Preservation project honors Tom Weinhagen and his legendary White Bear Water Ski Co.
Say you discover an old pair of wooden water skis at an estate sale marked with that iconic friendly polar bear. Maybe there’s a set hidden in your grandpa’s attic. For 25 years, from 1947 to 1972, White Bear Water Ski Co. (WBWSC) produced these treasures that made a splash in the water ski world. And Dennis Zerwas Jr., grandson of the company’s late founder Tom Weinhagen, has created a preservation project to tell its story.
Calling Zerwas a White Bear Water Ski Co. expert is an understatement. People from all over the country contact him with questions about the company antiques they find. Show him a photo of a pair of skis and he will easily tell you the year they were made, and even the price they sold for at the time. He has interviewed many folks who knew his grandfather or had ties to the skis, all the while collecting old company brochures from the family archives, financial statements, journal entries, and vintage photographs and video.
Always fascinated with family history, Zerwas started the White Bear Water Ski Co. Project in 2012 after realizing that many people remembered the company. And people enjoy reminiscing about it; nostalgia blossoms at the mere sight of the polar bear icon. “That’s been one of the neat things, is watching people’s faces light up when they relive their best days by looking at the logo,” Zerwas says.
Zerwas has earnestly collected stories that paint a picture of the family business and the salesmanship of his grandfather. A Saint Paul native, Weinhagen was always a thrill-seeker who enjoyed spending time on water any way he could, particularly Bald Eagle Lake, where he eventually moved with his family. Weinhagen began making the water skis on October 21, 1947 (Zerwas has the journal entry to prove it). The company started out making the skis in the Weinhagen’s basement. Word of mouth spread quickly, and sales exploded.
“The whole thing about this company was to have something fun, and [be] fun for everyone,” Zerwas says. That’s the consistent message adorning almost every company brochure. Ninety percent of the business was devoted to skis; the remainder included ski accessories, aquaplanes, toboggans and saucers. Always on trend, WBWSC continually updated ski designs and styles. Not surprisingly, three pairs of its skis are displayed in the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Florida. Weinhagen would travel to Florida, the sport hotspot at the time, to study waterskiing trends and tricks. He brought home slides and movies from his trips to share with the local ski clubs.
Weinhagen was also one heck of a salesman, initially working for Weinhagen Box Company (followed by HB Fuller). He could be so persuasive that, once, after an insurance agent arrived at Bald Eagle to assess the damage in a burned boat, Weinhagen sold the man a pair of skis; the gentleman didn’t even own a boat.
Weinhagen was memorable, too. People remember him, even if they only met him one time 60 years ago to buy a pair of skis. Tragically, the masterful salesman died at age 47 from acromegaly, a form of gigantism, when Zerwas’ mother was just 9 years old. After his untimely death in 1964, Weinhagen’s wife, Caryl Marsh, sold the business in 1966. WBWSC continued producing products until it dissolved in 1972, ending the company’s 25-year run.
An unexpected treat for Zerwas has been the experiences the project has brought. He has met people whose much-younger faces shone in his grandfather’s old photographs and video reels. He met the son and daughter-in-law of the man the company was sold to. Zerwas even visited his grandparents’ old house and the detached garage where the skis were painted. Using a pair of WBWSC skis of the early ’50s vintage three years ago, Zerwas waterskied for the first time on Bald Eagle, the same lake his grandfather once skied on and where it all began.
“He has brought back to life some of the ads, the stories, the whole works, which is a really cool thing,” says Sara Markoe Hanson, executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society (WBLAHS). “We are excited because we never knew a huge amount about the company.” Working with WBLAHS, Zerwas has presented his project multiple times for standing-room-only crowds, all hungry to relive or visit the water-ski past.
“It’s been very rewarding to bring the past back, and to put the story together,” Zerwas says. “The stories always mean more to me. Otherwise, [the skis] are just a piece of wood with a logo.”
Where to Find Waterskiing today:
Cheer on your local skiers, the Ski Otters, at their weekly ski show held on Little Goose Lake, Sunday evenings at 6 p.m.