When Greg Fangel started collecting wooden skis, he’d find pairs at garage sales, in thrift stores, in friends’ garages.
His discoveries prompted a horrifying thought.
“What if they get thrown in the garbage?” Fangel said. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
Today, Fangel has roughly 80 pairs of wooden skis, most from the 1960s and 1980s, but some from the 1900s through the 1950s.
The skis are stored in his garage on a specially made wooden rack, 1 foot deep by 18 feet long.
“I would say about 10 pairs are my vintage collectables, another 10 pairs are my cream of the crop that I intend to keep, and the other 60 I’ll sell,” he said. “At my peak, I was selling about 80 pairs a season. Now it’s about 30 to 40 pairs.”
Fangel buys, sells and collects his vintage wooden cross-country skis through his website, www.woodenskis.com, which he started in 2002. It’s a hub of information, including wooden ski care, ski-making, ski news (races and other events) and the silent sport’s rich, though largely unknown, history.
“Even before I started the website, I had the urge to preserve the wooden ski era, which, as an avid cross-country skier and someone who likes history, appealed to me very much,” said Fangel, who is also the director of operations for a large construction company. “So I began to acquire pairs of wooden skis here and there.”
In the late 1990s, Fangel was on the board of directors for the North Star Ski Touring Club, the popular Twin Cities-based recreational ski club founded in 1967. One of his duties was overseeing the club’s website. “When I became webmaster, I started to post certain things about wooden skis, because I wanted to preserve the heritage of cross-country skiing,” said Fangel, 63, of White Bear Lake. “Almost like magic, people started e-mailing me from all over the United States and around the world to inquire more about taking care of their wooden skis. It was gradual, but the e-mails kept coming in, and that’s when I eventually got the idea of starting my own site devoted to wooden cross-country skis.”
Setting his own price
When Fangel first started selling wooden skis on his website, he had no idea what to charge for them. “There was no established market, so I had to set the price myself, which was eventually copied by other sellers,” he said, adding that all sale proceeds either go to buying other skis or to skiing charities. “I went by feel early on. People started buying them, so I’d raise the price a little. It sort of went on from there.”
Today a pair of wooden skis cost between $95 and $150, far less than modern fiberglass skis. “The higher-end skis may cost $175, give or take,” said Fangel. “That price is pretty low because the demand just isn’t there to justify a higher price. Fiberglass skis cost way more. For higher quality models you’re talking between $400 and $500.”
Fangel’s affinity for wooden cross-country skis began in 1974, when in his 20s, he purchased his first pair for recreational skiing. In the 1980s, he eventually bought his first pair of fiberglass skis. The differences, he said, were stark. “I was amazed at the difference between the two,” he said. “My wood skis seemed to hold wax better while the fiberglass skis were very fast. I kept my wooden skis even though I started to ski fiberglass more often.”
Beginning in the early 1990s, Fangel’s cross-country skiing morphed from the recreational into the competitive. That’s when he started to train for and routinely participate in marathon events like the annual American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis. “I skied my first race, my first Birkie, in 1991,” he said. “That’s when cross-country skiing really became my passion.”
Throughout the years, using both fiberglass and wood, Fangel has skied in more than two dozen competitive long-distance races, including an arduous 90K event in Sweden.
“I did a lot of the competitive stuff in my 40s and early 50s, but now I ski just for the enjoyment of being out there,” he said. “Cross-country skiing is similar to biking for me. I feel free when I’m doing it, totally unencumbered. I can go wherever I want to go and breathe in the fresh, clean air. I love the exercise, but being outside is the main attraction.”
Skis draw attention
Fangel, who skis with his wife most weekends near Tofte on the North Shore, said it’s gratifying when fellow cross-country skiers ask him about his wooden skis. “People seem to love the beauty of wooden skis,” he said. “They’re definitely conversation starters. There’s that element of being different — and people ask a lot of questions about them. They definitely turn a lot of heads.”
And, as something of a wooden cross-country ski historian, Fangel loves to talk about them. “Every pair has a story,” he said. “I’ve done hours of research on wooden skis. The subject, at least to me, is fascinating.”
Asked if he plans to write a book, Fangel said he isn’t sure. “It’s hard for me to be on a long project that seems almost endless,” he said. “I would love to do it, though. Maybe in the future.”
As for now, Fangel said he’s happy skiing recreationally and running his website, which he calls his labor of love. In fact, word of Fangel’s impressive wooden ski collection has spread outside of cross-country skiing circles, which, he says, occasionally brings him some surprising requests.
“The other day I got a request for a pair of wooden skis, poles and boots from the 1950s, as a prop for an Agatha Christie play at a college in Brainerd,” he said. “I get all kinds of requests, and have for years. I’ve even got one from Ralph Lauren for a window display in New York. Who knew?”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer who lives in Prior Lake. Contact him at email@example.com.