4 June 2022
Deb Henningsen’s father taught her to water ski on old Lake Shady in Oronoco, Minn., in the 1960s.
“The lake was calm as glass, and he was so patient,” said Henningsen, 71, from her family’s farm near Grundy Center, Iowa. “He wanted me to start from the dock and I couldn’t do it to save my soul. But once I got in the water and leaned back, I was up.”
It was like taking flying lessons from Orville Wright or serving as printing apprentice to Johannes Gutenberg. Deb’s dad, Ralph Samuelson, invented water skiing 100 summers ago in Lake City, Minn.
After days of failed experiments with barrel staves and snow skis, Samuelson rose through the splashing water of Lake Pepin at 4:11 p.m., July 2, 1922, on 15-pound pine boards nearly 9 feet long. He was pulled behind a clamming boat powered with a truck engine and piloted by his brother Ben.
The historic feat by Samuelson, who turned 19 the next day, was largely forgotten for more than 40 years before the American Water Ski Association recognized him in 1966 as “the first water skier of record.” Five years later, a historical marker went up along Lake Pepin, proclaiming it the “Birthplace of Waterskiing.”
In the 1920s, Samuelson put on ski shows at water carnivals from Minnesota to Florida, at one point slathering lard on floating jumps and skiing at 80 mph behind a Curtiss seaplane. He never wore a life jacket.
But he didn’t patent his invention or cash in on his breakthrough. In fact, he endured several pitfalls: a failed marriage, two brothers dying as children and bankruptcy after disease killed the flock on his Mazeppa turkey farm in 1952. When he fractured his back while building a boathouse in Florida, it spelled the end to his water skiing antics.
Samuelson didn’t mind the initial obscurity that blanketed his innovation. People in France and New York initially boasted about being first on water skis, but those claims were debunked in the 1960s by newspaper clippings and eyewitness accounts.
“I never thought it mattered,” said Samuelson, who died of cancer at 74 and was buried in Lake City. “I knew I was the first one and that is all I cared about.”
Henningsen said her father “died in 1977 knowing that he had brought joy to millions of people by following his dream.”
Now boosters in Lake City, pop. 5,000, want to share that joy on the event’s 100th anniversary. At precisely 4:11 p.m. on July 2, they plan to unveil a life-sized bronze statue of Samuelson in Ohuta Beach park. Henningsen will be there with her siblings, Karen VonRuden of Lakeville and Jon Samuelson of Pine Island.
“This is Lake City’s Kitty Hawk moment and we’ve been too sleepy about promoting it,” said John Hutchinson, one of the leaders of Destination Lake City. They’ve been busy raising $75,000 for the Samuelson statue, made by Brodin Studios of Kimball, Minn. “We want people to stop and take selfies with Ralphie.”
Plans call for creating a water skiing hall of fame in Lake City, where the annual Water Ski Days, June 23-26, will feature water ski shows, a ski-towing seaplane and an 82-year-old man skiing on stilts. The goal is to encourage kids to get out on the water and ski.
“We want this summer’s anniversary to be a renaissance of the sport for Lake City,” said Ed Hoffman, Lake City Chamber of Commerce director.
Samuelson developed his love for the water as a kid, diving for clams just blocks from his family’s home in Lake City. His mother worked in a factory after emigrating from Sweden at 16, and his father ran a struggling grocery store. The family would steam the clams and sell the shells to a button factory in town.
After his first marriage dissolved, Samuelson remarried Austin, Minn., schoolteacher Hazel Thorpe in 1948 and became a father in his 40s. Hazel would shush him whenever he recounted his historic moment for the kids.
“He’d mention his skiing, but it didn’t mean a dang thing to me,” Hazel told me for a 1993 story, six years before she died at 81. “I told Ralph, ‘Don’t tell them about those wild and crazy things you did.’ “
He was used to such shrugs.
“I decided that if you could ski on snow, you could ski on water,” Samuelson once said. “Everyone, of course, thought I was completely nuts.”
“My dad only had an eighth-grade education, he wasn’t savvy or what we’d call ‘worldly’ today,” Henningsen said. “But he never had an unkind word for anyone and he cooked the best roast beef dinners on Sunday nights — and I mean the best.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.
Previous versions gave an incorrect year in a photo caption. It was taken in 1925.