Johanne Kolstad : Filmmakers seek info on famous female ski jumper
In the heart of the Great Depression, a new ski jump, nicknamed Suicide Hill, opened in New Boston, a village in Sandisfield, Mass., just north of Winsted.
Built by the New England Ski Club â€” most of whose members were from Winsted â€” it claimed at its opening Jan. 26, 1936, to be the longest ski hill in the country. It was the first in western Massachusetts and it cost about $7,000 to construct.
Its takeoff point was 425 feet above the landing zone, and the run from top to bottom was 1,050 feet. In theory, this would allow jumps of up to 400 feet. The landing zone was unusually short; Route 8 and the Farmington River were close by. This may have daunted some jumpers.
About 4,000 visitors turned out to see the first competition. Entrants were mostly males recruited from Michigan and Wisconsin. George Maki was the first down the jump. John Erkkila of the Detroit Ski Club won the contest with a leap of 181 feet, well below expectation, in part because of soft snow.
â€œThe skiers complained about not being able to make the distances they anticipated but they rode the jump in spectacular fashion,â€ reported The Berkshire Eagle Jan. 27.
The audience was intrigued to watch a female athlete, Johanne Kolstad (1913-97), the Norwegian Queen of the Skis. Kolstad â€œhad the best form of all of the skiers, according to the judges. She made jumps of 138 and 146 feet, a good showing considering conditions,â€ reporter John G.W. Mahanna wrote.
Kolstad had already been in the area, staying in Norfolk and working closely with her manager, Karl Thomlevold, who designed Suicide Hill.
Failing to find good competition opportunities in her native Norway (she was barred because of her gender from the royal ski jumping hill in Holmenkollen), Kolstad had come to the United States at the invitation of the Norge Ski Club in Chicago in 1933. She participated in 25 events that year, and made further appearances through 1938. Her jump of 72 meters in Berlin, N.Y., March 6, 1938, was a world record for decades.
This information is from HÃ¥vard Parr, a researcher for Flimmer Film AS in Norway. The documentary filmmaking company is compiling a new series for Norwegian television entitled â€œForgotten Heroes,â€ and Kolstad will be featured in one episode.
â€œThe filming in the United States will take place this winter,â€ according to Parr. â€œWe have to coordinate the filming for this episode with the filming for the other documentaries in the series, so we do not know the exact time for our visit to the Winsted area.â€
Parr has several questions that Northwest Corner ski fans and historians may be able to help with. Heâ€™d like to find anyone who remembers seeing Kolstad ski. Heâ€™d like to know where the ski hill was in Norfolk.
Heâ€™d like to know more about Karl Thomlevold and also Nathra Nader (father of Ralph Nader) and Bill Simmers of the New England Ski Club and Ralph Strand, president of the Winsted Ski Club.
Information may be gleaned from old issues of the Winsted Citizen, should someone be willing to look through newspaper files.
Parr may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
The U.S. record jump in the late 1930s was 287 feet, held by Alf Engen. Engen himself was expected at Suicide Hill the first weekend in February 1936, but strong winds forced organizers to call the event off. Some 2,500 disappointed spectators went home having seen only exhibition runs by Kolstad and a few others.
Conditions were more favorable Feb. 16 and 17 and Theodore Torma of Michigan was victorious with jumps of 188 and 194 feet. Kolstad bested her showing with jumps of 164 and 174 feet, though a sudden squall during one of her takeoffs nearly proved disastrous.
Suicide Hill struggled on a couple more years, experiencing bad weather in 1937 and â€™38.
Salisbury Winter Sports Associationâ€™s jump on Satre Hill is the last surviving of the early ski jumps in western New England. Organized in 1925, SWSA will host the USSA Junior Olympics in February 2011. It is raising money to rebuild its 65-meter jump.
Bernard A. Drew is too young to have seen Suicide Hill in its day, but he did recently look at the reforested remnants of the jump from the south end of the parking lot of Villa Mia, a pizza restaurant in New Boston where he had dinner.