Harris Hill Ski Jump Celebrates 86th Year

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A long time Brattleboro tradition resumes this weekend after a three-year hiatus for renovations.

It’s the 85th Harris Hill Ski Jump.

The Brattleboro landmark is the only 90 meter ski jump in New England, and rebuilding it involved a massive community effort

VPR’s Susan Keese looks back at the hill’s illustrious history

Click here to see the Harris Hill Ski Jump photo gallery

(Footsteps in snow)

(Keese) The Harris Hill Ski Jump is seven hundred feet high. It towers above Brattleboro like a snow covered roller coaster that stops suddenly in mid air. It offers a birds eye view of the Connecticut and West River Valleys.

(Harris) We’re looking down at the outrun of the new, rebuilt Harris Hill Ski Jump actually over the town of Brattleboro and across to Wantastiquet Mountain in New Hampshire.

(Keese) That’s Sandy Harris, She’s the daughter of the late Fred Harris who built the jump into the hillside here in 1922.

(Harris) He would be so amazed and thrilled to see that 85 years after his original vision that this is still happening today.

(Keese) Harris was an avid competitor who excelled in many sports – from tennis to riflery. He was a great supporter of skiing and ski jumping.

He believed that people should get outdoors in the wintertime. As a Dartmouth college student he founded the school’s Outing club and its.Winter Carnival.

(Harris) And then after he graduated from college he came back here and started the winter carnival, andf built the ski jump and started the Brattleboro outing club.

Sandy Harris says the ski jump was like another child in the family when she was a little girl.

The wooden trestle-and-earth structure with its 200 steps — lined with spectators during the event — has always been maintained and run by volunteers..

Dana Sprague is Harris Hill’s Historian. He says the first competition here was in 1922.

(Sprague) So he had, I think there was about 20 jumpers that day and they set a new state record, and it was such a success that the next year they decided to have the state championship in Brattleboro

Keese) In the decades that followed Brattleboro saw nine National Championships and the ski jump saw thousands of visitors each winter..
(Street sound)

A collection of artifacts and old photos lovingly restored by Sprague is on display in trhe window of the art shop in downtown Brattleboro.

(Sprague) Here’s a program and ticket from the National Championship 1924 with the people in the picture with their fur coats and winter wear. See, folks are actually hanging out in the trees… see that right there, people up in the trees, watching the jump from wherever they can get their best view…. And there’s the trophy

(Keese) He points to a silver loving cup with wings on either side.
(Sprague) It was called the winged trophy. It’s sterling silver. After you win it three times you get to keep that trophy..

The trophy has been retired five times in the ski jump’s history. The last time was in 2000 by Vladimir Glyvka of Ukraine

(Sprague)He was a crowd favorite. He would stand at the top of the hill with his cell phone and he would holler down on the microphone so the fans would cheer and the louder they got, he was ready to go.

Dana Zelenakas started jumping as boy of seven or eight in a junior program at Brattleboro Memorial Park. In 1972 he competed in the Olympics in Supuro Japan. He teaches at Brattleboro Area Middle School today.

(Zelenakas) Ski jumping was a big deal. There was no hockey. They didn’t have the hockey rink at the park. They didn’t have computers. In the winter time you either played basketball or skied.

(Keese) But Zelenakis says the young jumpers worked hard, but the rewards were worth it.

(Zelenakis)Because of the thrill, the rush that you get. Ski jumping is like nothing else. On a hill like harris hill you’re traveling in the neighborhood of 55 miles an hour, sometimes sixty and you leave the ground and you’re like motionless.

(Keese) After the 2005 event, the hill closed down because the structure underneath it had become unsafe. A local group of volunteers raised more than half a million dollars to build the new steel steps and structure. Most of the work was done this winter, but the hill is ready.

This year jumpers from several different countries will compete for a new winged trophy, designed and donated by Harris’s daughter Sandy.

Dana Sprague can’t wait to see the hill come to life again

(Sprague) The hill gets transformed into this magical thing by the end of the weekend . you look at it during the summer, you drive by and it’s a cornfield with a hill and by winter it’s got international flags with vendors and music. It’s a little Olympics is what it is.

(Keese) Ski jumping isn’t as popular as it once was in this country – certainly not as popular as it is in countries like Norway and Austria and Slovenia. But Sprague is hopeful that Harris Hill will do its part in cultivating a new generation of fans – to continue the glory days when thousands gathered to cheer the jumpers on.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese

Note: This story was originally broadcast February 11, 2009.

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