Brattleboro's Harris Hill Ski Jump is rooted in tradition

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BRATTLEBORO >> The history of the Harris Hill Ski Jump is much like the history of the town in which it is located — rooted in tradition yet not stuck in the past, able to overcome any challenge, scrappy and indicative of the good will of the community.

The jump was built in 1922 and over the years the organizers kept organizing, through the Great Depression and WWII, under good weather and bad, and even when the hill was closed for repairs and people wondered if it would ever reopen.

But on Saturday, jumpers from all over the United States and the world will be leaping off the 90-meter ski jump to the sound of raucous crowds and clanging cowbells.

"I've been involved in the jump since 1990," said Rex Bell, who is assisting Todd Einig, the director of competition. "In those 25 years, we've seen big changes, including the hill being completely rebuilt to modern specifications."

In 2005, after the jump was postponed for one month due to weather, the organizing committee announced the hill would be closed for renovation. Frankly, the infrastructure of the ski jump was falling apart and it was no longer safe for the jumpers. In addition, to qualify as an official International Ski Federation (FIS) event, the ski jump needed to be brought up to international standards. From 2006 to 2008 there was no jumping at Harris Hill, but a community wide fundraising effort that raised $600,000 insured the jump would be ready in 2009. As a side note, it cost $2,000 to build the jump in 1921.

In the early 1900s, Fred Harris, for whom the hill is named after, wrote in his journal that he launched himself off a jump he built in Brattleboro, smashing his skis into little pieces when he hit the ground. Not long after that, Harris, who died in 1961, took the reins of a project to make the town a destination for ski jumpers, their supporters and spectators. Over the years, famous jumpers traveled to Brattleboro en route to the Olympics and every year, jumpers return, both experienced and those hoping to make their name in the sport.

"For the past three years, Harris Hill has been on the international calendar and it has helped the United States build its jumping program," said Bell. "It's also gotten Brattleboro noticed internationally for the jump facility and the well-run event."

This year, with the official FIS event held in Wisconsin, the competition will focus on younger skiers, rather than those who have been jumping for years, said Bell.

Breaking new ground is not unusual for Harris Hill. When there were rumblings about why women's ski jumping wasn't an Olympic sport, the organizers noted that Harris Hill has invited women to compete for many years.

Some history also might be made this year by Chris Lamb, a ski jumper and former national team athlete who attends nearby Marlboro College; he will attempt to retire the coveted Winged Ski Trophy. Tradition has it that whoever wins the trophy three times gets to "retire" it and Lamb already has two victories under his belt.

Lamb will be following in the tradition of athletes such as John Carleton, who in 1922 became the first winner of what is now Harris Hill, Mezzy Barber and Torger Tokle, who was the first to retire the winged trophy (followed by, not in any particular order, Art Devlin, Arthur Tokle, Hugh Barber and Valdimir Glyvka). Walter Malmquist and Jeff Volmrich came close, winging two in their careers. Other notable athletes include Peter Graves and Dana Zelanakas, who are still involved in the competition. The pedigree of local athletes includes Eric and Dave Merrill, Phil Rancourt, Jim and Jerry Galanes, Jim Baker, Steve Wood, Hugh Barber, Spencer Knickerbocker, Phil Dunham, Alan Sargent and Kevin Whitworth (the list is too long to include everyone here, so please don't show your anger got leaving someone out by throwing snowballs at the Reformer reporters covering the event this weekend).

One part of history that the organizers don't trumpet but mention on the website nonetheless is Bing Anderson of Berlin, N.H., who held the Hill record in 1922 and 1925, and who was convicted of murder and hanged in Nova Scotia in 1930.

While the jump competition is rooted in tradition, what we probably won't see this weekend is something that happened in 1927, when Reginald and Carol Kendall of Norwich took a toboggan off Harris Hill and through a flaming hoop, or in 1938, when three jumpers went off the hill together.

Sandy Harris, Fred Harris' daughter, will present the Winged Trophy.

"I want to do this because of how much this community has honored my father," she said last year. "It means a lot to me to think Brattleboro has carried on his vision, his passion, his legacy."

For more information on this weekend, the history of the ski jump and the many names of the people left out of this story, visit harrishillskijump. com.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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