Caberfae was the first destination ski resort in Michigan and one of the first in the country. It is the 4th oldest ski resort in the United States, celebrating 85 years in 2022.
Caberfae’s Scottish Roots
Caberfae is the Scottish name for Stag’s Head. Colin Fitzgerald, founder of the MacKenzie Family saved King Alexander III of Scotland’s life from a hunted stag deer. Colin was granted the name in 1255 by the King.
The land was named Caberfae by Kenneth MacKenzie of Chicago in 1919 because of his ancestral roots and the abundance of deer herds in the area.
From Cattle Ranch to Ski Hill
Originally 28 acres, it operated as a cattle ranch for 7 years. After the failure of the ranch the United States Government purchased the land for national forest purposes erecting a fire tower near the top of the highest peak.
In the 30’s residents and visitors were interested in starting a local ski area, the US forest service co-operated, and a winter ski area was created. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a single ski run known as “Number One.” Signs of the run still remain today. Number one now comprises the lower left side of North Peak and the South Peak was an area that was known as “The Bowl.”
The first ski lift was a tow rope that was powered by a Ford Model A engine that was later replaced by a Package Motor engine.
The first official opening of Caberfae was held in January of 1937. In 1939 control was handed over to the Caberfae Winter Sports Club, Inc. This club was formed by the Caberfae Ski Club and the Cadillac Chamber of Commerce. The group was issued a non-profit status by the US Forest Service and 580 acres were set aside for recreation development.
Prior to the 42/43 season more trails were built, and tow rope installed and then World War II intervened. The ski area remained closed until the start of the 46/47 season.
Caberfae reopens after the WWII
The ski resort reopened when the war ended, and Caberfae was ready to become a destination ski resort once again. Many of the military personnel were introduced to skiing in Europe during the war and it was estimated that two million had taken up skiing. Boyne did not open until 1948 and Crystal Mountain until 1956 so there was not any competition in the area when the war first ended.
Caberfae continued to grow and by the 48/49 season was home to 14 runs and 7 electric tows. Using electric motors was a major improvement over the old gasoline engines that used to power the tow ropes and were still used at many other ski resorts. They even boasted a double rope that followed a path between the Number one and Number Four (Now known as Canyon) runs.
The amenities included a ski patrol, ski rental, and ski instructors to provide lessons. There was parking for 700 cars and food service. In 1950 the 5,900 SF Lodge, The Upper Deck opened giving skiers a new place to warm up.
As a nonprofit recreation area Caberfae provided more than traditional downhill skiing. There was a 30-meter jump, a 15-acre slalom bowl for competitive skiers and easier slopes for beginners. For non-alpine skiers there was two toboggan runs, snowshoe trails and cross-country ski trails.
Caberfae is the Premier Resort in the Midwest
By the 1950s Caberfae was the largest winter sports area and was often utilized for important sanctioned events by the Central United States Ski Association. It was documented that the attendance far exceeded other Midwestern Ski areas. During this time there were many changes and improvements to the resort
With an improved highway system and “snow trains” regularly scheduled, Caberfae became a destination to over 35,000 skiers every season. Busy weekend crowds often exceed 4,000 skier per day.
Midwest Ski Capital
With increased demand for ski trails and higher maintenance costs the toboggan slides were eventually abandoned, and Caberfae became solely a ski area and started calling itself the “Midwest Ski Capital.” An advertisement from 1954 boasted that the resort had 27 expert and graduating intermediate ski runs. They offered 16 large capacity ski tows and a triple practice area plus the 25-acre slalom bowl. They offered a large shelter with lounge and cafeteria, new equipment rental facility and a modern ski shop.
In the ad Caberfae offered a Learn to Ski Week package for only $52.50. This included six days of skiing, lodging, meals, ski tow fee and ski instruction. It is noted that over 47,000 skiers visiting that winter.
Snowmaking comes to Caberfae
In the late 50’s snowmaking was brought to Caberfae and the resort was able to support the annual natural snowfall and add when necessary. Three more runs were also added during this time. Unfortunately, some improvements did not work out as hoped. The resort purchased a chair lift from Mt. Snow in Vermont and was using along the west side of the Number One run. It was a 2,000 foot, 104 bench double chair that utilized a series of chain conveyors. Called a conveyor lift, it was not a typical cable lift. It was terribly slow, noisy, and worse yet, the overhead chains sprayed grease on the skiers in the chairs. To add to the poor design, metal parts warped over the off-season and the chair was dismantled and sent back to the manufacturer.
Still growing into the 60’s
Entering the 60’s Caberfae was still grown adding five T-Bar lifts between 1959 and 1963 at Bull Nose, Number One, Stag’s Head, West Ridge, and Tournament. This gave Caberfae 20 lifts servicing 34 trails. With a team of 15 instructors the ski school regularly teaching as many as 500 lessons per day on a weekend.
Caberfae was an affordable ski resort with great community support and during the 63/64 season saw 32,000 skiers. But like a lot of businesses dependent on tourists and the seasons in northern Michigan profitability depended on key weeks. For Caberfae, that wee was the Christmas weeks and unseasonal weather could be the death of a business.
The 66/67 season saw such weather and even with their snowmaking capabilities it was not enough to keep the resort in the green. The ski area was sold to a private company in 1967 ending the management of the non-profit board of directors.
Caberfae sold to Private Company
The private ownership brought in an influx of capital and activity over the next several years. One of the first things the new owners did was to add two chair lifts that were operational for the Christmas week. The double rope tow between Number One and Number Four runs was replace with a chair lift as well as the Bo Buck chair further east.
The next year (1968) the Skyview Cafeteria opened with huge picture windows, a fireplace and extensive food service. The following year (1969) Edelweiss Lodge now known as the MacKenzie Lodge opened. Offering 36 rooms, a restaurant, lounge, and meeting rooms this 31,000 square foot lodge offered new on slope lodging.
From Major Resort to Bankruptcy
In the early 70’s Caberfae remained a major resort in the ski industry and was a popular spot for college students on spring break. As the ski area grew it became difficult to make snow in the outer boundaries. It was cost prohibitive to add chair lifts to many of the runs because of the distance from the resort’s base. In the late 70’s Caberfae started to experience financial difficulties.
By the 1980’s it was a business on the brink of bankruptcy. The company that owned was looking to sell it or just close it down. A local family who had been skiing there for years bought Caberfae. The Meyer family set out to bring the resort back to its former glory.
Caberfae became Caberfae Peaks with the development and opening of South Peak in 1983 (fully completed in 1986) and North Peak in 1992. A triple chair on South and a quad chair on North gave the resort an entry into its future. Today those peaks give Caberfae 490 feet of vertical and a commanding 360-degree vista of the Manistee National Forest from their summits.
In 1988 a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service provided control over the resort’s property with a more realistic resort footprint. Some tow ropes were replaced with chair lifts bring the total to 5. The new owners also made improvements to the skier service area. They added a tick office building and rental building in 1996. The Blackmer Day lodge in 199 and refurbished the 36 room MacKenzie Lodge hotel (formerly the Edelweiss). They added a swimming pool and hot tub to the front of the hotel as well.
Continued Improvement in the 21st Century
Moving into the 21st century continued improvements. The Smiling Irishmen was widened in 2011, Beattie’s Bar and Grill opened in MacKenzie Lodge. More snowmaking guns were added and another snow groomer to the fleet.
Caberfae opened the only backcountry skiing and riding in the lower peninsula in the 13/14 season. They offered another 5 to 7 open runs with plenty of untracked powder on approximately 25 acres.
Caberfae continues to change the look and feel of the resort, improving on chair lifts, snow making and infrastructure. For the 18/19 season the Green Mountain Flying Carpet Lift was added. A carpet lift is similar to a conveyor belt that will run along the beginner slopes.
The changes have given the resort a new identity and feel that old and new skiers to the resort will enjoy.
Today the resort offers lodging, dining, skiing/snowboarding, Wedding Venue, and a tough 9 hole Golf Course.
The ski resort that started as a 28 acre cattle ranch now boasts 225 acres and:
- The 1 Quad Chairlift
- 3 Triple Chairlifts
- 1 Flying Carpet Surface Lift
- 30 Ski Runs with 485′ of Vertical Drop
- Racing Leagues
- Jibber’s Park Terrain Park
- 10 Mile MacKenzie Cross-Country Groomed Ski Trail (There is no fee to use the trails and Caberfae cross country ski equipment for rent.)
- 4 Different Dining Options Onsite
- Largest Day Lodge in Northern Michigan
- Full-Service Rental Shop & Demo Center
- Ski-in/Ski-out Lodging with Outdoor Heated Pool & Spa
Caberfae Ski Resort Historical Site/Marker
Two World Wars and the Depression (1915-1945) – Registered in 1988 and erected in 1988 – ID # L1601C
Located on Caberfae, Cadillac in South Branch Township. – Lat: 44.24556700/Long: -85.70812200
Snow trains brought hundreds of ski enthusiasts to the Cadillac area to celebrate the opening of Caberfae on January 16, 1938. Caberfae, whose name comes from the Gaelic word meaning “stag’s head,” was a joint project of the U.S. Forest Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Cadillac Chamber of Commerce, and local volunteers. They cooperated to build a winter sports facility that would provide more than the existing snow shoe trails to the public. The CCC cleared ski and toboggan runs, and built a shelter and access roads. Skiers made five dollar contributions and volunteers used the money to construct the first rope tow in 1940. By the 1950s Caberfae had become one of the Midwest’s largest ski resorts. Caberfae’s success encouraged further growth of Michigan’s winter sports industry.