Time&Again: K2 Skis began an illustrious career here on Vashon Island

This photograph of the K2 building was taken from across the highway in the 1950s. - Photo courtesy of Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association
This photograph of the K2 building was taken from across the highway in the 1950s.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association

K2 Skis, founded 45 years ago on Vashon and once its biggest employer, relocated off-Island and off-shore in 2006, but remains a significant piece of the Island’s history.

It represents an important part of the development of business and industry on Vashon, but also represents Vashon’s role as a hinterland to the larger Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. K2 is indicative of Vashon’s susceptibility to the boom-and-bust economic cycles that characterize the Pacific Northwest region; the corporation is demonstrative of Vashon’s place in the global economy of the 21st century.

During World War II, Otto Kirschner began making splints for doctors in Texas and started the Kirschner Manufacturing Co. in San Antonio, Texas.

Moving to Vashon after the war, Otto and his two sons Don and Bill began to experiment with reinforced plastics to manufacture splints and animal cages designed for use in veterinary clinics.

In 1956, as the business outgrew the garage at Otto’s home, the Kirschners purchased the old Winter’s Forest building on Vashon Highway as a manufacturing plant. This building became the base from which the eventual K2 complex grew over the next half-century.

The photo of the Kirschner Manufac-turing Co. Building from the 1950s shows the building with newly planted landscaping, Vashon Highway without wide paved shoulders and mailboxes at the corner of the unpaved side road next to the building.

The 2009 photograph shows the building with the 1950s plantings at full maturity, additional ornamental plantings nearly obscuring the building from view, the side road paved, and the mailboxes replaced with a pedestrian crossing sign to protect K2 employees crossing the highway.

Bill Kirschner became known as a fiberglass pioneer, and was involved with a program that brought fiberglass to the nose cone of the MOMARC Missile.

As an avid skier and inveterate tinkerer, he decided to apply new fiberglass techniques to try and build a better ski.

In 1961, he borrowed a pair of Head metal skis and used them as a model to build his first pair. Using a “wet wrap” technique, which he went on to patent, Bill invented a fiberglass ski that revolutionized the ski industry.

When asked “Why skis, Bill?” he would reply that he had run out of things to “fiddle” with at Kirschner Manufacturing, having already tried to develop a lettuce wrapping machine and fiberglass boats, neither of which were fruitful. He thought a fiberglass ski could be practical and economical.

Unfamiliar with the ski industry, he talked with the owners of a Seattle-based ski distribution firm, Anderson and Thompson Ski Company. They encouraged him to continue development. Following two years of fine-tuning and testing the skis, production began in 1964.

The Kirschner family and their friends all worked side by side during the first years of the enterprise. Bill’s early training with an English tool and die maker paid off, as the machinery, molds and presses for ski manufacturing were also made right at the ski factory.

While not the first to invent a fiberglass ski, Bill was the first to develop a fiberglass ski that could be commercially produced. And thus, the K2 Corporation was born.

The photograph of Bill sitting at his desk in the 1960s shows him at the peak of his management of K2, named after the mountain K2 — the second-highest in the world — and the two Kirschner brothers.

The initial emphasis was on the recreational market, with a model called “Holiday.” K2’s phenomenal growth was spurred by the hiring of Chuck Ferries, former coach of the U.S. women’s ski team and a member of the U.S. Olympic Ski team in 1960 and 1964, as K2 began to develop a line of racing skis. Ferries sent “Red White and Blue” K2 prototypes to Marilyn Cochran, who went on to win the 1969 World Cup — the first World Cup ever won on American skis.

Phil and Steve Mahre won five Olympic medals and 36 World Cup victories skiing exclusively on K2s. Pro skiers including Spider Sabich, Wayne Wong, Jean Claude Killy and Glen Plake, among others, skied on K2s and contributed to K2’s dominant presence in the ski industry.

This rapid growth demanded new production facilities, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s K2 built a production plant and then added to it with a $3 million expansion. Because it was difficult to finance such a fast-growing company, in 1969 Kirschner sold K2 as a wholly owned subsidiary to Cummings Diesel, but stayed on as K2’s chairman. This enabled huge expansion in K2’s manufacturing.

In 1976, Sitca Corporation, a Northwest investment group, bought K2 and owned the company until 1982, when the management team of K2 purchased all the shares of Sitca. This group managed the company until Anthony Industries, a diversified sports equipment corporation, purchased K2 as the “crown jewel” of its nine-company empire. In 2007, K2 was acquired by Jarden Corporation, in Rye, N.Y.

From the initial production of 250 pairs of skis in 1965, K2 quickly grew to producing 1,600 pairs the next year, 21,000 pairs by 1968, 400,000 pairs in 1978, and a peak of 450,00 pairs in 1990.

K2 not only dominated American ski production but added boots, snowboards, cross-country skis, inline skates and bikes to their product line.

With the introduction of the K2Four “smart material” ski in 1995, K2 became the number-one selling ski in America during the mid-1990s. But changes in the global economy meant that this was the high point for K2 on Vashon.

K2 reached a peak employment of 750 in 1999, but was forced to lay off 200 employees that fall in a series of moves that shifted production to China. Distribution moved to Fife in 1995, and finally corporate and distribution headquarters moved to Seattle in 2006, ending 50 years of the company’s presence at the K2 site on Vashon Highway.

Bill Kirschner remained chairman until his retirement in 1982. He was recognized for his accomplishments, being inducted into the U.S National Ski Hall of Fame in 2001. He died April 23, 2006.

The K2 buildings currently sit empty, a stark reminder of Vashon’s dependence on economic forces far beyond its shores, and of the many Island industries that have experienced the booms and busts of the region.

The K2 brand, however, is the number-one ski brand in the United States. With subsidiaries in Canada, Central Europe, Japan, Korea and Scandinavia, K2 has achieved unparalleled success and continues to be a global leader across multiple categories of sporting goods.

Not bad for an “Island tinkerer” with a good idea.

— Bruce Haulman is an Island historian who teaches history at Green River Community College. Terry Donnelly is a nationally recognized landscape photographer who has lived on Vashon for many years.

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