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The snowmaker of Michigan

In hilly, unmountainous Michigan, James Dilworth has become a figure that skiers the world over can appreciate: His machines make snow. Whether a skier favors the deep powder of the Rockies or a wintertime golf course in the Northeast -- a world-class slope in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, or a run in Argentina -- Mr. Dilworth's snow machines are there to make sure that the cost of ski paraphernalia, lift ticket, transportation, and togs are not for naught.

Mr. Dilworth is the inventor and developer of some of the world's most heavily used snowmaking machines. He runs Nub's Nob ski area near Harbor Springs, Mich., and is consultant for Snow Machines Inc. (SMI) of Midlands, Mich., which manufactures and sells his machines.

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According to James VanderKelen, president of SMI, the company is the largest manufacturer of snowmaking machines in the world. Total sales are more than $2 million annually and are up this year. Machines invented by Mr. Dilworth are the most popular, ranging in price from $9,000 to $20,000, depending on configuration.

Until 1977 Mr. Dilworth had spent most of his time in Michigan. He was born in Charlevoix, Mich., reared in the region, and graduated from the University of Michigan with an engineering degree. With the worldwide boom in skiing, however, he now travels to places as far-flung as Anchorage, Alaska, and Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Mr. Dilworth began working on ways to make artificial snow because natural snow is so fickle in the Midwest. If snow could be made in November when temperatures are flirting with freezing levels, the slopes could perhaps open for Thanksgiving, he recalls thinking.

He soon discovered that making snow at high levels is also necessary for mountain ski areas, because snow melts in midday on southern slopes and at the bottom of ski runs because of ``crowd pressure.''

For Dilworth, developing and inventing snow machines that will produce more snow at higher temperatures and at less cost is a constant challenge. Most of that work is done at Nub's Nob and at the SMI labs.

His machines are working at Argentina's Los Penintentes Ski Area in the high Andes, where the United States ski team trains when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere, in Japan, and on the lower sections of 9,700-foot Sierra Blanca ski area near Ruidoso in southern New Mexico. A project he completed in Anchorage is the third he has designed in that area in the past three years.

SMI furnished 10 Highland machines, which Mr. Dilworth invented, to the Winter Olympics at Sarajevo last winter. Dilworth went as the ``official snowmaker.'' He confesses, ``I had no idea what to expect. I got the royal treatment. They gave me a car, a chauffeur, an interpreter, and a room in a new hotel at the base of Jahorina, the mountain where all the womens' ski events were held.

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``When I arrived, they were all rubbing their hands and worried because there had been no snow. They wanted me to start making snow at all three of the key slopes the next morning.

``Then it began snowing, and it snowed and snowed and snowed,'' he recalls, laughing. ``They said, `Why don't you go skiing!' '' which he did. ``I only made snow once,'' he says, ``just to show them how.''

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