Jaywalking: Local scene once a ski-jumping mecca
This photo shows the new Greenfield ski jump built around 1930 by William Graves in his Bingville (East Greenfield) neighborhood, which produced Hall of Fame female jumper Dorathy Graves, William's daughter. The jump stood just west of Abercrombie Field and the Greenfield Center School. The site is today used for motorcycle hillclimb.
Photo courtesy of Peter S. Miller
A big crowd is gathered for what in days past was an annual Greenfield ski-jumping competition at the jump in Bingville.
Photo courtesy of Peter S. Miller
The Greenfield ski jump in Bingville was once a popular place for festive winter gatherings.
Photo courtesy of Peter S. Miller
It’s possible you know there was once a ski jump located in Greenfield near Abercrombie Field in the east Greenfield village known to natives as Bingville. The remains of that jump can still be seen at a spot now serving as a hot hill-climb spot for dirt bikes and four-wheelers.
What you may not know, or have forgotten, is that Greenfield was actually a ski-jumping mecca, and our little neck of the woods actually produced some world-class competitors.
Those born well after Greenfield ski-jumping heydays have probably heard family tales of parents or uncles or aunts attending competitions. For those who are hearing of it first here, thank Pat (Malloy) Houghton, who sent a large red package to The Recorder sports desk a couple of weeks back. Originally from Greenfield, Houghton but now lives in Spofford, N.H. The package contained programs and a variety of newspaper clippings about Dorothy Graves, a Greenfield native and women’s ski-jumping pioneer. It just so happened that at the recent 2014 Sochi Games, women’s ski jumping made its Olympic debut. What better time to dig up some stories about the old jumps in town and the surrounding areas.
Over the years, there have been many Greenfield and other Franklin County ski jumps. The most memorable of them all was the jump in east Greenfield, which remained open until the early 1970s, attracting more than 2,000 spectators to a single event during the height of competition. The first jump was probably the one located behind where Home Depot today stands. Although the dates are a bit cloudy, it is believed that the jump was closed in the 1930s or early 1940s. There was also a jump built at Holland Farm, west of Colrain Road at the start of the Upper Meadows. Holland Farms was a small area where beginners learned to jump (there was also a small downhill course there), and two men who remembered it — Ralph Semb and Terry Ruggles — actually learned to jump there.
Semb, who owns the French King Entertainment Center, is from Erving. He began ski jumping when watching an uncle teach his cousin.
“My uncle was from Norway and he wanted to teach his son so I tagged along,” Semb recalled. “We cut down some trees on the little farm we lived on and made a jump.”
Although Semb’s cousin never took to the sport, Semb was drawn to it and began to progress up the ranks. He moved on to Holland Farms, when he was a child, and also remembered skiing at Crystal Notch, which was located on the Waidlich Farm off east Mineral Road in Millers Falls. He eventually moved on to jump in east Greenfield, and also jumped at Harris Hill in Brattleboro, which still hosts annual competitions today. Harris Hill hosted a number of large events, including national championships. Semb eventually made the U.S. National team and was on the mountain in Innsbruck, Austria for the 1964 Olympics as an alternate (the top four U.S. jumpers competed).
Ruggles, meanwhile, learned the sport in large part because his father, Art Ruggles, was the Deerfield Academy ski coach from 1937 to 1970. He, too, remembered learning at Holland Farm and competed in east Greenfield and other area jumps.
According to Ruggles, ski jumping was so big in the area that jumpers used to take the train into town and would get off and stay at the Weldon Hotel. There was even a ski shop in the basement of what is now a retirement home in town. Jumpers would then make their way to the area jumps. Among some of the famous names from Greenfield over the years were Chuck Warren, Ken Suhl and John Bonk. Warren and Suhl were both world-class jumpers, and it is believed that both were the first two men to jump on crushed ice inside both Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden in New York, as part of exhibitions. Bonk, who used to own a gas station on the little flowered common across from Sweeney Ford in Greenfield, was another top area skier.
All three men belonged to the Edelweiss Ski Club, which was a big deal in town. The group used to meet in a little brick building that was torn down between the Franklin County Courthouse and the Greenfield YMCA.
According to Ruggles, there were other jumps in the area, including one at Mohawk Mountain, located off the Mohawk Trail in Shelburne. Ruggles also brought up the existence of a trail behind where Richardson’s Candy Kitchen is located in Deerfield, apparently near Wright’s Pond.
“There were six or seven jumps within a 10-mile radius,” he recalled.
One of the last prominent ski jumpers to come out of this area was Leyden’s Jeff Baker, who competed as a 90-meter jumper on the U.S. Junior Olympic team at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Baker later suffered a non-skiing neck injury that paralyzed him, ending his ski-jumping career.
And that takes us back to Dorothy “Dot” Graves, who was born in Greenfield in 1923 and would have celebrated her 91st birthday on March 1 had she not died at 82 in 2005. She is buried at Calvary Cemetary in Greenfield, according to her obituary, which appeared in the Keene Sentinel.
Graves began jumping when women as a rule did not jump. According to a story in the Boston Sunday Post that ran on Jan. 25, 1942, Graves began jumping as a child after a bout of scarlet fever left her nearly too week to stand. Her father, William Graves, built the jump in east Greenfield specifically for Dorothy.
“He thought if I started skiing it would strengthen my legs, which it did, and I just kept going,” Graves told former Recorder writer John Giniusz in a 1992 story.
The story in the Post ran when Graves was 18, and it called her “the only woman ski jumper in the country.”
She became good enough to successfully compete against men. At the age of 14, she was going to Brattleboro to compete in the Nationals and she was joining other area skiers on a bus to the hill. The driver that day would not initially allow Graves to board, thinking she could not possibly be a jumper. When the men refused to board the bus unless Graves could ride, the driver allowed her to get on. She jumped well enough to move up to a Class B jumper at that time. In 1943, she enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served for two years in the Marines during World War II, before returning to ski jumping in 1945. She placed second in the 1946 Class B National event in Brattleboro, and the next year became the first woman ever to achieve Class A status, the top of the ski jumping ladder. Graves got married and gave birth to her first child in 1949, ending her ski-jumping career.
Graves was inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame in 2009.
As for the local ski jumps, they have long since fallen by the wayside, with the jump in east Greenfield the last survivor before closing in the early 70s. No one is exactly sure why the jumps closed, but the most common reason appears to be the money needed to maintain and keep them running.
“I think what happened is they all deteriorated,” Ruggles said. “You have to rebuild the jumps and you either put the money in, or you have to shut them down.”
Ruggles said that because the jumps were owned by the town, it may have also come down to a safety issue, with the town or other owners not wanting to risk liability for injury or pay steep insurance premiums. Semb said he wasn’t sure if it was the risk factor, but that the lack of small hills to train beginners on, and the lack of old-timers working to keep the sport prominent may have contributed to the sports’ demise. He said that men like Chuck Warren, who used to own a ski shop on Main Street in Greenfield, promoted the sport. When those men either passed away or simply became too busy to keep the sport alive, it died out.
Whatever the case, the ski jumps are now just a piece of Greenfield history. Albeit, a prominent one.
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.