Remembering the lost ski resort of Crab Orchard
By JIM ARBER
For The Vista
Once upon a time on a mountain top in Tennessee a gentleman named Millard Oakley who was a local banker, had a vision. Maybe he had a few Brandies first. This vision would not go away and as it began to take shape he and his associate Jim Wilson started to make plans.
They formed a corporation named Renegade Resort and Vacation Properties. Their goal was to create a first class ski resort on Renegade Mountain at neighboring Crab Orchard, Tennessee.
Now, as you might expect, carving a ski area out of the Tennessee wilderness, on a mountain top, ain’t no piece of Strudel. It took planning, determination, expertise and perseverance just for starters.
Thousands of trees had to be removed, roads built, concrete placed, buildings built, lifts installed and countless other tasks.
The vision began to turn into reality when J. Paul Smith Excavation Co. from Crossville was contracted to do the excavation, road building and general resort configuration. It was a daunting task up there on top of that mountain — but these boys were up to it.
It was in the early 1960’s when they got started and in the winter of 1962 the owners pushed the start button on that chair lift and the fun began. As if they weren’t having fun already.
The first season was not great. Snowfall was insufficient, snow making equipment was not extensive and it was a short season. Not a good start but the Austrians ski instructors, Dieter Baer and his father were excellent. Good will was being built.
Concurrent with the ski area promotion and operation there was also a concentrated effort to sell home sites on the mountain.
The Clubhouse was built and German food was eventually served year round. The good folks in Crossville, Crab Orchard, Knoxville and even Nashville loved it.
The road up to the resort was also an adventure. Narrow, twisting, turning, no guard rails. Kinda like a Slalom course but what the heck you go to a ski resort for adventure, right? No doubt they served more than a few cocktails when folks finally made it up there.
And then, after dinner, after skiing, after beverages you get to drive down. ACHTUNG! The road did get rerouted and improved but not until 1972.
During this time from opening until 1970 or so much development took place. The advertising claimed they would have 6000 acres of private hunting reserve, six lighted Rubico-surfaced tennis courts, fishing in a spring-fed impounded lake stocked with rainbows, bass, and mountain bream and a golf course.
You could swim in an outdoor Olympic sized pool, ride horses through dark green woodlands to a spectacular 125-ft waterfall and wonderful silent panoramas’.
Advertising was one thing, but it was not until much later that some of the claims actually became reality.
Skiing was the draw. “Fly with the wind right here in Crab Orchard”, so the promo went. A 36,000 square foot ski lodge with three fireplaces was planned. The main ski run was 3,200 feet long and there is a large school and practice slope, one intermediate and one beginners slope for a total of four slopes for the 1970 season.
Things went well for some time but questionable financing, shady dealings and inexperience caught up. Yes, Renegade Mountain was on a slippery slope right there with the skiers.
Several warmer than expected winters and some bad decisions finally spelled the beginning of the end.
At some point before 1971 a group called American Recreational Services acquired the property and started what was to become an excellent Golf Course. Sadly it would not open until some years later.
In 1971, a law suit was filed that led American Recreational Services into receivership. That pretty much spelled the end of meaningful activity on Renegade Mountain until 1980.
But Renegade was not done yet.
In the early ‘80s four new owners acquired all the stock and committed to carry out the original, ambitious plans. They would eventually complete the lodge, swimming pool and the 18-hole golf course. They claim they had three weeks of successful skiing their first year in 1982 with 1500 skiers the first weekend.
One of the new owners, H. Vern Dougherty put it this way: “We have a new snow machine, an expanded ski program, new roads, a new condominium under way and two new all-weather tennis courts.”
A study for a new golf course was also completed. The long-term development promises to support the sometimes ironic quip that “Renegade Mountain is like an extra gift to an already blessed Plateau.”
In 1983 Peter Schuster and Harold Dude from Hamburg, Germany bought the resort. Shuster suffered a serious Polo accident and subsequently died but was replaced by his brother Heiner.
At this time it was a hustle n’ bustle place. Money was coming in, more was going out but this was a boom time nonetheless for Renegade Mountain.
Unfortunately, it may have been that some of the money that was earmarked for investment in Renegade never got there and disappeared with other investors in Florida.
The club house was 36,000 square feet and boasted a bar and lounge area straight from the St. Moritz hotel in New York. More roads were built, timeshares built, and Golf Course construction was ongoing.
In 1986 ownership shifted to Hans Seivert and the resort was renamed, Cumberland Gardens.
Hans was a German immigrant who had a huge concrete business in Kentucky and Indiana. He was also a former pilot in WWII flying German fighters. Hans was an imposing and capable man but he died in 1991. Speculation has it that if Hans had lasted a few more years the Renegade Mountain complex might still be in operation- — he was that good.
In the late ‘80s the combination of problems for the Renegade Ski Resort simply overcame efforts to keep it open. The single biggest problem, the one that truly was insurmountable was the warm weather. They had adequate snow making equipment but you can’t make snow in warm weather and that was that.
It was a wild ride and Renegade was a wonderful ski alternative to resorts located hundreds of miles away.
The clubhouse was four stories high and even had an indoor tennis court on the third floor. As Attorney Joe Looney from Crossville put it: “Renegade skiing was simply wonderful for families. You could sit in the club house and watch the kiddoes enjoying themselves on the Bunny Hill while we were warm, comfortable and able to enjoy every minute without worry.”
Standing where the Club House once was and looking out over that vast expanse it’s hard to imagine that a busy ski area once occupied that space. The kids laughing, full parking lots, lift lines, happy diners … all gone now.
What remains however can still be breathtaking but in a much different way.
On a clear night it is most humbling to be up there with your own thoughts looking at that amazing sea of stars in the night sky. From the top of Renegade some say you can see all the way to Kentucky on a clear night, some say Nashville as well.
The wonderful mountain breezes, scenery and pristine environment are still there for you as home sites are available up there at very competitive prices.
Sadly, the Ski Resort is gone, never to return. Too bad, it was once a welcome and wonderful addition to this unique “Plateau.”
The world class Golf Course did open on Renegade Mountain in ‘80s but that is a story for another day.
Much thanks and credit for the facts presented here must go to H. Glenn McDonald, Manager at Renegade in the 80’s, Joe Looney local Attorney and J. Paul Smith who still owns the company that did much of the work at Renegade.
Most of what is described is from the recollections of several people. Those recollections are as much as 40 years old and may not be totally accurate but certainly close enough for this story.
Also, there were many more milestones and characters involved in the Renegade story but space requirement make a complete rendering impossible.
For more information about Renegade Mountain opportunities today visit the CONTACT US page.