BRATTLEBORO -- In 1922, Dartmouth College student John Carleton described Brattleboro's ski jump this way: "I never jumped on a better hill, nor never hope to jump on a better hill."

He spoke not long after completion of the new jump, which had been built at a cost of just $2,200 above Cedar Street.

But Carleton's sentiment lives on in those who have jumped from Harris Hill, those who have supported its renovation and those who labor year after year to lure ski jumpers and spectators to Brattleboro.

The hill has changed dramatically in 92 years, as has the sport. But with the latest edition of the competition set to kick off this Saturday, some say the same idea that spurred Harris Hill's creation also keeps it going.

"We have enough people in this community who feel that it's a good thing," said Brattleboro resident Dana Zelenakas, who has competed on Harris Hill and also has directed the annual jump.

"And because of that," he added, "we've kept it alive."

The jump that became Harris Hill was the vision of its namesake, Fred Harris. He is a legendary figure who -- in addition to having been a writer, an outdoorsman, a champion tennis player, a big-game hunter, a pilot and a sailor -- is a member of National Ski Hall of Fame.

The Brattleboro native built Dartmouth's first ski jump and formed its outing club while he was a student there in the early 1900s. He founded Brattleboro Outing Club upon his return here and wasted no time "locating, designing and financing" a local ski jump.

The facility was finished just one week before the first jump, in February 1922.

That year, attendance at what was then called Brattleboro Ski Jump was 2,500. Two years later, the treasurer of the National Ski Association dubbed it "one of the best hills I ever saw."

Also in 1924, as the hill hosted a national championship, improvements valued at $500 were made. That began a program of regular upgrades that has allowed the facility to evolve with the sport.

Harris Hill, 1941 (photo courtesy Dana Sprague)
Harris Hill, 1941 (photo courtesy Dana Sprague)

"He was obsessed with that ski jump and making it the best possible jump in Brattleboro or anywhere," said Sandy Harris, Fred Harris' daughter and a current Harris Hill board member. "I spent a lot of my childhood there, watching him work on the jump."

Other renovations and augmentations over the years -- both large and small -- have included:

-- A loudspeaker and live microphone were added in 1935.

-- 1941 saw a "major improvement" to the hill, including a new profile, historical records show.

-- In 1949, a dirt mound replaced the wooden trestle at a cost of $2,500 -- $300 more than it had cost to build the jump 27 years earlier.

-- 1957 brought a new tower ($2,700), a new judges' stand ($498) and fence replacement ($210).

-- In 1986, snow-making was added to the jump -- making Harris Hill one of only three jumps in the country with that capability.

A lack of snow had canceled the jump twice in the previous six years. And organizers sometimes had gone to great lengths to make Harris Hill white: In 1976, for instance, Brattleboro Outing Club had arranged for the delivery of 150 truckloads of snow.

-- In 2003, a new judges' stand was constructed with a $25,000 Rotary Club donation.

-- The big changes happened in 2006, 2007 and 2008, as no competitions were held while a new jump was constructed. The extensive project included a new steel tower, start and in-run; widening of the landing; installation of safety/reflective boards on the landing; and new steel stairs from the bottom of the jump to the take-off point.

-- Electricity was installed at Harris Hill in 2010.

Harris Hill now conforms to international ski-jumping standards. And if Fred Harris was alive today, the sheer size of the current jump -- about double what it was in his lifetime -- would come as a shock.

"It's significantly bigger than it was when he was there," Sandy Harris said.

But it is not only physical changes that have marked decades of jumping at Harris Hill.

The sport has transformed dramatically: Wooden skis and casual winter clothing have been replaced by high-tech equipment designed to exacting standards, and that includes the suits worn by jumpers.

Dana Sprague, historian for Harris Hill, believes the high degree of specialization -- and expense that comes with it -- has decreased overall participation in the sport even while expertise and technique have improved.

"There's a lot fewer jumpers now," Sprague said. "But I think the average jumper is a lot better."

For those hosting the event, the sport's changes have been a double-edged sword.

Mechanized snow-making, once unheard of, now is mandatory to ensure consistency even when there is plenty of natural snow. And jumps are now scored and measured via computers and video.

"In one way, (technology) has made it a lot better," Zelenakas said. "In another way, it's destroyed small community events like ours."

Harris Hill has persisted. But the number of people who flock to Brattleboro for ski-jumping has fluctuated widely over the years.

Historical attendance records show that an all-time mark of 10,000 was set in 1942. There was a subsequent, three-year hiatus for World War II, but the event remained popular: The crowd was 8,000 strong in 1947.

In 1946, buses ran every 10 minutes from Main Street to the jump. In 1950 and 1951, records show, more than 30 police officers were needed to handle the crowd.

Crowd sizes reached or surpassed 5,000 in five straight years between 1957 and 1961.

"It was just jammed with people when I was young," Sandy Harris recalled.

Overall, the 5,000 attendance mark has been reached 21 times in Harris Hill history. The last time that happened, however, was in 2009, when a reconstructed jump drew a bigger-than-usual crowd.

Organizers also are concerned about a smaller local ski-jumping community.

Zelenakas recalls a vibrant group of 60 or 70 young, locally-based jumpers when he was young. The group learned together and competed together, both here and at other venues including Lake Placid.

"The fondest memory I had was the camaraderie that there was among all the skiers and the parents. It was a family," Zelenakas remembered. "We would load up the cars, and everybody would head to wherever the event was that weekend."

At the time, there actually were several jump locations in Brattleboro. Youngsters started at Living Memorial Park and next tackled the Latchis jump, which was located near the current location of Interstate 91 Exit 1.

"From there, the next step was to go to Harris Hill, which was a big step," Zelenakas said.

He first leapt from Harris Hill when he was in eighth grade.

"Scared to death," Zelenakas recalled. "Every time you would step up to a bigger jump, until you got that first jump out of the way, it is pretty scary."

More scary to him, though, is the lack of a junior-jumper program in the Brattleboro area.

"We don't have juniors involved, and therefore, we don't have parents involved," he said.

Nonetheless, there has remained a core group of people committed to the Harris Hill cause. And some have little or no connection to jumping.

Zelenakas, who lived outside the area for a time, returned in 1979 and took over the competition the following year. He recalled reached out not only to the skiing community, but also to those who knew something about fundraising and public relations.

"It's an incredible amount of work," Zelenakas said.

Over the years, he added, "I think a number of key people have stepped up and felt that it's a good thing for the community."

In recent years, the organization of the event has become more formalized: Harris Hill Ski Jump Inc. was incorporated in 2003 and achieved nonprofit status in 2005.

In 2012, the nonprofit took ownership of the ski-jump land from Brattleboro Outing Club.

"I think we've all made the commitment now to be sure that it continues," Sprague said. "Every year, we try to do something to improve it."

Sandy Harris added that her father "would be thrilled to see that this event is still going today."

Regardless of the many changes, though, the event still is volunteer-led. And organizers say the key to Harris Hill surviving another 92 years is simple: New volunteers must get involved in the facility's maintenance and in the heavy lifting of hosting a major event each winter.

"I think it's great for this community. It's put Brattleboro on the map. A lot of people think of Brattleboro because they think of the jump," Zelenakas said. "It would be nice to see this thing go on for ever and ever, but we've got to get younger people involved."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.