History of Ayer, MA & Pingry Hill

Ayer, Massachusetts (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Ayer is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States. Originally part of Groton, it was incorporated February 14, 1871 and became a major commercial railroad junction. The town was home to Camp Stevens, a training camp for Massachusetts volunteers during the American Civil War. Later, Fort Devens was established by the federal government to train New England soldiers for World War I. Fort Devens was a major influence in the area until its closure in 1994. The town’s population was 7,427 at the 2010 census.

Founding

Ayer’s history dates back to 1667, when the first mill in the agricultural community was built. The settlement sits on what the Nipmuc Indians called Nainacocius. A brook remains with that name. Originally part of Groton, the community was initially called Groton Junction or South Groton. The town of Ayer was incorporated in 1871, named in honor of Dr. James Cook Ayer, a prominent resident of Lowell who provided the funding for the construction of the Town Hall.

Regional Rail Hub

The town’s growth was influenced by a period of rapid development of railroad transportation. Though only 9.5 square miles (25 km2) in area, the town became a major junction for both east-west and north-south rail lines, and developed into an important commercial center oriented towards the rail industry. Known as Groton Junction and later Ayer Junction, the intersecting railroads included:

  • Fitchburg Railroad in 1844 to Boston and eventually points in New York State (still in operation in 2011 for freight and the MBTA Fitchburg Line).
  • Peterborough and Shirley Railroad in 1848 (became part of the Fitchburg Railroad and later the Boston & Maine Railroad. Its northerly terminus was Greenville, New Hampshire. In 2011 active rail on what is now known as the Greenville Industrial Track serves two customers on line, both located one mile north of Ayer center. Operational rail ceases at a derelict trestle spanning the Nashua River on the Ayer/Groton border. Tracks are intact to Townsend, Massachusetts.
  • Worcester and Nashua Railroad in 1848 (Southern branch to Worcester still in operation in 2011 as a freight line. Northern end of the branch from Ayer to Nashua, NH abandoned in 1981. The Nashua River Rail Trail has occupied the old right-of-way since 2005)
  • Stony Brook Railroad to North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, in 1848 (still in operation in 2011 as a freight line)

The split between the Stony Brook and Fitchburg main line was moved east from the central junction to reduce parallel trackage.

Millitary Roles

During the Civil War an army training camp, Camp Stevens, was located near the Nashua River. Camp Devens, which eventually became Fort Devens, was established in 1917, during World War I. The presence of thousands of military and civilian personnel on the base shifted Ayer’s commercial development towards meeting their needs until Fort Devens was closed in 1994.

Ski Jump

In 1935, the largest Nordic ski jump in North America was constructed at Pingry Hill near the Willows. A 700-foot-high wooden trestle build, the ski jump operated for a single winter season amid the hardships of Great Depression-era Ayer. Part of the structure was blown down by the wind in the summer of 1936 and it was never rebuilt. Some of the lumber was salvaged by local residents over the next few years. As of 2013, no trace of the massive structure remains.

Modern Day

Within its relatively small area Ayer boasts numerous industries, including plants belonging to Cains, Vitasoy and Pepsi, a historical downtown unique to the region, and modern commuter rail service to Boston.

Places on the National Register of Historic Places:

  • Community Memorial Hospital – 15 Winthrop Ave.
  • Fort Devens Historic District
  • Ayer Main Street Historic District – Main St.
  • Pleasant Street School – Pleasant St.
  • St. Andrew’s Church (1892) – 7 Faulkner St.

Famous Resident from Ayer, Massachusetts

Ayer Ski Hill

History

In early 1930’s a group of ski jumpers around the US national champions Anton Lekang and Strand Mikkelsen was looking for an appropriate hill in New England for the construction of a new large hill ski jump. Finally both discovered Pingry Hill at Ayer and in 1935 the Ayer Ski Hill with an enormous 70 meter high wooden trestle was built up, the total height difference of this ski jump was at 216 m!

On January 25, 1936 Anton Lekang made the very first leap, but he fell roughly and broke his ankle. One day after the official opening tournament was hosted and thousands of spectators came to watch, but the persons in charge had expected even 20,000! In February 1926 some more competitions were hosted even under floodlights, but in August 1936 a wind storm destroyed the giant in-run tower and the ski jump was never rebuilt.

***Courtesy of Skisprungschanzen.com

Was Ayer Ski Hill a success or a disaster?

Imagine this scenario. Its February 1935. A group of dedicated ski jumpers decide to fill a need for a ski jumping and winter sports venue in southern New England, closer to those wishing to engage in winter sports who cannot afford to travel north. Led by Anton Lekang, 1932 national jumping champion and Strand Mikkelsen, 1929 champion, members of the group drive over 2600 miles in southern New England seeking a hill that meets five criterion. It must: be near a highway and railroad to make access easy; have a north or northeast exposure to preserve snow longevity; have adequate height and slope; have acceptable prevailing winds; be in a region of reliable snow.

In April they choose Pingry Hill in Ayer, Massachusetts. Located just off then Route 2 and 110, on Willow Road near a railroad, the hill also meets the other criteria. A large trestle ski jump, designed by Anton Lekang, is constructed in the fall of 1935 with an opening planned as soon as enough snow falls. The entrepreneurs, now known as the Ayer Ski Club, expect to attract paying spectators to watch ski jumping contests, and other folks who want to participate in various winter sports on the couple of hundred acres surrounding the jump. Parking areas are prepared for 5000 cars. The complex is named Ayer Ski Hill.

The snow is late in coming and the opening is delayed until January 25, 1936. The snow has been packed on the ski jump by Clem Curtis and is finally in great condition. The judges_ booth is draped with red, white and blue bunting and American flags. At the opening Anton Lekang takes the first jump, starting half-way up the in-run, but fails to make the full distance between the take-off and the down slope of the landing ramp. He bounces on the landing trestle, takes a nasty fall and slides down the rest of the ramp to the ground, breaking his ankle. Jumping for him is over for the rest of the winter. Only one successful jump is made this day and the demonstration is stopped prematurely so adjustments to the jump can be made to improve safety. On January 26th other jumpers perform as scheduled, watched by thousands of spectators who park free but pay one dollar admission. On subsequent weekends admission is reduced to fifty cents.

So much for the scenario. Newspaper articles document further contests and demonstrations including nighttime jumping under floodlights during February 1936. Spectators arrived by auto and ski train. The lack of snow that year forced an early end to activities. Data taken at the Blue Hill, Massachusetts weather observatory in eastern Massachusetts, showed a little over 12 inches of snow for 1936, the least of any year since 1885.

That brief time from late January through the end of February 1936 seems to be the only period of operation of this ski area. Weather, the unpredictable element in the scheme, short-changed the Ayer Ski Club that winter and finished them off that summer. According to a note on the back of a photograph in the possession of the Littleton, MA Historical Society, the in-run portion of the trestle blew down in August 1936. It was not rebuilt. Perhaps this is the shortest life of a ski area yet recorded.

Comments and Memories of the Ayer Ski Hill

Dick Kenyon, Westford, MA – In late July I was accompanied to the site of Ayer Ski Hill by Alan Fletcher, owner of the Nashoba Valley Ski Hill. In the early 1950’s he owned most of the property on Pingry Hill on which the ski jump once stood. He remembered seeing footings and cables at that time and thought he could find them again. Unfortunately, after plowing through the woods, underbrush and poison ivy we did not locate any prior evidence save for an area that appeared to have been dug out of the side hill at one time which he believed was where the end of the landing trestle was located. The area is now overgrown. There is a commercial building at the foot of the hill on Willow Road and a tire recycling operation further up and back on the hill. There is a cell phone tower on top of the hill.

The following statements were collected by Dick Kenyon:

Clem Curtis, Stowe, VT –”I don’t know who sponsored or built it but, I’m sure somebody lost a bundle. Strand Mikkelsen made all the arrangements. I was asked to go there and prepare the hill. I stayed at the farm that owned the land the jump was built on. Wonderful people ‘cept the farm house had no water closet and it was a cold seat. In the thirties there wasn’t a lot of people that could afford 50 cents to park in the parking lots when they could see it all from most any place. The thing stuck up there like a poor ski jump. Which it was. I doubt if they took in $100.00.” (July 2005) (Clem intended to say the 50 cents was the admission to the ski premises since the advertising flyer stated parking was free. His point still is valid. Park for free and watch from the car.)(Dick Kenyon)

Denis Kane, Westford, MA – “My uncle, Bert Little, owned a turkey farm only a quarter mile from Pingry Hill. I was required to work there around age 10 in the summers and at other times and watched the ski jump from the farm premises. I remember that the trestle blew down but can’t recall the year. The wreckage lay on the hill for years afterward and my uncle and I scavenged lumber from it.” (August 2005)

Gertrude Membrino, Westford, MA – “I remember going out to Ayer as a child to watch the ski jumpers. I was worried that the jumpers wouldn’t be able to stop before reaching the road. The landing are was quite close to the road.”” (August 2005)

Stanley Kimball, Westford, MA – “I recall going to Ayer at that time to watch the ski jumping. There were a lot of cars along the road.” (August 2005)

***Courtesy of nelsap.org/ma/ayer.html