The ‘primo hill’ in Niagara

Museum exhibit marks when Niagara had its own ski jump

Ed Maes takes flight at the old wooden ski jump in Niagara, Wis., circa 1942. (Niagara Historical Museum photo)

NIAGARA, Wis. — Just in time for the Kiwanis Ski Club jumping tournament, the Niagara Area Historical Society is completing its new ski exhibit at the museum, 1364 River St. in Niagara.

Karen Klenke, society president, said Niagara once had a “primo hill” for ski jumping in its time. The ski display includes historic photos and information about the hills, wooden downhill and jumping skis, poles, a toboggan and other paraphernalia.

Local interest in downhill skiing and ski jumping surged in the Niagara area in the 1930s. According to a Niagara Mill publication from the ’50s, “The long sloping hills on the Wodenka farm took the eye of young enthusiasts” and Herb Peterson, a foreman in the material department at the Niagara mill, “started spending his free time with the young folks on the hill.”

Local boys first practiced the art of ski jumping by launching off inclines shaped from snow and ice.

Kelly Depas Rumpf, now of Iron Mountain, grew up in Niagara and has fond memories of skiing and jumping in the area.

“The older boys would build jumps from mounds of snow and then all the boys would go off,” she said. “It was small, hometown. It reminds me of ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ We all skied and hung together. Everyone got along, no matter how you came or how you dressed.”

The boys once dared her to jump off one of their creations, Rumpf recalled. She proudly admitted to taking the challenge. “I did a little spread off the jump,” she said.

In 1938, the first wooden ski jump was built and the initial meet held that winter, with Peterson making the opening flight. That was the beginning of competitive ski jumping in Niagara, which for the next decade would draw about 1,500 people annually to watch the sport, except for a brief pause during World War II.

As the stability of the wooden structure began to deteriorate, it was replaced with a steel structure during the summer of 1954, built with volunteer labor and 11 salvaged electric towers purchased from the Michigan Power Company and disassembled at the site.

As the sections were welded together, volunteers would help raise them into place. Labor and materials cost about $2,200.

The new structure was 45 feet in height, 10 feet more than the previous jump. It allowed Niagara on Feb. 13, 1954, to host its first competitive event since 1950, when it had the Junior District Championship.

In 1959, a tow rope for slalom skiing was installed on Wodenka’s Hill behind the Redbrick Inn and Johnson Automotive. Also know as Little Niagara Ski Hill, it eventually boasted two tow ropes, on the bunny hill and on the main hill with a warming shack alongside.

Dan Recla of Niagara spent several of his formative years skiing and jumping in the area. He even took a job running the tow rope for parks and recreation.

“We were all just a bunch of kids having fun until the adults showed up,” he said. “Then they got us up and running. We had holes in the boards of the jump we had to replace; we helped clear the trees. We didn’t have any equipment until the Kiwanis Club gave us skis and stuff.”

Recla remembers some of the premier jumpers of his time to be “Ed O’Connell, Guy Gordon, Rich Steeno and the Brault boys.”

It’s unclear exactly when these areas ceased operations. The ski jump was removed sometime after 1975 due to insurance costs and liability issues, Niagara Mayor George Bousley said.

To schedule a tour of the Niagara Area Historical Museum ski exhibit, contact Karen Klenke at 715-251-4557.


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