By Janet Trull
Sir Sam Hughes was Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence in the First World War. He was not a skier. Apparently he was a pretty aggressive lacrosse player but he never imagined that his name would be connected indelibly to Haliburton County’s popular ski area. Back in 1917 our knight of the realm bought 2200 acres of highlands wilderness and built Glen Eagle a grand summer home on Eagle Lake. Intended to be a retreat where he could fish and hunt and regain his health after the stresses of war and politics the property had a secret tucked away in the bush. A granite ridge with a 325 foot elevation and perfect sun exposure to maintain a base of natural snow.
R.J. Bishop Sr. together with a bunch of the regular suspects around town – fellows with names like Black and Curry and Dart and Austin formed The Haliburton Highlands Ski Club in 1951. Bishop owned the Highlander Hotel at the time and one day a well-known Canadian ski champion by the name of Clint Melville showed up looking for a room. The Ministry of Tourism had hired him to scout out possible sites for alpine ski areas in Central Ontario. The Haliburton skiers offered to show him around the county. As soon as he saw the Eagle Lake location Melville was sure it was a winner. The only problem was the property wasn’t for sale.
But the Bishop family never forgot about the possibility that a sweet little ski resort was hiding in the woods up there at Eagle Lake. In 1965 their patience paid off. They bought the property and got to work. Len Henry and Les Scheffee cut the three original trails. Murray Cowen and horses Cap and Prince cleared trees and rocks. Ron Sisson led the crew that installed the original T-bar. Bob Bishop still shakes his head remembering the day the truck unloaded crate upon crate of metal and cable for the high-tech lift. There had been rope tow ski hills in Haliburton County one in Carnarvon and one in the town of Haliburton but this T-bar was a whole different story. They had hopes it would attract tourists from all over the province like Hidden Valley in Huntsville. All they had to do was sit back and count the money.
Except the crowds didn’t find their way to Sir Sam’s that first year. $936.75 Bob Bishop will tell you. That’s what he made the first year the hill was open. A slight disappointment since the projected profit was $50000.
It took many innovations and lots of hard work before people discovered what the Bishops already knew. The best skiing in Central Ontario was right outside their door. The chalet built in 1969 made a big difference. With an open fireplace the smell of fries in the cafeteria the sound of ski boots clomping up the steps it offered a place to warm up between runs and a perfect view of the hills. Hardly a year goes by without improvements such as chair lifts chalet additions snow-making equipment and a terrain park for snowboarders.
After 50 years of operation Sir Sam’s is a success story. Some seasons have been harder than others. Of course there have been challenges such as mild winters and economic downturns. What gets them through the tough times? Chris Bishop says optimism. Bob Bishop says stubbornness. “Grandpa Bishop warned us that we’d never make a living running a ski hill in Haliburton” he says. “We’ve spent 50 years trying to prove him wrong.”
The real key to success is evident as soon as you walk into the chalet. Chris Bishop has put together some memorabilia to celebrate the 50th anniversary. There are old tow tickets and age-yellowed brochures. But the photos in the showcase leave no doubt about the reason Sir Sam’s has survived and continues to thrive. Sir Sam’s is more than a business. The profits have been measured in Bishop family memories. Standing in front of the chalet in ski jackets on a sunny winter day in 1970 they are a good-looking bunch. Bob looks a bit like the football hero of the time Joe Namath. He and Noreen are surrounded by their kids: Robbie Chris John David Angela and little Stevie.
Bob Bishop met Noreen Carnohan when they both were nine years old. She was the barber’s daughter. Bob tried his hand at a lot of jobs before he got into the ski business. He was in real estate and property development with his dad. He wired Minden and Haliburton for cable TV. What training did he have for that job? None he admits. “I had confidence in those days. I figured I could learn to do just about anything I set my mind to.” That confidence served him well when he took over Sir Sam’s Inn renovating and refurbishing the building and gaining a reputation for elegant fine dining. Bob and Noreen ran the inn for 14 years before selling it.
The Bishop kids who grew up on the ski hill benefitted from their involvement in the family business. Chris Angela J.D. Rob and Steve are currently business partners at the hill. Their innovations have included the summer sport of mountain biking extending the season to a year round tourism resource. They host thousands of skiers and bikers yearly and are widely praised for their hospitality.
Bob and Noreen Bishop are understandably proud of the fact that the business they built continues to be the centre of family traditions for their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Grandaughter Holly was skiing when she was one year old Bob remembers. And now she has her own paddleboard company still hooked on an active outdoor life.
The Bishop family is anticipating their 50th ski season with great excitement. Special activities are planned. Ski school and ski patrol alumni will be returning to join the celebrations and share their memories from seasons past. Even if you don’t ski you’ll want to drop in to check out the priceless museum collection. The fire will be burning the fries will be hot and the view from the chalet will be a winter wonderland. After 50 years you can count on it.