BRATTLEBORO — The year was 1920. Apartments were renting for $30 a month. Coffee was selling for 30 cents per pound at a grocery on Main Street. The mercury was down to 22 below zero.
And Fred H. Harris, “whose ability as a ski jumper is well known, made a jump of 68 feet and another of 50 feet,” reported the Brattleboro Daily Reformer on Feb. 2.
Harris was a man who lived for adventure. Having already been the first to lead a party of three on skis up the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire - the highest peak in the eastern United States - in 1913, the same year he made that 68-foot jump, he was also the first ever to ski to the top of Mount Whiteface in New Hampshire and Mount Marcy in the New York Adirondacks.
Later that same year, he also flew his grandmother in an airplane to celebrate her 87th birthday, using a skill he learned in the Navy Air Corps during World War I.
A graduate of Brattleboro High School class of 1906, Fred Harris was a celebrated hometown boy. A natural athlete, he excelled in skiing and ski jumping during the infancy of the sport.
He also founded the Dartmouth College Outing Club as a student in 1910 and built Dartmouth's first ski jump.
Years later, in 1961, Harris's obituary would state, “He was known nationally as Mr. Ski.”
A local champion
According to a Vermont History website post, “The Early Days of Skiing, 1934,” “Fred Harris, who was about to enter Dartmouth, was learning to ski from a Dr. Lawton in Brattleboro, who had somehow obtained a pair of skis, perhaps from the Midwest, where Norwegian immigrants had taken their skis more than fifty years earlier.”
“Skis at the time were eight to twelve feet long, four or five inches wide, without bottom grooves or wax, held to the feet with notoriously unreliable leather straps, affording the user little control or ability to steer. What steering the skier accomplished was with a long pole dragged along one side, rather like a rudder.”
Also an expert at tennis, Harris won the New England intercollegiate championship three times, was All-New England champion four times, and captured about 30 state championships. He was the U.S. Mixed Doubles Tennis champion of 1912. At one time, he ranked 14th among players in the U.S.
His obituary reported, “After graduating from Dartmouth, he worked until 1916 for the banking house of Baker, Young & Co., Boston. Entering military service that year, he was one of the seven men out of the 157th Inf., Co. F, 10th Regiment at Plattsburgh, N.Y. to qualify as a rifle expert.”
In 1922, he built one of his most enduring accomplishments: what came to be known as the Harris Hill Ski Jump, then a part of another organization he also founded, the Brattleboro Outing Club.
As ski jumping mania gripped the United States, the price of building the wooden jumping structure from which men would appear to fly was $2,200. At the hill's inauguration on Feb. 4, 1922, the entire cost was recouped in one day as thousands of people came, dressed in their best furs, to view the State Jumping Championships on Cedar Street.
Years later, Harris also founded the Brattleboro Winter Carnival, often linking jumping events with the townwide celebration of outdoor life in Vermont.
Harris Hill now stands alone
Local jumper Richard “Tink” Austin, in an interview conducted before his death in 2013, remembered, “My first jumping skis in the 1930s was used and cost $3. One was six inches shorter than the other. There was a bunch of us who loved to jump so much we'd drive anywhere to do it.”
“But having Harris Hill in our own backyard was a great thing,” he continued. “To jump, the hill had to be packed with snow. Every time it snowed, we'd sidestep the hill over and over to pack the fresh snow down. Sometimes it took us all day to pack it and we'd only get in a run or two, but was worth it to us.”
Despite the initial thrills from the 1920s to the 1960s, which commanded the building of countless jumps across the area, Harris Hill now stands alone as the only 90-meter jump in New England.
Fast forward to the 100th anniversary of that first jump on Harris Hill. It's not difficult to imagine the awe and pride that Fred Harris would likely feel seeing his hill today.
No longer a part of the Brattleboro Outing Club, Harris Hill is now run by a registered nonprofit, Harris Hill Ski Jump Inc., guided by a steering committee of 17 trustees, including Harris's daughter Sandy Harris.
Meanwhile, countless volunteers staff the annual event, doing everything from parking cars at the event, to crowd control, ticket selling and more.
Whereas Fred Harris's longest jump in 1920 was 68 feet, Harris Hill is now one of only six jumps in the nation that can accommodate Olympic-caliber jumps of 90 meters, or a little over 340 feet.
The hill was closed in 2005, opening four years later in 2009 after a $600,000 renovation. It's received more upgrading for this year's centennial celebration.
More than 500 jumpers have sailed off Harris Hill over the years, including many local jumpers. Some of the began in the junior jumping program, now run by trustee Todd Einig, of Guilford.
Brattleboro resident among 60 to be honored
Sixty former jumpers will also be honored this year, including Brattleboro resident Hugh Barber, who comes from a ski jumping family.
Hometown boy Merrill “Mezzy” Barber became an honorary citizen of Norway and was inducted into the Ski Jumping Hall of Fame in 1999, but his passion for the sport took hold in the 1930s.
Barber won the U.S. National Championship in 1954 and is the only Brattleboro resident to win this title. While he was unable to attend, he also made two Olympic teams.
In the mid 1960s, Mezzy's nephew Hugh took up the sport when he was 13.
“I learned to ski jump from my Uncle Mezzy. I jumped Harris Hill, Maple Valley, Bear Mountain over in New York State, and Lake Placid to start,” says Barber.
Hugh Barber went on to Middlebury College, where he joined the ski jumping team and eventually jumped all over the nation.
Harris Hill offers a winged trophy to any jumper who wins the event three times over the course of their jumping career. By 1974, Barber had retired the winged trophy at Harris Hill - something his uncle Mezzy had been unable to do, as he won only twice in 1939 and 1947.
Also scheduled to be present for this year's anniversary is Brattleboro native Dana Zelanakas, who competed in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. In 1984, Zelanakas won first place in the U.S. Masters division at Lake Placid, N.Y.
He also coached the Junior Jumping Program at Harris Hill for many years and was the director of the Harris Hill Ski Jump from 1985 until the last National Championship in Brattleboro in 1992. He's now been involved in ski jumping for 65 years.
Former Harris Hill jumpers include six 2022 Olympians, including Patrick Gasienca, Anna Hoffman, Casey Larson, Decker Dean, and Kevin Bickner, who is a U.S. record holder at 244.5 meters, or 802 feet.
Jumper Jim Holland, of Norwich, will be especially honored this year for representing Vermont in the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics and as a 1995 Harris Hill winner.
Centennial celebration Feb. 19–20
The 100th anniversary of Harris Hill will take place the weekend of Feb. 19 and 20.
Gates will open at 10 a.m. on the Feb. 19 with opening ceremonies scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and the competition begins at 12:15. On Sunday, Feb. 20, gates will open at 10 a.m., opening ceremonies will begin again at 11:30, and competition will begin at 12:15 p.m.
An awards ceremony will follow at the end of the jump.
The organizers of the event ask those who can to walk to Harris Hill. Four shuttle buses will leave from the Retreat Farm. Other buses will leave from the Brattleboro Retreat parking lot, from the state building near the municipal center, and from the Vermont District Court building across the street near the American Legion.
Riders will be required to wear masks in the buses. Masks are also encouraged at the event, even though it takes places outside.
Tickets for the centennial celebration can be purchased at harrishillskijump.com.
“We are so excited for this year's event,” said Dana Sprague, a member of the anniversary committee. “We'll celebrate beginning on Friday, Feb. 18 with night jumping and a fireworks celebration at the hill.”
Night jumping was made possible by the addition of new bright lighting poles on the outrun.
Sprague also pointed out that the event will celebrate the new book Harris Hill Ski Jump: The First 100 Years [story, this issue], which will be available for sale, as well as T-shirts, cowbells, and 100th anniversary pins.
“We've done all we can to give this celebration a vintage feel, right down to the design of the tickets,” Sprague said.
Decidedly not vintage is a new electronic scoreboard on the hill this year for the first time.
“In the past, people had to write on their programs to keep track of which jumper was ahead,” Sprague said. “Now we'll know as the jump progresses what the standings are throughout the competition.”
Past retired trophies will be on display. At the last jump in 2020, the trophy was retired, so Sandy Harris has designed a new trophy for this year. Her father designed the very first trophy, which was retired by Norwegian Torger Tokle in 1940. Tokle was a contemporary and friend of Mezzy Barber.
As part of the celebration, Mel Martin of Newfane designed a ski jumper sculpture, life-sized and crafted from metal, after having been inspired by one in Austria. The sculpture has been placed in the north end of town in the center of Main Street near Brooks Memorial Library.
G.S. Precision cut the design for the sculpture, which was then coated in aluminum and steel and lit with 500 solar-powered LED lights.
“The first hill of them all is Harris Hill,” jumper Hugh Barber remembers. “All the competitors enjoy it. It's got speed, excitement, and plenty of air pressure. Some hills are not sited as favorably as Harris Hill.”
“It's not only our local history, but also a fabulous place to jump,” he said.