BRATTLEBORO—After taking a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Harris Hill ski jump will celebrate its centennial with the return of the annual President’s Day weekend competition on Feb. 19 and 20, 2022.
As one of just six 90-meter ski jumps in the United States and the only one in New England, Harris Hill is known throughout North America and Europe as one of the more enjoyable jumping venues on the international circuit, with big crowds and a friendly atmosphere.
Event organizers say they hope the federal government’s plans to lift travel restrictions for international visitors will be in effect in February so Harris Hill can continue its tradition of attracting competitors from both sides of the Atlantic.
To mark Harris Hill’s centennial, the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum in Stowe recently held an online symposium with three local people who know the hill well: local historian and former ski jumper Dana Sprague, Harris Hill Chief of Competition and former elite jumper Todd Einig, and Spencer Knickerbocker, a former U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team member and executive director of the Marlboro Ski Club.
A perfect spot
Fred Harris built the ski jump on a hillside on Cedar Street in 1922 at a cost of $2,000, according to Sprague.
It turned out to be a perfect spot — within walking distance of downtown Brattleboro and able to accommodate as many as 10,000 fans during Harris Hill’s peak years in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Fred Harris knew what he was doing,” said Sprague. “He found a piece of land in Brattleboro less than a mile from Main Street, and he built it right. He built the jump into the contour of the hill. It’s not a big trestle that you can see from 20 miles away. On a windy day, the jumpers seldom get affected by the wind.”
Sprague said that Harris Hill is unique because it was designed so that fans can stand along the edge of the jump, close enough hear the whoosh of the skis as competitors speed their way down the hill.
However, as the years passed and international standards tightened, the ski jump needed work to still be relevant and attract top competitors.
Harris Hill was rebuilt between 2005 and 2009. “The old hill was functional, but it was not FIS [International Ski Federation] sanctioned,” said Einig. The new 90-meter hill, which he described as “meticulously put together,” now conforms to FIS standards. “It’s huge for us. It give kids a chance to be on an Olympic-sized hill.”
Knickerbocker was given the opportunity to be the first jumper on the rebuilt hill in 2009.
“It was the most vivid jump of my career,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.”
While he had a chance to jump at many venues during his time with the U.S. team, Knickerbocker said “there is nothing as special as jumping at Harris Hill. It’s really quite amazing, the energy that comes from the fans.”
A lot of work
Einig, who is also director of the Junior Jumping program in Brattleboro and the Harris Hill Nordic Club, first flew off the ski jump as a 14-year-old. He said that as a competitor, he had no idea what exactly went on to make the Harris Hill event run so smoothly.
When he became the event’s chief of competition, Einig soon learned about the behind-the-scenes work.
“I work with the organizers and coaches across the country,” he said, “and with the European coaches to get the athletes that really make this an international competition. Then, I run the competition on Saturday and Sunday. It’s a lot of irons in the fire, a lot of organizing.”
“It’s fun, and an aspect I was never aware of as a ski jumper,” Einig continued. “I only thought about getting up to the top of the hill and getting down as far I could.”
He said Jason Evans is in charge of snowmaking, which has become the key to the event.
“We have to calculate the weather conditions and make enough snow to last,” said Einig. “We point the snow guns at the hill and make piles of snow.” The grooming machines do the rest, packing down that snow to make a surface that’s at least 4 feet deep.
FIS standards require a snow surface generated by machine, Einig said, because the product “sets up harder and is safer for the jumpers.“
Many local volunteers make the ski jump possible, and it is that homey feeling that Knickerbocker says “touches a lot of hearts.”
The next 100 years
Sprague said that over the past 100 years, at least one jumper from Brattleboro has competed in each event.
Knickerbocker — who said he has not yet decided about competing in 2022 — is the last of that line of local jumpers, which stretches from two-time champ Merrill “Mezzy” Barber in the 1930s and 1940s, to three-time champ Hugh Barber in the 1970s to Jim and Jerry Galanes, Dr. Phil Dunham, and Chris Lamb.
Meanwhile, Knickerbocker and Einig have focused their energies on keeping that local connection alive.
Einig revived the Junior Jumping program in Brattleboro in 2019 after it had been dormant for more than a decade.
“It was something that needed to be done,” he said. “Harris Hill is a great event, but we didn’t have local jumpers.”
Youngsters start out on a 7-meter hill at Living Memorial Park, then move up to an 18-meter hill. If they master that, they start jumping off bigger hills around the region. No one from the revived program has tackled Harris Hill, but it’s only a matter of time, he said.
Einig said the program now has a dozen jumpers, and he and Knickerbocker are always looking for new recruits. It’s a long way from the 40 or so kids who were involved in the program in the 1970s, but they consider it a good start.
“Ski jumping is a worldwide sport, but it takes grassroots development to help it grow,” said Knickerbocker, adding that local ski clubs, such as Marlboro’s and the Harris Hill Junior Jumpers, represent the future of the sport.
As for parents who worry about their kids getting hurt, Knickerbocker said that, statistically, ski jumping is the second-safest snow sport, ranking just behind nordic skiing.
Knickerbocker said the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a resurgence in outdoor sports, and nordic skiing was one of the beneficiaries. “It’s a healthy, lifelong sport,” he said.
The Marlboro Ski Club is developing young skiers through its Bill Koch Ski League, which had 40 skiers during its first season, according to Knickerbocker.
He hopes some of those kids might get interested in trying Nordic Combined, an event that merges ski jumping with nordic skiing. That was Knickerbocker’s specialty and an event he oversees as part of the Harris Hill weekend.
A milestone celebrated
The Harris Hill Ski Jump organizers have some special events planned for the 2022 competition, including a free public fireworks show on Feb. 18, a downtown sculpture, and the release of a limited-edition, 120-page book, Harris Hill Ski Jump: The First 100 Years.
The book, which will cost $28, will be available in early November in local stores and at harrishillskijump.com.
Sprague, who has one of the largest private collections of Vermont sports photos and artifacts in the state, said he started on the book in March of this year. He winnowed the initial selection of 300 photos down to about 200.
He said he hopes the book will offer a taste of the rich history of Harris Hill and how it became a cherished winter tradition here.
“It took a lot of work to get to 100 years — a lot of spectators, a lot of volunteers, and a lot of hard work,” Sprague said.
“Hands down, it is the best event anywhere around here,” said Einig. “I guarantee that if you come once, you’re going to come every year.”