ARTICLES

The “royal family” of the Laurentians

When young Lucile Wheeler brought a world ski crown back to St. Jovite she set the seal on her adventurous family’s achievements as pioneers in winter sport, aviation and the gentle art of snaring tourists

McKenzie Porter November 8 1958
ARTICLES

The “royal family” of the Laurentians

When young Lucile Wheeler brought a world ski crown back to St. Jovite she set the seal on her adventurous family’s achievements as pioneers in winter sport, aviation and the gentle art of snaring tourists

McKenzie Porter November 8 1958

The “royal family” of the Laurentians

When young Lucile Wheeler brought a world ski crown back to St. Jovite she set the seal on her adventurous family’s achievements as pioneers in winter sport, aviation and the gentle art of snaring tourists

McKenzie Porter

In the dashing, handsome, convivial cult of skiing, Lucile Wheeler, a lithe, grey-eyed, softly spoken redhead from St. Jovite, in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, has few peers. During the world championships organized last winter by the International Ski Federation at Bad Gastein, Austria, this twenty-three-year-old daughter of a Canadian innkeeper won the women’s downhill race, thus becoming, on a pair of waxed boards, the fastest girl alive.

As she hurtled down the one-and-threequarter-mile course, with its tortuous turns and hair-raising jumps, there were moments when Lucile touched sixty miles an hour and her skis seemed to be “full of life.” Scudding over ice, smashing through soft snow, rocking into the curves and crouching for the leaps, she made the descent in two minutes, twelve and one tenth seconds. Previously at Bad Gastein, records had been broken by tenths of a second. Lucile broke the existing record by five seconds. The runners-up were Frieda Danzer, of Switzerland, and Carla Marchelli, of Italy, both earlier holders of the title.

After her victory had been cheered by sixty thousand spectators Lucile said to Pepi Salvenmoser, her Austrian coach: “Well, I’ve done what 1 set out to do.” From the age of ten she had been determined to break the European monopoly of world skiing titles.

Today, at St. Jovite, Lucile Wheeler is doing secretarial work for her parents’ business. Gray Rocks Inn. a big, rambling, comfortable resort that stands by the shores of Lac Ouimet, in the shadow of Mont Tremblant, on the northern rim of the Laurentian

range. She has retired from competitive skiing, partly because she can go no further, partly because she intends to marry in a year’s time and partly because she's grown “a little tired of publicity.”

Even so, Lucile has given other Canadian skiers an idol to boast about and dealt a blow at the inferiority complex that has tended to mar Canadian performances at international meetings in Europe. Lucile has also publicized throughout the world the winter sports attractions of her native Laurentians, a six-hundred-square-mile range of mountains that begins thirty miles and ends ninety miles north of Montreal.

This was strangely appropriate, for it was Lucile's family that led the way in transforming the Laurentians from a region of scrub farms and small logging camps into a playground that now resembles Switzerland and takes in more than a hundred million dollars a year from tourists.

Lucile’s grandmother, eighty-nine-year-old Mrs. George Wheeler, founded Gray Rocks Inn, the oldest vacation hotel in the Laurentians, in 1902. By entertaining Les Touques Bleu, a rollicking Montreal snow-shoe club, Mrs. Wheeler originated the Laurentians’ reputation for winter sports.

Lucile’s uncle, sixty-four-year-old Tom Wheeler, now the millionaire president of Wheeler Airlines Ltd., one of the most farflung and diversified of North American transportation companies, managed Gray Rocks from 1926 to 1950. During that time he brought the Laurentian backwoods such unexpected and revolutionary refinements

as the

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“Swarms of Montreal flappers and their beaux came to Gray Rocks to see the movie stars”

cocktail hour and the Lucullan dinner.

Lucile’s father, fifty - two - year - old Harry Wheeler, who succeeded Tom at Gray Rocks Inn. boosted Laurentian winter sports by mushing to many victories a romantic team of Siberian racing sled dogs. In the early Thirties he was the leader of the Laurentian revolution that replaced snow-shoeing with the immensely more popular and profitable sport of skiing.

Thus Lucile, who was trained to ski from the age of two, became the living expression of the Wheeler family’s determination to make the Laurentians as famous for winter sports as the alpine resorts of Europe.

The Wheeler story began fifty-six years ago when Lucile’s grandparents, George and Lucille Wheeler, owners of a small St. Jovite logging business, faced bankruptcy after the destruction of their timber holdings by fire. After the fire Mrs. Wheeler started taking in paying guests. Among the earliest were the snow-shoeing Les Touques Bleu. These athletic roisterers visited the Wheelers winter after winter. By day they laughed at the handful of Norwegian and Finnish lumberjacks who whizzed down the slopes on homemade skis. By night, little thinking that their own sport would one day be eclipsed by that of the Scandinavians, they listened to Mrs. Wheeler playing popular airs on the piano and joined her in song. Mrs. Wheeler, who still smokes cigarettes and drinks the occasional glass of brandy, says: “We had some very jolly times. The snow-shoers were very highspirited gentlemen.”

Barrymore in the bush

Thriving on their high-spirited guests, the Wheelers gave up logging in 1906. enlarged their home, called it Gray Rocks Inn, and became full-time hoteliers. Until 1911 theirs was the only resort hotel in the Laurentians. After that imitators began to spring up all around them and today the family business has at least a hundred and fifty competitors.

Soon after World War One, Tom Wheeler, the older son, bought a biplane and flew guests up to Gray Rocks from Montreal. This widely reported novelty attracted a Hollywood movie company which wanted to make silent dramas of the north from the comfort of a wellappointed hotel. So up with the camera crews came Lionel Barrymore to make Unseeing Eyes and Seena Owen and Conrad Nagel to make The Pagan Lady. Gray Rocks Inn did big business as swarms of well-heeled Montreal flappers, and their coonskin-coated beaux, anxious to brag of a vacation with the stars, booked rooms.

On the death of his father in 1926 Tom Wheeler took over the management of the hotel, improved the cuisine, introduced rich furnishings in a French-colonial motif, employed the kind of musicians who spark spontaneous dances and singsongs, and organized evening sleigh rides. To the hotel’s existing attractions he added a golf course and riding stables. He encouraged guests to put drinks on their bills, reduced cash exchanges to a minimum and introduced the atmosphere of a country club.

In 1950 Tom handed the management of Gray Rocks over to Harry, built himself nearby a smaller, more sumptuous

hotel named the Club Lac Ouimet, and pursued his expensive, convivial and gregarious policy of hospitality on a lesser, more informal but higher-priced scale.

From the Club Lac Ouimet Tom Wheeler (lies parties of wealthy sports-

men to one of his seven hunting and fishing camps in northern Quebec. In the fall, for five days of goose hunting on James Bay, with air transport, guides, ammunition, accommodation, food and all the liquor a guest requires, he charges

flat five hundred dollars. The hunters have included Sherman Adams, the unfortunate former assistant to President Eisenhower, Fulgencio Batista, the embattled president of Cuba, Lord Melchett, British industrialist, and Baron Roths-

child of the European banking family.

A brawny, gentle and cordial man, who wears sports shirts and Texan string ties, and looks ten years younger than his age, Tom works in an upstairs room at the Club Lac Ouimet. This is dominated by a huge polar-bear rug and cluttered with Toby jugs, Hogarth prints, Eskimo carvings, mechanical singing birds, eighteenth-century etchings, model ships in bottles, witch doctors’ wands, Malayan daggers and many other curios.

Most of them were given to Tom by the far-ranging pilots of Wheeler Airlines Ltd., a Montreal company employing two hundred and fifty aircrew and groundstaff. It’s the business that grew from the single biplane that Tom bought in 1921 to fly guests up to Gray Rocks. Today four-engine Wheeler aircraft make twenty to fifty passenger charter flights annually across the Atlantic; tote supplies daily to the Arctic DEW Line sites; fly Canadian products to Africa and Asia; and fetch monkeys from India for the drug companies that manufacture Salk vaccine.

The dogs were heroes

Occupied though he is by these affairs Tom refuses to work in the office block at the Dorval hangar of Wheeler Airlines Ltd. He prefers to conduct his business by telephone, speaking often to New Delhi, London, Cairo, Capetown or Athens, from his room at the Club Lac Ouimet, or from the nearby private home he shares with his wife Ada and daughter Byrne. "1 guess my heart is still in Laurentian innkeeping,” he says.

Harry Wheeler, a slighter, more introspective man, shares his brother’s ardor for innkeeping, but prefers a larger, more highly organized style. He has introduced to Gray Rocks package deals which provide a guest with lessons in golf, tennis, riding, sailing, canoeing or skiing as part of the hotel charges. And winter sports have always been his specialty.

In 1930, to promote the hotel’s facilities for skating, bob-sledding and snowshoeing, he bought a team of eight Siberian dogs from a Norwegian-Alaskan named Leonhard Seppala. Seppala and the dogs had made headlines all over the world in 1925 by making a heroic dash from Fairbanks to Nome in Alaska with serum for a diphtheria outbreak.

Installed at Gray Rocks the Siberians attracted many curious visitors. Harry bred from them several teams which took the guests for rides. He kept for himself a racing team and each year entered events in The Pas, Ottawa, Val d‘Or, Quebec

in

City and in several New England winter resorts.

During the early Thirties he won an Olympic dog-sled-racing medal and he was twice the victor at the Quebec City contest which was then regarded as the world championship in this half-forgotten sport. A few weeks before his second victory at Quebec City Harry had been deprived of all his toes by frostbite during an overnight stranding in the bush on a hunting expedition. Despite this handicap. he drove his Siberians over the grueling one-hundred-and-sixty-mile course at an average speed of more than fifteen miles an hour.

In 1933 Harry Wheeler showed the dogs at a winter sports exhibition run by Sak’s Fifth Avenue at Madison Square Garden. New Vork. There he watched a German, Ernst Wagner, giving an exhibition of ski-jumps on a borax slide. News of skiing’s fast-rising popularity in the European Alps had already convinced him it was time for the Laurentians to follow suit. So he engaged Wagner to open a ski school at Gray Rocks. The good-looking German broke many guests’ hearts, as well as some guests’ limbs, on the slopes behind Gray Rocks, but before he left to fight for Hitler in 1936 he had firmly established his sport on Canadian soil.

The new instructor, Herman Gadner, an Austrian, encouraged Harry Wheeler to put the infant Lucile on skis at the age of two. Harry got her used to the skis by sending her across the frozen lake with messages between his private home and the hotel. By the time Lucile was six Gadner had decided she had the makings of a world - champion skier. When Lucile was ten he entered her in a race at Mont Tremblant which attracted twenty-one of Canada’s best women skiers. Lucile came in seventh. At twelve she won the Canadian junior championship. At fourteen she was a member of the Canadian team which competed in the International Ski Federation’s world championships at Aspen, Colorado.

After Herman Gadner’s death, in an avalanche at Banff, Lucile was coached by Canadian-born Johnny Fripp, Ernie McCulloch, and Real Charette, the present head of the Gray Rocks ski school.

"But to reach the very top,” says Charette, “a skier must have the stimulus of competing against the great European stars. Skiing is an intensely personal sport in which the urge to outdo others is very strong.”

Harry Wheeler shared Charette’s sentiments. Of the six winters since 1952

Lucile has spent five in Kitzbühel, Austria, training for and competing in European events under the tutelage of Pepi Salvenmoser, one of the world's foremost coaches of women skiers.

ln Kitzbühel she trained for five hours daily and wore out eight pairs of skis in Í season. She shared a small apartment and did home cooking with Mimi Seguin, a friend from Quebec City. Every night the was in bed by ten o’clock although Salvenmoser permitted her to attend an occasional five-to-seven tea dance. When winter was over she returned to the Laurentians to ride, climb rocks and hike in spring, to swim, play tennis and golf in summer, and to hunt in the fall.

In 1953, after her first season with Salvenmoser, she returned to this continent to become the champion woman skier of Canada. She took part in North American meets, but her goal remained ihe world title and for five seasons running she worked toward it, doing rigorous exercises every morning, eschewing the dances and parties of her friends, and fighting what she calls “the boredom and staleness and troubles” of training.

For four days before the 1958 world championships at Bad Gastein Lucile examined every inch of the course and, with her trainer, decided upon her "lines,” or the routes she would take over different sections. Her friend, Mimi Seguin, stood for hours in the cold, at various points on the course, watching Lucile try out the lines and telling her which looked the fastest. Lucile explains: "You can't always tell yourself which is the fastest line. You have to get somebody standing at different angles and different distances from you to watch and decide.”

On the day of the race her nerves were so taut that two tiny factors almost cost her the victory. She had made her practice runs on an empty course. Now she was racing on a course packed with spectators. At one of the control gates, about a third of the way down, the blue flag marking the turn was hard to see because of a crowd in the background.

"I work to tenths of a second," says Lucile, “and 1 have to begin my turn at exactly the right moment. I was moving at about sixty-five miles an hour when 1 saw that crowd. 1 thought 1 was going straight into it. Having lost sight momentarily of the flag 1 hesitated. My turn was too late and too wide and 1 lost precious time. Worse than that 1 kept worrying about it instead of concentrating on the run ahead.”

When she got into the final straight, which is much less steep than the upper slopes, she began using her poles to shove herself along and maintain speed. Unluckily they were not her regular poles. Although they were supposed to be identical with a pair she had lost to souvenir hunters the day before, she says they felt "a trifle short." She adds: "In fact 1 almost lost one and had to make a grab for it."

As she crossed the finish line she was sure that these two misfortunes had lost her the race and she was on the point of tears. "But when I heard I d won.” she says, “I knew it was all a case of nerves. In skiing you build up a tremendous amount of nervous tension. If it gets too bad you pass your peak condition. I think now that at Bad Gastein 1 was slightly overtrained and beyond my peak, even though I did win. When it was all over I didn't want to see a pair of skis again for a long time.”

On her return to Canada, clutching a letter of congratulation from the Queen, and the Pery Medal, awarded by the Ski Club of Great Britain to the outstanding Commonwealth skier of the year, Lucile was given a civic reception in Montreal

by Mayor Sarto Fournier. Crowds lined the streets as she drove to the Windsor Hotel in a car used by the Queen on the sovereign's last visit to Canada. Later as Lucile drove up to St. Jovite through the Laurentians the ski clubs of St. Sauveur. Ste. Adèle, Ste. Marguerite, Mont Gabriel, Val Morin, Val David, Ste. Agathe and St. Donat formed arches of poles and made her a Chevalière des Laurentides, a coveted skiing honor. The Hon. Gaspard Fauteux, former lieutenantgovernor of Quebec, presented the province’s Medal of Achievement to her.

Lucile refused to accept a big convertible car bought for her by the villagers of St. Jovite because this might have prejudiced her amateur status.

Far from going to her head the fanfare sobered her. At the St. Jovite Church Father Hector Deslauriers preached a sermon on her modesty. "1 merely set out to prove,” says Lucile. “that Canadians can now match any skiers in the world. Once I had done that I was satisfied. I really don’t like all this personal publicity and I’m seriously thinking of retiring.”

Last summer hundreds of people book-

ed rooms at Gray Rocks just to get a chance of talking to Lucile. But in August she disappeared. One visitor who was disappointed at missing her asked Jean Bedard. Harry Wheeler’s right-hand man: “Where is Lucile?" Bedard replied: “In the Rockies." “What’s she doing there?” asked the visitor. “Hunting grizzly bears," said Bedard. “What!” cried the guest. “A young girl hunting grizzlies?” “Yes,” said Bedard. “You've got to remember she’s a Wheeler and the Wheelers are kind of . . . kind of . . . well I guess they're kind of glamorous.” if