Ski Jump Brought World-Renowned Athletes to Rochester
Spectators came by the thousands to watch record-breakers, daredevils and disasters.
Editor's note: This story originally posted on Rochester Patch on Jan. 4, 2011.
Penny Frank Reddish of Rochester has a fascinating story to tell – and it's all true.
Her family has deep roots in Rochester, and it played an important role in one of the area's most spectacular events.
Reddish describes the fascinating time when Rochester was a magnet for ski jumpers and attracted world-renowned athletes to a small parcel of land called Newberry Hill near John R and Avon roads.
On Sundays during the winter months, skiers and fans from across the United States and around the world descended on Newberry Hill to participate in the spectacle that was the Rochester Ski Jump. Olympic athletes, champion skiers and a few daredevils slid down the jump, wowing crowds of thousands with their agility, strength and determination.
The Detroit Ski Club
The Rochester Ski Jump was built in 1926 at a cost of $40,000 by ski jumping champion Henry Hall and his five brothers. Together, the brothers founded the Detroit Ski Club and bought a small, 11-acre parcel of farmland, owned by the Frank family of Rochester, on which to build a jump.
The land included Newberry Hill, one of the highest elevations in Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
"It was called Newberry Hill after my great-great-great-grandfather Milo Newberry," said Reddish, who lives in the house Newberry built in 1863.
Hall, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was born in Ishpeming, where he and his brothers learned to ski. Hailed as "one of America's first great ski jumpers" by the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame, Hall began setting ski jumping records at age 17.
At 24, Hall competed in Steamboat Springs, CO, where he "soared over 203 feet off of the famed Howelsen Hill ski jump and set a new world record, becoming the first American-born skier ever to break a world record," the hall of fame notes on its website.
The website also reports that Hall started building ski jumps of record heights in 1923 – a year before ski jumping made its Olympic debut in the first Winter Games.
A Thrill on Newberry Hill
The Rochester Ski Jump was built of steel and wood and stood 114 feet high. The jump's overall height, according to Reddish, was 315 feet to 330 feet because the hill it was built on was so big.
Reddish's father, Bob, and her uncle, Bruce, helped construct the ski jump.
"They were farm kids at the time," Reddish recalled fondly.
The ski jump was completed and was set to open Jan. 24, 1926. Bad weather delayed the dedication ceremony a few days to Jan. 31. According to published newspaper reports in Reddish's possession, an estimated 10,000 people attended the celebration. Twenty-two skiers took to the slide that day as the temperature remained a frigid 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
A Hub of Winter Activity
The Rochester Clarion reported in January 1926 that the ski jump was the largest slide in the United States.
"The Hall brothers had constructed a slide in Northville," said Reddish, "but it wasn't high enough to bring national jumpers. At the time, Newberry Hill was considered to be the highest elevation in the Lower Peninsula," she continued. "It certainly was one of the highest ski jumps in the country."
On any given Sunday, spectators could see ski jumpers from Norway, Sweden, France, Canada, California, Utah, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Michigan and Minnesota.
Jumpers climbed a ladder to a platform near the base of the jump. From there, with heavy wooden skis over their shoulders, jumpers walked to the top along steps on the edge of the slide, which faced Parke Davis – a pharmaceutical company well-known for producing vaccines, antitoxins and medicines.
"It was a beautiful view from the top," said Reddish.
Ski jump competitions were held for prize money at three levels: novice, amateur and professional.
"Judging was interesting," Reddish said. "Form was 1 point, and if you touched one hand, you lost 15 points."
Jumping from the ski slide was no small feat. Skiers had to be experienced and prove they could handle a large jump, explained Reddish.
A junior jump was built next to the larger one to test skiers' prowess.
"You had to jump 90 feet on the junior jump before going on the larger one," Reddish said. "Measuring tapes were used to make sure you did your 90 feet."
If the weather didn't cooperate by bringing snow, then the snow was brought to Rochester.
"My father told me they would bring snow in by the boxcar from Gaylord," Reddish recalled. "They would use bushel baskets and put the snow on the slide and at the end of the slide so they could jump."
The ski jump proved to be good business for Rochester as throngs of people attended the events, booking hotels and shopping downtown.
"The Michigan Central Railroad would drop off 14 carloads of people to watch the slide events," said Reddish. "State police always had to direct traffic, as it was backed up two to three miles along John R."
An International Ski Jump
In addition to the Hall brothers, one of the more renowned skiers to compete on the jump was Anders Haugen. A native of Norway, Haugen was the captain of the 1924 U.S. Ski Team during the first Winter Olympics, held in Chamonix, France. He was also the first American to medal in ski jumping – an honor that was delayed by 50 years.
The New York Times reported on April 19, 1984, that Haugen "was listed as the fourth-place finisher in the 1924 Games, and it was not until 1974 that a Norwegian ski historian discovered a mathematical scoring error that meant Haugen had actually placed third. He was subsequently given the bronze medal."
According to the Rochester-Avon Historical Society's blog site, Haugen competed on the ski jump's opening day and "won the event with an 85-foot jump."
"He jumped here several times," said Reddish.
Johanna Kolstad, a ski jumper from Norway, also frequented the slide. While none of the programs or newspapers mentioned her, Reddish knows from her grandmother's diaries that Kolstad came to Rochester to practice jumping in the summer.
"She stayed here for six weeks in the summer and jumped on the slide covered in straw," said Reddish. "It was a new idea at the time."
According to Mable Frank's diary entry on Aug. 20, 1933, as recounted by Reddish, there "wasn't much of a crowd. 40 adults and 10 children. They made $150 – fifth Sunday they have skied on straw."
Kolstad is a ski-jumping legend and is still a beloved figure in Norway, where a documentary about her life is in the works.
A Norwegian film producer contacted Reddish and members of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society in 2010, asking about Reddish's Rochester Ski Jump collection, including her grandmother's diaries.
"They're doing a movie about (Kolstad) and are very interested in what my grandmother's diaries have to say," explained Reddish. "The movie people are coming to Rochester in February to see my collection."
The Rochester Boys
Seven teenage boys from Rochester formed the Rochester Red Wings, an offshoot of the Detroit Ski Club and headed by Henry Hall. The boys – Joe Tessmer, Johnny Tessmer, George Dunlop, Johnny Kinzie, Walter Brown, Charles "Bud" Rumohr and Warren Schlucter – spent many winter weekends competing and jumping from the Rochester slide. These young ski jumpers made headlines and soon became known as the "Rochester Boys."
"Rochester is the ski-jumping center of Michigan's Lower Peninsula," reported E.L. Warner, Jr. in a news clipping from 1936. "Just as Ishpeming turns out most of the ski riders up in the Copper Country, the Oakland County town is the training ground in this vicinity for future Ruuds and Engens."
Warner went on to state that, "More than 100 lads in the town own skis and no fewer than seven of the older boys are qualified to jump from the Rochester Slide."
Daredevils and Disasters
The ski jump attracted fans from far and wide to witness record-making jumps, daredevil stunts and spectacular falls.
"They jumped doubles from the slide," said Reddish. "It was a very big deal back then to have two people slide down and jump at the same time."
Antics and daring jumps made for exciting news.
On Feb. 16, 1931, the Detroit Free Press noted that "Two successful twin jumps were negotiated by professionals and spectators were thrilled as they saw Henry and Clarence Hall come hurtling down the slide together for the first time in seven years."
Bob and Bruce Frank were amateur skiers, but they enjoyed sliding down the jump they helped to construct. Bob made a few daredevil jumps, as he had been an acrobat and worked in vaudeville.
"I remember my father walking up and down the stairs on his hands," recalled Reddish. "He did vaudeville and was always very agile. He could be a clown on skis."
In addition to daring feats, there were terrible falls. In March 1933, the Rochester Era reported on John Erkkila of Ishpeming and his spectacular defeat:
"On his first leap, Erkkila rode 166 feet and he knew only a super-human effort would enable him to repeat his victory of a week ago. At his back a strong 30 mile southeast wind whistled. Then he braced himself, gave a signal and started. Down the slide he came like the wind and hurtled out into space. The large crowd stood almost breathless as he rode like a great eagle out in the open. It was evident that Erkkila had put all his strength into this last leap and there was evidence that he was about to reach his goal."
The Era stated that Erkkila made a 185-foot leap – then the longest jump ever made on the slide – but as the crowd began to cheer, disaster struck. Erkkila lost control, landed in a sprawl and slid to the bottom of the hill. The awful landing became the thrill of the afternoon. Having placed first a week earlier, Erkkila was now in sixth place. He returned to the slide later in the day, jumping 181 feet, but remained defeated.
Injuries were common. Bruce Frank fell during a jump and badly bruised his face. In a Dec. 19, 1996, Rochester Eccentric article by Susan Gower, Walter Brown recalled landing badly while his father was watching, and Joe Tessmer remembered landing on his head, which knocked him out for about 30 minutes.
Reddish recounted the terrible fate of one young man who died a week after suffering head injuries during a jump from the Rochester slide.
Twister Claims Slide
A late-summer storm bore through Rochester in 1934, blowing down the ski jump in terrific fashion.
"The slide was a twisted pile of metal," said Reddish. "The storm also hit Lake Orion and was a huge cyclone. It ruined crops, houses and barns. It even took down a steeple from a church on Walnut Street."
A new cable-suspension slide with a height of 160 feet was built by the Hall brothers in 1937 and opened to jumpers in the winter of 1938. Reddish's collection of newspaper clippings show that the slide maintained its popularity, as many articles reported crowds of 4,000 to 6,000 attended the jumping events.
Ski jumpers continued to break records and may have found the new slide a bit easier to handle, despite being 46 feet taller than the previous one.
In January 1936, the Detroit Free Press reported that "the old slide had a dip in it, while the present one has a more uniform descent, which is easier for the jumpers."
Oscar Fosmoe, a cousin of the Hall brothers, took ownership of the ski jump in 1938 and set out to help make Rochester a winter sports center by building a toboggan run near the ski slide.
"Upon completion of the toboggan slide, the reopening of the ski jump and the completion of the immense skating rink built by the village," reported the Rochester Clarion on Oct. 21, 1938. "Rochester will become the winter sports center of Southeastern Michigan. There will not be a single winter sport this community can't offer to the public."
The excitement generated by the second slide, however, was not long-lived. It, too, was blown to the ground in a storm in the 1940s and was never rebuilt.
Today, houses stand where skiers once delighted crowds with their record-breaking jumps.
The slide's exact location has often been mistakenly associated with Bloomer Park. Reddish wants to set the record straight.
"The jump was never at Bloomer Park," she said. "It was never a part of Bloomer Park, nor did it adjoin the park. It was called Newberry Hill – Bloomer Road was Newberry Road. Its exact location is in the Bluffs subdivision off John R."
Developers for the subdivision bought the property on which the slide was built.
"Houses are now where the ski jump used to be," said Reddish. "If you look closely, you can still see the foundation for the grandstand."
Reddish adores the history of the ski jump and all of the materials her grandparents collected and saved about it. She credits Henry Hall with creating this incredible era in Rochester's history.
"If it wasn't for Henry," Reddish said, "we wouldn't have what we had."