While serving in the ski troops during World War II, George “Bub” Nelson Jr. dreamed of building a ski area behind his family’s lakeside resort to turn tiny Lutsen into a year-round destination.
After the war, he and his father built the ski area that to this day draws so many to Lutsen, the state’s oldest resort, and the ski area on Lake Superior’s North Shore.
Nelson, known as Bub, died of cancer at his home on May 9. He was 88.
“This small-town guy had a tremendous impact on our North Shore community — matter of fact, the entire North Shore and ski industry and more,” said Mike Larson, a close friend.
Nelson’s other legacies include Lutsen Sea Villas, Lutsen Development Corp. and a golf course in Cook County on land that his family donated.
Nelson loved Lutsen, in the Superior National Forest, and wanted to share the ruggedly beautiful area with generations to come, Larson said.
In 1885, Nelson’s Swedish immigrant grandparents homesteaded 160 acres at the mouth of the Poplar River, where Nelson pushed for development of a public hiking trail until his dying days.
“He had such a passion for this land,” Larson said. “This is a man who thought from 50,000 feet. He wasn’t about the quick buck, or turning over the land, or being opportunistic. He just really wanted to preserve this area. And he did.”
In 1943, when he was 18, Nelson enlisted in the Army and saw combat in the Alps of Northern Italy. He’d volunteered to serve with the 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops. He trained at Camp Hale near Leadville, Colo., learning to downhill ski and use one of the nation’s first rope tows, along with 10,000 to 12,000 other skiers.
“We were all volunteers, and we all had an interest in the north land, or cold weather, or something, skiing, snowshoeing, logging or trapping … it was really quite an elite group of guys,” Nelson said in a 2008 YouTube video called “Breaking Trail.”
To fulfill his dream, he and his father winterized the original lodge building in 1945 and hired a pair of lumberjack brothers to clear the hillside behind the resort. Lutsen Mountain Ski Area opened with two runs in 1948.
Nelson’s grandfather, Charles Axel Nelson, died that same year.
“Before he died, I remember him saying to me, ‘George, Lutsen has been good to the Nelsons, the Nelsons must be good to Lutsen,’ ” George Nelson Jr. recalled in the video. “It stuck in the back of my head forever.”
“Breaking Trail” is a documentary about another vision that George Nelson Jr. helped begin in 2011 — the Lutsen 99er, a popular 100-mile mountain bike race held in June. “This is really part of that reward, is having a successful new industry, a new sport, introduced to the north country,” Nelson said.
For the past 16 years, Larson said, he and Nelson spoke nearly every day by phone, except Sundays. Nelson would ask about Lutsen Resort and the ski area, though his family had sold them, and local developments and projects. “He was always interested in what was going on,” Larson said.
In his final days, Nelson would not only pray at home with his friend Larson, he’d get out of bed to sit in a chair and discuss projects, including the Poplar River trail.
“If there were more George Nelsons around who really cherished the land, it would be a better place for everybody,” Larson said. “But he’s established that here.”
Nelson’s last words to Larson were: “God Bless Lutsen. God Bless America.”