The story behind the infamous poster of a man skiing down a coal pile on the Green Bay riverfront
By John McCracken
There are various versions of the story. Some people say it happened during a 4th of July parade so the police would be preoccupied. Some people say it was done after a few too many beers. Others say it happened because the men behind it needed some quick cash. But every version is centered around the same thing, a poster of a man in neon-colored skis and winter apparel heading down Green Bay’s famed coal piles, the city’s downtown skyline in the background, and vintage travel brochure font spelling out “Ski Green Bay.”
Steve Thoe knows the real story. Thoe—the man on the skis—is a ski enthusiast and lifelong resident of Green Bay. He and his friends would often hit area slopes, and he said he was inspired by a “Ski Iowa” poster that depicted a man on skis in the middle of a cornfield. “I said, ‘Well, you know what would be kind of fun is to climb up one of them coal piles—because it’s right downtown Green Bay—and snap a picture and call it Ski Green Bay,’” Thoe said.
So Thoe and a friend just walked onto the city’s coal piles, which sit along the Fox River as a key part of the city’s port. His photographer friend positioned himself far away, and Thoe climbed the piles. “Skiing down the coal was as easy as skiing down snow really,” Thoe said, “the harder part was climbing up the coal pile.” He said he didn’t get permission to do so and the twenty-somethings were worried about getting caught, but back in those days the coal piles didn’t have a fence around them and they were quick to be in and out to get the perfect shot.
Thoe said he wore a heavy, plaid hunting outfit during the first photoshoot and has a couple of photos in his collection of him standing on top of the piles on a hot day adorned with skis and hunting gear. He wore the neon-colored winter gear during the second photoshoot and the photos looked like a professional, travel poster. “After we took the picture, we just ran over to Connie’s, which use to be a bar on Broadway, and had a couple of beers,” Thoe said.
After the photos were developed, it turned out a giant ship was blocking the city’s skyline, so they had to redo the shoot on a different day. The duo printed the stylized posters soon after and sold a few hundred at local ski shops, Thoe’s uncle’s barbershop, and the gift shop at the Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport. He said they sold the majority of the posters through word of mouth at local bars. All told, they sold around five thousand copies.
Some people kicked up dust around the poster, claiming it made fun of the city. Former Mayor Jim Schmitt hated the poster, because he wanted the city to be seen as more than coal piles. He told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 2021, “I knew that if I were elected, that poster’s demise would be a top priority…For a guy that wanted to redevelop downtown and revitalize the waterfront, the Ski Green Bay poster was not funny, cute or cool to me.”
Thoe said he was disappointed to hear this, because their intention was the exact opposite: “It was more just to say we love Green Bay.”
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Green Bay’s coal piles have influenced the city’s landscape and economy for more than a century. Brown County Port and Resource Director Dean Haen said the piles have sat along the Fox River for at least a hundred and twenty years. Ten years ago, the port would see roughly a million metric tons of coal brought into the port for distribution in regions like the Upper Peninsula and Sheboygan, to be used as an energy source for paper manufacturing and other industries. With a recent shift to greener, more sustainable energy sources, Haen said annual consumption has dropped to around two hundred thousand tons.
Since roughly the 1960s, Green Bay officials have sought to move the coal piles from the downtown riverfront. Some residents see the piles as an environmental nuisance, blowing stray coal into nearby neighborhoods and businesses. Others see them as a reminder of the region’s economy and industrial history. “In some respects, they’re an indication of something really positive about Green Bay: We live on a working river and the port is essential to our economy,” Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 2021. “At the same time, it’s a very visible blight. It’s a complicated relationship we all have.”
The push to relocate the city’s coal piles has sped up in recent years. City, county, and state officials are in ongoing discussions to secure funding to relocate the coal piles and change the city’s landscape. In a statement, Republican State Assemblyperson David Steffen, who represents areas of the greater Green Bay metro on both sides of the Fox River, said numerous business groups, residents, federal, state, and local officials support legislation to move the piles and secure funding to do so.
Brown County identified the now-shuttered Pulliam Power Plant site nearly twenty years ago at the mouth of the Fox River as the ideal future home of the coal piles. Recently, Brown County recieved a $15 million grant from the Govenors office to “redevelop facilities at the old Pulliam Power Plant site to allow for the long-awaited relocation of the C. Reiss coal piles.” “The coal piles have held Green Bay back for far too long and our community is tired of it,” Steffen said in the statement.
Haen, who said he’s seen the Ski Green Bay poster but wouldn’t speculate on its intent, works with the piles daily and is in charge of crafting a vision for the coal piles’ future. He said he sees the effort taking years and wants to make sure the new Pullman site fits the port’s needs. “The coal piles themselves are not going to actually move,” Haen said. “I do not like that thought. Nobody’s going to put a pile of coal and pick it up and move it. It’s going to get consumed and transported and a new pile started somewhere else.”
Brian Johnson, the alderperson who represents the district where the coal piles reside and director of the business revitalization organization On Broadway Inc., said residents are ready for a change of coal pile scenery. “We’ve estimated you could have upwards of $100 to $250 million of new developments that could be constructed on that site,” Johnson said. And, he said, removing the coal piles from downtown would also help with public health concerns, as coals dust affects residents on both sides of the Fox River.
I asked Johnson, who grew up in the Wisconsin port city of Manitowoc, if he thought the famed ski poster was poking fun at the coal piles or the city. He said it’s a reflection of any national port city. “We climbed them as kids,” he said. “We climbed up and sat on top of these big, old coal piles. So I think it’s a reflection of any community that has sort of that industrial, historical nature about it.”
When a copy of the famed Ski Green Bay poster walked through the doors of Zeller’s Ski and Sports, one of the city’s longstanding winter sports retail stores, Ben Vander Zanden said he had to have it. “Ski and Green Bay are kind of two big parts of my identity,” Vander Zanden, a Green Bay native who’s worked on and off at Zeller’s since 1996, said. And as a ski expert, he was able to corroborate the timeline of the poster’s mythos. “Looking at the vintage of the skis, it makes sense with the timeline to be late eighties, early nineties when it was done,” Vander Zanden said.
A coworker asked Vander Zanden if he was looking to sell the poster. “Never,” he said. He’s had the poster framed and hanging up in his home for years, and on the morning before our conversation, when he had taken it down to bring in, he said his kids asked him where the ski poster was going. “You talk to a Green Bay local and it’s like you think of the coal piles downtown and Lambeau Field as two big things (in the area),” Vander Zanden said.
The poster has taken on a sort of mythic status in Green Bay. Thoe, now a semi-retired heating and cooling professional, said he’s signed plenty of copies over the years, including one for Nancy Nusbaum, former mayor of De Pere, Wisconsin, and Brown County supervisor. And he still has a few copies and the original proofs at home. “I might have a couple left just to put on my funeral board,” Thoe said.
To this day, merely mentioning it elicits rumors and urban legends. When Vander Zanden and I were talking on the Zeller’s sales floor, his coworker chimed in and said the man behind the poster was so-and-so’s son, and Vander Zanden said he heard it was someone else and it happened on the Fourth of July to avoid the police. (Both accounts are false according to Thoe.)
Thoe has experienced this sort of thing firsthand. He told me he was once servicing a furnace in Green Bay and happened upon a copy of the poster hanging up in the homeowner’s basement. “I said, ‘Hey, you got a Ski Green Bay poster,’” Thoe said. “And he goes, ‘You know what? That’s me skiing down the coal pile.’ And I said, ‘No it’s not, and you know how I know it’s not you? Cause it’s me.’” ■
John McCracken is a Green Bay, Wisconsin journalist who covers environmental concerns, business development, community issues, music, art, and Midwest culture. His work has appeared in The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, Great Lakes Now – Detroit Public Television, The Capital Times, In These Times, Belt Magazine, Tone Madison, Bandcamp Daily, Loudwire, Milwaukee Record, and more. He publishes a Green Bay news and culture newsletter called The NEWcomer and can be found on Twitter @jmcjmc451.
Cover image courtesy John McCracken.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.