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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

February 4, 2001 Sunday

Connecticut Weekly Desk:
From the Roof of a Shed, Tradition Soars 

LOOMING above a small clearing in the woods about a half-mile from the center of the town of Salisbury is a formidable anachronism covered with snow.

As forbidding as the 51-year-old wooden structure looks from the ground, the view from the top could make the hardiest of souls weak in the knees. Especially if they have skis strapped to their feet and are preparing to cheat gravity for as long as possible by launching off what is referred to around here simply as "the big jump."

The John Satre Memorial Ski Jump is named for the man who, according to local legend, climbed to the top of a shed in 1926 and skied down, trying to fly a goodly distance between the time he left the overhang and reached the ground. It was such fun that enthusiasm for the new pastime spread beyond the immigrants who had recently moved to Salisbury.

That summer several townspeople pooled their brawn to build an inrun, a takeoff and an outrun, thus bringing to Connecticut the sport Satre (pronounced SAY-tree) learned in his native Norway.

Next Sunday a tradition continues when the United States Eastern Ski Jump Championships come to Salisbury, a town of slightly more than 4,000 year-round residents wedged into the northwest corner of Connecticut. On Saturday, the annual Salisbury Invitational Jump Competition takes off. Both events begin at 1 p.m.

The Satre Hill jump is either a throwback or, depending on your point of view, a testament to the glory days of the sport. The jump does not conform to the contours of its more modern counterparts like the 90- and 120-meter jumps in Lake Placid, N.Y. At Satre Hill, the jump is 65 meters, which is the distance from the takeoff to the farthest point at which it is safe to land.

The jump is about 25 percent larger than the original one built on the site, which was among the first jumps in the east. The first ski-jumping competition in the United States was held in 1887 in Red Wing, Minn., according to Jeri Ahola of the United States National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Mich.

The task of maintaining the jump and organizing competitions at Satre Hill is as formidable as the challenge the jump presents. In this regard, Satre Hill is old-fashioned. From 1926 when a group called the Salisbury Outing Club erected the first jump on borrowed land to the current jump, which was rebuilt in 1950, ski jumping here has been an all-volunteer affair supported by local sponsors and the gate.

That has meant enticing or drafting just about everybody in town at one point or another to perform major and ancillary tasks. The tasks range from replacing rotting supports, to directing traffic in the parking field, to erecting billboards on Route 44, to housing competitors from out of town.

After a lull in jumping during World War II, the newly formed Salisbury Winter Sports Association, or Swasa, resurrected the sport in 1950. The group still maintains the jump and runs a youth program for local recruits using three smaller jumps on the same hill.

Mat Keifer, 45, who has been on the board of directors for 23 years, brims with stories and lore about readying Satre Hill for competitions. There is the time when snow was in short supply so a local radio station put out a call.

"All of a sudden pickup trucks with their beds filled with snow started to appear," Mr. Keifer said.

The upper reaches of the jump are often made slippery with shavings from the ice rinks from three boarding schools in the area. Volunteers with shovels are enlisted to help pack the shavings down.

Swasa has a 20-member board of directors, and it is hard to wander into one of the shops in town without running into a past or a current member. Some of the most active volunteers consciously stay off the board to make room for newcomers.

Mary Ouellette, a clerk in The Village Store on Main Street, joined the Swasa board when her children took an interest in jumping and has come to understand that "once you're a director they never let you go."

This weekend she will volunteer at the cook shack selling hot dogs and hamburgers. Her boss, Frank Fee, a former union steam fitter in New York City, will be part of the crew preparing the hill.

William Appleyard, a retired director of alumni relations at the Hotchkiss School who has served as a volunteer publicist for Swasa for 30 years, said the town has maintained its rural character. Those who meet the demands of Satre Hill as a labor of love have roots in Salisbury. Over the last 75 years they have taken pride in the publicity the sport has brought to the town.

Not long after the first jump was built, Salisbury started contributing more than its share of stars to the world of Nordic skiing, which at that time encompassed cross-country, jumping and combined events.

In 1936 two Satre brothers, Magnus and Ottar, represented the United States at the Olympics in Garmisch, Germany, along with Birger Torrissen, who married into the Satre family; and Richard Parsons Sr., a Yankee and Salisbury native.

In 1956, Salisbury produced another Olympian in Roy Sherwood, who competed in ski jumping for the United States in the Olympic Games in Cortina. Two years earlier he had won the United States national championship. Mr. Sherwood, who worked in the town's road crew after his ski career, was an active member of Swasa until he moved to Florida eight years ago.

Paul Satre, 65, a nephew of John and the son of Ottar, is the only Satre still in Salisbury. The uncle came to this corner of Connecticut to work as a chauffeur. His seven siblings and his mother followed in stages, Mr. Satre said. He said his uncle died in a car accident in 1934.

Mr. Satre keeps scrapbooks and photo albums documenting the exploits of local heroes. Like most everybody else in town, Mr. Satre recounts the story of his uncle skiing off the roof of a shed.

"He had to push with his ski poles to build enough speed" just to get to the end of the roof, Mr. Satre said.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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