First skis imported to Czech lands 130 years ago

Ski racing in Jilemnice (1902)

This year marks 130 years since the appearance of the first skis in the Giant Mountains. Count Harrach, a local nobleman, had them brought from Austria in 1892 to be used by his foresters. Skiing quickly took off and started to spread all around the country, becoming a popular national pastime.

The history of Czech skiing actually dates back five years earlier, to January 5, 1887, when the local skiing pioneer Josef Rössler-Ořovský used Wenceslas Square in Prague for his first skiing run.

But it is the picturesque town of Jilemnice, located at the foot of the Giant Mountains, which is considered to be the cradle of Czech skiing.

It was here, in the winter of 1892, that Count Harrach had the first skis imported for his foresters to make it easier for them to move about in the snowy terrain during the harsh winter months.

Jan Harrach | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Jan Luštinec, the director of a local museum, says that, contrary to what many people believe, the first skis were not imported from Norway, but from neighbouring Austria:

“Count Jan did visit Norway and allegedly saw skis on display in Oslo. When he returned to Bohemia, he instructed his forestry administration to order the first two pairs of skis from Austria.

“One was made by the Vienna-based Thonet company, which exists to this day, while the other pair came from the ski manufacturer Gansterer in central Austria’s Theeneberg.”

The Harrachov forestry administration then handed over the two imported pairs of skis to local craftsmen. Based on the Austrian model, they started to manufacture their own skis.

While the imported skis cost more than 11 Guldens, which was a huge sum for those days, local manufacturers made them for half the price, says Mr. Luštinec.

Josef Rössler-Ořovský  (in the center) | Photo: public domain

“When the forest workers got their first pair of skis, they had to practice riding them. That actually took place right here in Jilemnice, by the castle park, right in the centre of the city.

“Curious people would come to watch the forest workers rolling in the snow. But it actually didn’t take long for them to get the hang of it and ride the skis without falling.”

From that moment on, skiing took off and quickly started to spread in the area. Skis were used not only by loggers, gamekeepers and other inhabitants of the mountain region, but also by sports enthusiasts, who simply enjoyed the rush of adrenaline as they sailed downhill.

They also tested other types of skis, such as Lapland skis, which were over three metres long with huge tips, but they soon discovered they were not suitable for the hilly terrain of the Giant Mountains, says Mr. Luštinec:

“Of course, such skis didn't work here, so we ended up sticking with Telemark skis, which later developed into down-hill and cross-country skis, as we know them today.”

Authors: Ruth Fraňková , Eliška Pilařová
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