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Papa Charlie fire follow-up: The visionary spirit of Papa Charlie at Lutsen Mountains

Jun 27, 2023 10:51AM ● By Content Editor

Charles Skinner. Photo submitted

Submitted to Boreal Community Media by Midwest Family Ski Resorts on behalf of the Skinner Family - June 27, 2023

By Mary Skinner Junnila, Charles Skinner’s sister

On June 24, a fire leveled Papa Charlie’s bar and restaurant at Lutsen Mountains.  

Almost exactly two years ago, the building’s namesake, Charles Mather Skinner III, died unexpectedly at the age of 87. (August 30, 1933 – June 17, 2021).  

The man, like the building, may have left us. But Charlie Skinner’s memory, impact, and visionary spirit live on.  

Who was “Papa Charlie?” 

Charlie Skinner was a ski area manager who bought Lutsen Mountains in 1980. By opening ski runs on the rugged Moose Mountain, Skinner and his hard-working team of employees quickly turned Lutsen Mountains into the biggest ski area in the Midwest. 

In October 1989, Ski Magazine listed Lutsen Mountains among its “Most Improved: The Success Stories of the Decade.”  According to Ski Magazine, Lutsen Mountains had become “The only true major-league resort between the Appalachians and the Rockies.”

Between 1980 and 1990, Lutsen Mountains doubled its annual skier numbers, helping to bolster the economy of the entire Northshore for years to come. Like much of northeastern MN, the Northshore had been struggling in the 1970s and early 80s.  According to a University of Minnesota report, for Cook County “the 1990s brought a wave of shared prosperity. Rapid growth in tourism and other industries created dozens of new businesses, hundreds of jobs, and rising wages.” 

Short on cash, Skinner developed Moose Mountain seemingly by sheer determination. He bought a used gondola from Loon Mountain in New Hampshire for a fraction of the cost of a new one, and he and a small crew did most of the work themselves of installing the gondola and clearing the steep runs.   

Skinner was known as an exceptionally demanding but well-respected and well-liked boss. Many people considered him a mentor. 

Skinner’s toughness was no doubt due to lived experiences. He was a Korean War veteran, joining the Navy at the age of 17.  He joined the Navy before finishing high school due to difficulties at home, including an alcoholic father. Upon joining the Navy, Skinner’s test scores were high enough to win him admission into a rigorous training program to become a navigator on bomber airplanes, an exceptionally dangerous role. He reported that he was one of a group of 12 navigators with only 6 of them surviving the war.

Returning from the war, Skinner went to law school at the University of MN, earning a prestigious place on the law review.  He then migrated north to work as small-town lawyer in Grand Rapids, MN.  He found that office life did not suit him, so at the age of just 28 years old, he quit the law practice to lead a community effort to build Sugar Hills, a ski area he operated for two decades. During these years, Skinner pioneered snowmaking inventions, collaborated with other Midwest ski area owners, and advised ski areas across the nation, including Aspen, on snowmaking. 

In the 1970s, Scott Paper Company recruited Skinner to manage recreational lands across New England, and later promoted him to become President of Sugarloaf Mountain ski area in Maine.   Skinner accepted these roles because even though Sugar Hills was surviving, it was always financially strapped.  He worked double duty – commuting regularly between Maine and Minnesota.  Soon after acquiring Lutsen Mountains in 1980, Skinner finally sold Sugar Hills.

In the 1990s, Charlie Sr’s son, Charles Skinner IV, and his sons-in-law, Tom Rider and Bill Junnila, joined the Lutsen Mountains business and eventually, Rider and the younger Skinner assumed full ownership of Lutsen Mountains. 

Seeing the need for lodging and entertainment on the mountain, Tom Rider and Charles Skinner Jr built the Papa Charlie’s restaurant and Eagle Ridge resort in the 1990s. Jim Vick, now general manager at Lutsen Mountains, worked hard to turn Papa Charlie’s into a top Minnesota music venue. As marketing manager at Lutsen Mountains and a music lover, Vick recruited an impressive line-up of performers over the last three decades.  

Lutsen Mountains is now owned solely by Charles Skinner Jr.  Alongside sister resorts Granite Peak in Wisconsin and Snowriver Mountain Resort in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan comprise the Midwest Family Ski Resorts.  

Recently entering the business is the third generation of the Skinner family, Charles’ daughter Charlotte Skinner. Charlotte holds an MBA from Columbia University, where her father, Charles Jr, earned his law degree.

The legacy of Lutsen Mountains and Papa Charlie’s visionary spirit lives on.

Mary Skinner Junnila is the daughter of Charlie Skinner Sr.  She exercises her own entrepreneurial spirit as Executive Director of the Lighthouse Center for Vital Living in Duluth, MN, an organization that provides a wide range of programming to older adults and people with disabilities across northern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.

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