006 interview. Operating during the summers from 1960 to 1970, the bandstand hosted such national acts such as Stevie Wonder, The Who, Chicago, The Monkees and the Beach Boys.
Sadly, in March of 1988, the ski chalet burned to the ground. The $500,000 loss was uninsured and that proved the end. The Grunows had other businesses to keep them busy, including Majestic Marine. Bill Grunow passed away in 2012, survived by Melita, three children, nine grandchildren and a legacy of memories for so many. As Fontana resident Ron Frankel recalled from his time spent at the ski hill, “It’s like everything good that you experienced when you were young… You have no idea what you had until it’s passed you by.”