Photo courtesy of the Rushford Area Historical Society
A view of a skier as he sails down the ski hill located on the north side of Magelssen Bluff in Rushford.
Photo courtesy of the Rushford Area Historical Society A view of a skier as he sails down the ski hill located on the north side of Magelssen Bluff in Rushford.
The Winter Olympics start next month and viewers have the opportunity to watch several thrilling winter sports. But few are more harrowing than ski jumping, where participants zip down a steep, gigantic run, hurl themselves into space, and sail hundreds of feet before landing—hopefully upright and safely—on a pair of skis no wider than the average human hand.

Ski jumping is just wild enough it would seem like an activity occupied solely by daredevils from eastern Europe, but the sport once enjoyed a robust following in Rushford. Indeed, the roots of American ski jumping can be traced to a pair of Norwegian immigrant brothers, Mikkjel and Torjust Hemmestveit, who are widely credited with introducing ski jumping to the hills outside Red Wing, Minn., in 1887. It didn’t take long for the sport to flourish among the thousands of Scandinavians who would settle in the upper Midwest.

“There were ski jumps in many of the small towns in this region,” recalled Maynard Thompson, retired Peterson High School principal and ski jumper since his youth. “It was really big in Wisconsin; towns like Westby, Strum, and Galesville all had jumps. Here in Minnesota was our jump, Lanesboro, and of course Red Wing.”

While Thompson, who’ll turn 81 in April, is one of the oldest living jumpers from the area, ski jumping in Rushford can be traced to the turn of 20th century. Rushford Lions Club member Jack O’Donnell and Rushford Peterson Valley Chamber of Commerce director Jen Hengel, met me at the Rushford Depot Museum last week to show me artifacts of the Rushford’s ski jumping past. There are photographs of Rushford jumpers from as far back as 1908, as well as skis donated by local jumpers like Dean Rentmeester.

“Ski jumping and downhill skiing were a big part of the city for quite awhile,” O’Donnell said. “The ski jumps and runs were all located on city property on the north side of Magelssen Bluff. People came from all over to our annual meets, but there was a lot of skiing going on all winter long. There were guys practicing on the jumps and a recreational ski program sponsored by the Lions Club. They even had a lighted run and a tow rope.”

But the competition belonged to the jumpers, and Thompson recalls getting started early. “I was jumping as far back as I can remember,” he said. “Our family farm was hilly, and I’d just heap snow at the bottom of a hill, and that was my jump.” Thompson said the early ski jumpers in Rushford used a similar, though obviously larger version of that system. Jumpers would pick a path through the trees, descend the slope, then launch themselves off a bump-up at the bottom to get airborne.

But as better jumps became prevalent in the region, Rushford skiers decided to up their game. “I helped build the first scaffold, back in 1952,” Thompson recalled. “The uprights were built from electric poles, with lumber for cross pieces. The jumps back then would have a bump-up at the end; skiers would have to get an upward thrust using their legs to get that feeling of flying. Modern jumps are basically flat or angled slightly down, so skiers get much more distance.” Later, a smaller jump for “juniors” (kids 18 and under) was constructed, and eventually a “pee-wee” hill for the truly little kids.

Thompson said Rushford hosted at least one major jumping event every winter, and area skiers competed at other venues. “Mark Hatleli was one of the better jumpers from here,” Thompson recalled. “He competed at the top-level circuit that included jumps like Westby. Some of the best jumpers in the country were in that circuit, and one year the U.S. Olympic trials were held at Westby. It was a really big deal. Some of the top jumpers to come out of Rushford were Hatleli, Dave Hovland, and Jan Gestvang. They all competed at a high level.”

Equipment was far different from the body-hugging spandex outfits, protective headgear, and composite, highly flexible skis used by modern-day jumpers. “Oh we had helmets, if you count a wool stocking cap!” Thompson laughed. “We’d just wear the warmest clothing we could, and sometimes nicer sweaters for a tournament. Jumpers wanted to look good for the crowd, and many would wear a necktie under their sweater. The guys who competed really had a respect for each other and were appreciative of the crowd. There were big turnouts for a jump, with 200-300 people showing up and parking their cars on the Hoiland field.”

The skis were all-wood staves at least eight feet long, and were ordered by one of the local skiers from the Northland Ski Company in St. Paul. Skiers would prep their skis by melting wax, usually paraffin used for canning, into the bottom surface, then scraping and buffing that waxed surface to achieve better speed and performance.

Vern Bunke, 70, is another Rushford resident who remembers the heyday of the city’s ski jumping. “I followed my dad and uncle into the sport,” Bunke said. “My first jumps were on the Nelly Tenborg farm, on homemade jumps; I’d just put an orange or peach crate at the bottom of a hill and cover it with snow for the bump-up. I think I was only five or six years old. But it wasn’t long before I was trying the bigger jump. Skiing was just part of a lot of people’s lives back then; after a big storm we’d shovel snow all day, then just kept playing.”

Thompson also recalled spending hours and sometimes days at the hill; the thrill of a few seconds of flight punctuated by a whole bunch of physical effort. “I remember jumping most of a Saturday morning, taking a break for lunch, then coming back for the afternoon,” Thompson said. “I climbed up that scaffold 14 times that day. I know I was probably in the best shape of my life.”

Maintaining snow on the scaffold often required a herculean effort from area jumpers. Both Thompson and Bunke remember filling pickup trucks with snow found in road ditches and drifts, loading a dump truck from those vehicles, then driving the dump truck up to the base of the scaffold. From there, snow was hauled by hand, using bushel baskets, up to the scaffold and spread across the surface.

“In the winter of 1959 we held the Central Junior Championships here,” Bunke recalled. “Over 150 jumpers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and the Upper Peninsula were coming to compete. We had no snow on the jump, so we started hauling the weekend before, getting snow from drifts up by Hart. We’d start after work and haul snow all night, and had everything ready by Wednesday. Then Thursday night we had a big rain, and it all melted away. So Friday we started over, but we had the jump ready, just in time for the competition.”

Bunke rebuilt the original Rushford scaffold in the early 1970’s. “I used home-sawn oak boards to replace the deck, and spaced the boards a little wider,” he said. “We also had a ski hill in the 70’s; I built a tow rope system for that, and we used some of the lighting from one of the jumps to light that hill. We had 60-70 pairs of skis to rent, as well as poles and boots. There was even a little warming shack at the bottom of the hill. We had a ton of support from the Lions Club, not only in running the skiing program, but also in hosting jumping tournaments. They’d serve as spotters on the hill, run the concession stand, help park cars. They were pretty amazing.”

Despite the passion of folks like Bunke and Thompson, Rushford’s ski-jumping era came to a close. “It just got harder to find people willing to work that hard,” Bunke said. “Plus there was getting to be kick-back from the coaches of school sports, who were worried about injuries. Ward Hoff was the Rushford basketball coach then, and he and I battled about ski jumping; he wanted me to give it up to do nothing but basketball. To me that was like asking someone who’d grown his own business from nothing, and telling him to go work for someone else. By the end of the 70’s, it was just about done. I believe I was the last person to jump off the Rushford hill, in 1981.”

Bunke’s jump marked the end of an era for a town once known as a hotbed of ski jumping. “I think the thing I’ll never forget about it was the amount of fun we had,” Bunke recalls. “Working on the hill, hosting tournaments, or taking jumps on a cold winter day...I remember the camaraderie and the excitement. It was nothing but pure joy for me.”

Remnants of the ski hill are still slightly visible to this day.