FEATURE – It might surprise some Southern Utah residents to know that Brian Head – at 9,800 feet – boasts the highest base elevation of any ski resort in Utah even though it is the southernmost. Brian Head town, not surprisingly, is the highest incorporated municipality in the state.
Both high-altitude entities have worked in concert for over 40 years and could not exist without the other.
No one knows for sure just exactly how Brian Head Peak, first known as Bear Flats and Monument Peak, got its name. One theory is that the name derived from the three-time Democratic presidential candidate of the late 1800s and early 1900s, William Jennings Bryan. Another is that the name came from a Parowan family with the surname of Bryan; while another says a man named Bryan built a monument up on the rock (head) of the mountain. Brian Head Resort’s “our history” webpage cites yet another story that claims explorer John Wesley Powell saw the peak above all the others and named it after an official in the Geographical Survey Office by the name of Bryan – an idea supported by author Rufus Wood Leigh in his 1860s book, “Five Hundred Utah Place Names.”
However Brian Head first got its name, one thing is for sure: The Y in Bryan was dropped in favor of an I.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the area was known as “Little Ireland” for the Adams family of Irish heritage who used the area for dairying and as a summer grazing range for sheep and horses. It was also the site of some logging. In the 1920s, it boasted a hotel, restaurant and dance hall operated by Minnie Adams Burton, known as Minnie’s Mansion. The spot was popular for its huge breakfasts, fireworks and dancing.
In the 1930s, brothers Thomas and Joseph Holyoak, from Parowan, acquired the property.
Early resort history
Real estate developer Burt Nichols got the idea of a ski resort in Southern Utah off to a start in the early 1960s. He considered other spots on Cedar Mountain, including the Navajo Lake area, as well as other out-of-state places such as Williams and Flagstaff, Arizona, and Mt. Charleston, Nevada, but settled on Brian Head mainly because roads already reached it, it was close to Interstate 15 and at the time, Bonanza Airlines and the Union Pacific Railroad serviced Cedar City.
Cedar City resident Milt Jolley helped convince the reluctant Holyoak brothers to sell their land after taking them to a ski resort in California and showing them how a ski resort would benefit the Parowan economy.
Nichols teamed up with a group of investors and formed the Brian Head Corporation in May 1964 and with a loan from the Small Business Administration constructed the first facilities, a 700-vertical-foot chairlift, a 300-vertical-foot T-bar lift and a warming house starting in September 1964. The first two permanent buildings were a clinic owned by Dr. David Wilkerson of Cedar City and Georg and Stefanie Hartlmaier’s home and rental shop. The first season, two mobile homes were leased to be a warming house, restrooms and an eating area.
The resort opened in January 1965. As part of its outreach to generate interest among the local population, the resort set up a four-week ski training program to familiarize Iron County youth with skiing. It invited youth ages 10-18 to participate in lessons every Saturday morning for only $6 for the whole month. A season pass during that first season was only $21 for an adult and $13 for youth 15 and under.
Despite favorable snow conditions, positive press and a massive advertising campaign in nearby population centers such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, Brian Head struggled to attract skiers during its first season and those it did attract were mostly locals. Thankfully, word-of-mouth advertising after the first season attracted many more skiers the second season and revenue increased by nearly 75 percent that second year.
During the resort’s early history, the small staff was required to go above and beyond, taking on many different duties. One of those early staff members who made a major contribution in Brian Head’s early days was Mel Hunter, who was not even a skier. A retired foreman of the U.S. Steel mines, Hunter was mainly responsible for keeping the slopes well-packed with his snowmobile, often packing snow until late in the night and waking up at 3-4 a.m. the next day to make ready for skiers. Hunter also fixed broken machinery, ran chairlifts, oversaw the rental shop and whatever else he was asked to do.
The resort did not significantly expand until the 1969-1970 season, when a new 1,190-vertical-foot lift was installed running east up the mountain that could handle 900 skiers every hour.
Herman “Chip” Deutschlander, whose family operates Brian Head Sports, said Brian Head has come a long way in 40 years because when he and his family arrived at the resort in 1976 there were not even parking lots – people just parked at the side of the road – and the chairlifts had wooden seats.
¨Mr. Brian Head¨ and his family
Nichols knew he needed an experienced skier to direct the future resort’s ski operations and went looking for a good-looking European man who could speak English to help him do just that. Fate took him to the sporting goods store, Sport Scheck, in Munich, where he found the man who fit the bill to a tee: Georg Hartlmaier. Nichols invited Hartlmaier to dinner and showed him pictures of the Brian Head area. Despite offers from two other American resorts, Hartlmaier chose Brian Head.
Hartlmaier originally came to Brian Head in 1964 as the resort’s first mountain manager and ski school director. He planned the runs, selected the equipment and helped build the resort’s first ski lift.
He and his wife, Stefanie, learned English when they lived in Marin County, California, from 1958 to 1962. The two of them met dancing at dances in their hometowns of Hausham and Schliersee, Germany, which are only 1 kilometer apart. When the couple returned to Germany from California, they married on April 23, 1963. They raised their three children at Brian Head – Georg Jr., Robby, and Stefanie Jr.
Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. said that when they arrived at Brian Head, there was nothing there. At first, the young family lived in Cedar City while their shop and house above it was built at Brian Head. At that time, she wondered if they had made the right decision. But after they moved into their home at the resort in December 1965, she felt right at home and has never left. The Hartlmaiers were the first permanent resident family of Brian Head nearly 10 years before it was incorporated as a town.
“We were the pioneers up here for sure,” Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. said.
See more: No Filter: The secret of Brian Head (video with Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr.)
Both Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. and Georg Hartlmaier Jr. remember fondly the day Robby Hartlmaier was born, February 18, 1966. A lift operator announced over the resort’s public-address system that the population of Brian Head had just increased from three to four.
Utilities were a challenge in those early days. To get water, Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. said they connected a hose to a nearby spring and their electricity came from a gas-powered generator. When power came in late 1966, it was a big deal and it opened the door for the resort and town’s future development.
Georg Hartlmaier Sr. literally became the face of Brian Head. His kindness, gregariousness and looks won over resortgoers. His wife said he even earned the nickname “Mr. Brian Head” as well as “The Stein Eriksen of Brian Head” in a nod to the skiing legend. Fittingly, a picture of Georg Hartlmaier Sr. skiing appeared on the resort’s first publicity poster. Later, he was even featured in Warren Miller ski films.
The ski shop, located at the bottom of the resort’s first lift, was small at first. They sold ski gear as well as sweaters that Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. knitted herself. Georg Hartlmaier Sr. entertained Brian Head guests at the shop singing while accompanying himself on the guitar.
For the first eight years, Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. was in charge of the shop while her husband served as the resort’s ski school director, then he concentrated his time on the shop. She said it was nice to be close to the kids while running the shop, always knowing they were only one floor above.
“It was really pretty quiet in the early days,” said Georg Hartlmaier Jr., who was 2 when he put on his first set of skis; those skis are now on display at the shop. “Dad kept us pretty busy.”
Georg Hartlmaier Jr. said he was ecstatic when Bill Thompson became general manager of the resort and brought his family, two children, Chris and Heidi, included giving him a few playmates. He remembers fondly riding the bus, an old yellow converted hearse, down the canyon to go to school in Parowan.
When not skiing and running the shop, Georg Hartlmaier Sr. was outdoors as much as he could be. His first love was not skiing; it was actually mountain climbing, his wife said. He climbed Mount Everest in 1988 but never made it to the summit. He did climb to the top of two other Himalayan Peaks, however: Mount Manaslu and Mount Makalu.
Georg Hartlmaier Sr. loved Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. Whenever he had company from Germany, he would always take them to those two places.
In 1991, Georg Hartlmaier Sr. suffered a stroke but recovered well and returned to his normal activities for another decade. In 2001 came the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. While it meant the end of his involvement in the shop’s day-to-day operations, it could not keep him off the slopes. Georg Hartlmaier Sr. skied until 2006 and died July 6, 2008.
Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. had always hoped that her sons would return to run the shop. She got her wish as both sons and their wives eventually moved back home to manage the shop after being away for a while to try other things. She said that by luck they both returned and are now totally in charge of the shop. A spunky and witty 83-year-0ld, Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. continued to do the shop’s payroll until about a month ago.
As the family looks back over their 53 years at Brian Head, they say they have forged incredible friendships with “beautiful people.”
From the beginning, Stefanie Hartlmaier Sr. said, Cedar City and Parowan residents have totally embraced the Hartlmaiers despite them not being members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the dominant religion in the region. She explained how 14 Parowan families invited her to stay with them when Robby was born – an example of the community’s tremendous hospitality.
“I never had a day I felt bad that I came,” she said. “We made a good decision.”
Today the shop is not only a ski and snowboard shop. Starting in the early 1980s it got into the mountain biking business – even before the resort began allowing mountain bikers to ride its lifts.
Georg Hartlmaier Jr. said when they first started to accommodate mountain bikers back then, they outfitted the bed of a truck with benches to take them and their bikes up the mountain so they could enjoy the ride down. The resort itself started running lifts for summer mountain biking in the early 1990s. During that same time period, the resort added snowmaking, which has been a boon to the resort and helps it make it through seasons when not enough natural snow falls.
The shop also rents a few cabins for skier accommodations.
“We’ve done everything except snowmobiles,” Georg Hartlmaier Jr. said. “That’s the only thing we haven’t dabbled in.”
Brian Head today
The Deutschlanders are the Hartlmaiers’ competitors across the highway near the base of the Giant Steps lift, but one would not know it by observing their relationship. The two families are the best of friends and regularly have Sunday dinner together, Georg Hartlmaier Jr. said, adding that there is “a little bit of egging every once in a while” over business.
Chip Deutschlander said that if he does not have something for a customer, he calls the Hartlmaiers (and the Hartlmaiers do likewise) to see if they have it because both families have the same goal in mind.
“We want to make sure everyone has a great time,” Chip Deutschlander said.
The Deutschlanders have been fixtures in Brian Head since the mid-1970s and their patriarch, Herman “Dutch” Deutschlander, was also a mainstay in the government of the town (which incorporated in 1975) as a town council member and mayor. He was recently honored for his 40 years of service to the town and was instrumental in helping to bring the sewer and water lines that allowed the town to continue to grow, his son said.
That growth started in the 1980s when large hotel and condominium complexes were built and the popularity of the resort has now grown in its major markets of southern Nevada and southern California.
The Hartlmaiers feel that Brian Head owner John Grissinger, who purchased the resort in 2012, is going in the right direction. He has surveyed guests to see what they would like and listened to them by doing such things as replacing the old Giant Steps lift with a high-speed quad and adding more nightlife such as a Saturday evening dinner with live music.
Chip Deutschlander echoes their sentiment and added that Grissinger has done really well at bringing in new customers and the resort’s future looks bright.
Visiting Brian Head
Brian Head is approximately an hour-and-a-half drive north of St. George, traveling I-15 northbound to the first Parowan exit (Exit 75) then taking state Route 143 up Parowan Canyon to the resort. For those traveling from the north on I-15, it will be the second Parowan exit, also Exit 75.
In the winter, the resort features eight chairlifts for skiing and snowboarding and also offers tubing.
In the summer, Brian Head Resort is now a mecca for mountain biking as well as numerous other activities, from scenic lift rides to disc golf.
More information is available on the resort’s website.
See more photos in the gallery below.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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