The Harris Hill Ski Jumping Competition takes place February 14-15, 2015. For details, visit harrishillskijump.org.Imagine a house. But not just any house. It’s the house your grandfather built. Your father grew up in it, and you did too. In this house your father married your mother, and your siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles filled the rooms on holidays. When you think of growing up, when you think of family, what you think of first is this house.
Now imagine the house rotting board by board, sinking on its foundation, the roof sagging and leaking, and for too many years you’ve patched it the best you could, but the house keeps falling apart; there’s talk that it isn’t safe to live there anymore. To fix it up will cost tens of thousands of dollars, but your bank account is barren and you have no idea what to do.
That’s what it felt like in the winter of 2005 for Pat Howell and Liz Richards, and for all the volunteers who for so long had worked to keep Harris Hill Ski Jump open and hosting its annual tournament during Brattleboro, Vermont’s Winter Carnival. Five winters ago, after the last ski jumper had landed and the spectators had made their way home, the committee members who’d kept the jump patched and running knew that they’d run out of time and do-it-yourself fixes.
Brattleboro’s Olympic-caliber 90-meter ski jump, the only one of its size in New England, was no longer viable. The timbers that supported it were no longer safe. Harris Hill had hosted ski jumping for 84 years. There had been nine national championships there, and even Olympic qualifiers, with many of the best ski jumpers in North America and Europe. Years past, there’d been weekends when 10,000 people had filled the hillside–some of them climbing trees to get a better view. Now this hard reality: Just as ski jumping had all but died out throughout New England, maybe its day had passed here too.
But what about the warmest memories of cold days on the hill? What about the legacy of Fred Harris? The hill bears his name because he built the ski jump from the ground up. He found the perfect spot, sheltered by trees to protect it from crosswinds, and he saw the first jumpers fly off in 1922. He’d started the Dartmouth Outing Club in 1909, and even while he’d become a successful stockbroker and a world-class sailor and tennis player, he’d thrown himself into building in his hometown a ski jump that would rival any in the world.
It’s hard to believe now, but ski jumping once thrived in New England, and the best athletes took to jumping before all else. Time and fate eroded its popularity. In the 1970s ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to open its popular “… the thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat” montage with the horrifying footage of a ski jumper losing control and hurtling down a slope. The fact that he wasn’t badly injured didn’t matter. To high school and some college administrators, the fear of injured students and ensuing lawsuits sent them scurrying to close the jumps. By the mid-1980s, the sport was kept alive only through ski clubs and faithful supporters.
Liz Richards was one of them. Liz grew up in Brattleboro. She remembers when kids built their own neighborhood jumps, and the best of them went on to jump for their high school, and the best of those tested themselves against all comers at the town’s winter carnival. Her son Drew jumped his way to the U.S. Olympic Team. “Everybody came to the tournament,” she recalls. “There were cars all the way out Cedar Street to Western Avenue. There were doughnuts frying, sugar on snow; it’s where you came to see your friends. This was the thing to do.”
Pat Howell grew up in Delaware, but when she was young her family came north to Brattleboro for the winter carnival. Years later, after she’d moved to town, she saw that Harris Hill was more than a sports venue. In winter it became the town’s heart, its very identity. When visitors turned off the interstate at exit 2, what did they see emblazoned on the “Welcome to Brattleboro” sign? Of course–a ski jumper.
This is what everyone who’d loved Harris Hill remembered: You arrived early. You climbed toward the top, holding onto branches, digging your boots into the snow for leverage. You waited. Suddenly swooping down, as fast as 60 miles per hour, came a skier, and right there in front of you the takeoff–a sound you never forgot, like a flock of wild birds beating their wings–and you watched as the jumper rode a current of air like a human kite, out, out, as far as possible, then dropping into the landing, and you heard the cheers and the clapping. And then it started again with the next jumper. Could you just let those memories go?
No, you couldn’t. So a few people gathered more people, and then a movement to save ski jumping on Harris Hill was underway. The committee called in engineers, but a 90-meter ski jump wasn’t something engineering firms knew much about. Estimates to tear down and rebuild the jump approached a million dollars.
But Rex Bell, a committee member who’d once been not only a ski jumper but a coach of the national team, said, Hold on–we can make this work for half that. They could do it the way Fred Harris had, without bells and whistles, and do it right. The committee called their fundraising effort “Step Up and Soar.” They started making calls, getting the word out. “We couldn’t let it die on our watch,” says Liz Richards.
The town itself gave $30,000 to get things going, and there were donations and a telethon on local cable with all these people remembering what the jump had meant to them. For $1,000 you could have your name or the name of a loved one stenciled on one of the 187 new steps for all to see. By the fall of 2007, the committee had raised $300,000. A lot, but not enough–they needed at least $175,000 more. Pat Howell wrote a press release stating that they’d come up short, and the Associated Press picked it up. There would be no ski jumping again during the town’s 2008 winter carnival, the third year in a row without it.
Who could have known what would happen next?
A trustee of the Manton Foundation, an under-the-radar family foundation in New York with an emphasis on New England, saw the story and was struck by a town wanting to keep its tradition alive. The call came to Pat Howell: The foundation would fund the shortfall. “I called Liz and we both started crying,” Howell remembers.
There wasn’t enough time to get it all done for 2008’s winter carnival, but throughout that spring and summer the work went on. No one had anticipated how the price of materials would go through the roof, though, and there they were at that point again in the fall: so close, yet once more out of money. With the national economy plunging off its own cliff, eight committee members went to the local bank and pledged $10,000 apiece in loans. Then once again the angels at the Manton Foundation called. We want you to succeed, they said. What do you need? When the tears had dried, the Harris Hill Ski Jump committee got back to work.
Which brings us to this sun-splashed February day, one winter ago. It’s noon. A woman stands holding scissors beside a ribbon stretched across the base of Harris Hill. She is Sandy Harris, Fred’s only child. She’s dressed in black ski pants and jacket; her blond hair blows a bit in the wind.
Along the hillside people are packed three deep. Small children sit watching on top of their fathers’ shoulders. You can smell burgers and sausages frying under the tents.
The athletes, lean as gazelles, their faces young and eager, wait attentively for the ribbon cutting. They’ve come from Austria, Slovenia, Colorado, Lake Placid, the Midwest, New England.
Can you imagine what Sandy Harris is feeling at this moment? “My first memory is of being with my father at the hill,” she says later. “He’d be working on the hill and I’d play with my toys.” Forty-eight years after his death she feels this: “It was chilling to realize that after all this time, his hill is still so important to the town. There’s a sense of his presence. He instilled something in that jump that was contagious. It inspired people to give years of their lives to it. To keep it alive. “
She cuts the ribbon and the skiers start down, one, then another. And how can anyone watch and not feel that they themselves have caught big air and are riding the current into the happy cheers of the people of Brattleboro?