The following tribute—The Genius, Genesis and Enduring Legacy of Fred Harris—is posted at the bottom of Harris Hill, Brattleboro’s distinctive ski jumping site on Cedar Street.
The majestic jumping hill before you was originally built in 1921, on a leap of faith by Fred Harris, an avid outdoorsman with boundless energy and enthusiasm. While a student at Dartmouth College in 1909, he had founded the Dartmouth Outing Club, the first such organization of its kind in the country, to share his passion for outdoor life and to promote robust physical activity. He returned to his native Brattleboro and, in February of 1921, organized the town’s first Winter Carnival, a series of fun races and outdoor events on the Retreat Meadows, a bit more than a snowball’s throw from where you stand. Imagining that a real spectacle should highlight the festivities, he set out to build the ski jumping hill and wooden trestle tower, funding its construction with $2200 from his own pocket.
The inaugural Brattleboro Ski Jump, held on February 4, 1922, served as the first Vermont State Championship and drew over 2500 spectators; the event’s proceeds more than paid for the hill. Harris next founded the Brattleboro Outing Club to own and operate the ski jump, organize winter outings and events, and—as is central to the club’s mission to this day—“to encourage, develop, and promote outdoor family life and good fellowship.”
As one of the first “extreme skiers,” Fred Harris trekked to the top of the Northeast’s highest peaks and is credited with first winter descents on skis of Whiteface and Mt. Washington. He served as the founding president of the U.S. Eastern Amateur Ski Association, which was based in Brattleboro. Year after year, Harris, steward to the outdoors and community, oversaw the events conducted on this hill and shepherded skisport in the USA through its youth. Members of the Brattleboro Outing Club organized championships, orchestrated ski ball soirees, shoveled mountains of snow, and chiseled the hill so that history could be made.
At its heyday in 1951, the National Championships were held on the hill for the fifth time, drawing a record 10,000 spectators to witness a contest comprised of a record field of 168 jumpers from around the globe. Art Tokle of Norway floated on the updraft to a new record of 239 feet. Fittingly, on that day, this historic hill, carved into an inconspicuous slope rising out of a cornfield, was re-dedicated in honor of its pioneering patron as Harris Hill.
Since the genesis of Harris’ idea, the Brattleboro Outing Club has taken its shape, cued by the contours of the local landscape. From skiing the slopes and valleys of Vermont’s countryside in winter, to paddling the rivers that flow from her mountainsides in spring, the BOC has offered outdoor programs to serve the community for the better part of the last century. From summer tennis played on courts sculpted from the rich clay of Vermont’s alluvial outflow, to hikes through her forests in annual autumnal radiance, the club’s offerings proceed in concert with the natural rhythms of Vermont’s seasons.
Through winters both deep and shallow, Outing Club volunteers have stomped by ski and flung snow, shovelful by shovelful, to prep Harris Hill for tournaments. From 1922-2004, aside from a few hardscrabble years when winter was barren and when World War II raged, causing the competitions to be cancelled, the BOC maintained stewardship of the Jump.
Then, as the millennium turned, a changing world and circumstance threatened the fate of Harris Hill as it fell into disrepair and lay dormant through a few hard winters (2006-2008).
The steps ascending the hill above you were rebuilt in 2008 by the pride and purpose of a community committed to its heritage. This hill has been re-contoured and revitalized under the aegis of a newly formed Harris Hill Ski Jump Inc.
To this day, Fred Harris’s legacy endures. The Brattleboro Outing Club continues to sustain his vision, dedicated to its original mission and dependent upon volunteers who are passionate about playing in the great outdoors. In the cold months, club volunteers support the Ski Jump, groom cross country trails at its BOC Ski Hut facility, and teach schoolchildren to embrace winter no matter what the weather. In the warm months, members serve to organize tennis mixers at the rustic Cedar Street clubhouse, and introduce neighbors to the rhythmic sweep of the oar at its Row-BOC dock on the West River.
Like this hill before you, rebuilt on a vision and a leap of faith, the Brattleboro Outing Club continues to connect the community to the Vermont countryside and to its natural heritage, bringing people outside to discover active pursuits, in sync with the seasons, for the well-being and sustainable benefit of all.