Arts and Leisure

The Berlin Millworkers Who Brought Skiing Fever to New Hampshire

Bode Miller might never have won all those Olympic medals had it not been for the Berlin millworkers who started New Hampshire’s craze for skiing.

Miller grew up in Franconia, 40 miles from Berlin  and 150 years after  the first Norwegian immigrants arrived to work in the sawmills and logging camps  along the Androscoggin River.

Because of those Berlin millworkers and their passion for skiing, resort operators stock up on booze in November. Olympic hopefuls pack their goggles and skis to compete in selection events. And emergency rooms order extra X-ray films and crutches.

All because of the Scandinavian immigrants who actually liked winter.

New England Skiing poster

Berlin Millworkers

Scandinavian immigrants started arriving in Berlin in droves in the 1840s to work on building railroads. Many settled permanently in the area, taking advantage of the jobs available in the mills. They viewed the hospitable winter climate as an added bonus.

Naturally, they brought one of their traditional sports to their new country. Skis at the time were used for both recreation and transportation, as they were often the best way to get around Berlin’s snowy streets.

norway ski jump

A ski jumping competition in Norway

In 1872, the Berlin millworkers created the Berlin Mills Ski Club. Known as the Skilubben Club,  it started with a small jump. Norwegian skiers joined to find competition. Club members spoke Norwegian during business meetings, and adopted the colors of the Norwegian and U.S. flags. Only Scandinavians living in Coos County qualified for club membership.

Before long, the club gained new members, both Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian. They all united in their love of strapping wooden slats on their feet, jumping down hills and trying to avoid trees.

Soon after its founding, the club changed its name to the Nansen Ski Club in honor of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer. Nansen was a hero to many Norwegians because of his adventures around the world. Their faith in him was well-rewarded, as he would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938 for his work aiding refugees.

Fridtjof Nansen (l) visits Berlin, New Hampshire to meet Nansen Ski Club Members, including Alf Halvorson (r)

Fridtjof Nansen (l) visits Berlin, New Hampshire to meet Nansen Ski Club Members, including Alf Halvorson (r)

Olympic Skiing

Into the 1900s, the club continued to grow. It received a further boost when a young Scandinavian-American, Alf Halvorson, took the presidency at the age of 18. Halvorson, born in 1899, skied from the time he could walk, and he had a passion for winter sports.

He became a coach for the U.S. Olympic ski team, and a successful sports promoter, eventually managing the Hinsdale Raceway.

Ski fever then spread throughout New Hampshire. For farmers struggling during the Great Depression, putting up a tow rope and lodging weekend meant a little extra money.

nansen-ski-jump

The Nansen Ski Jump in Berlin

In 1937, thanks largely to the club’s efforts,  skiers competed in the Olympic ski jumping trials in Berlin, as it had the tallest ski jump in the eastern United States.

In 1929, perhaps the greatest honor in the ski club’s history occurred when Nansen himself visited Berlin. The city rolled out the red carpet and held a parade in his honor.

The Nansen Ski Club remains in operation today. You can read about their history here.

hanover skiing

Skiing in Hanover, N.H., in 1936. Photo courtesy National Archives.

The club also made one major improvement in the lives of non-skiers. In promoting the Berlin winter carnival to outsiders, the group persuaded the State of New Hampshire to plow the road through Pinkham Notch for the first time ever. The state has kept it clear each winter ever since.

Images: Nansen Ski Jump by Sirberlinnh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56882483. This story was updated in 2019. 

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