A Spring Skating History Roundup

When I'm digging around for ideas for blogs, I sometimes come across the most unexpected and random stories. Today on Skate Guard, we'll sift through several fascinating tales that didn't quite have enough meat on their bones for a blog of their own. Grab yourself a nice cup of coffee, open the windows and let the fresh air in and enjoy a little spring skating history roundup:  


Toronto born Frederick 'Casey' Walker Baldwin earned his rightful place in the history books as the first Canadian to fly an airplane. What on earth does this have to do with skating? Before we get there, I want to start with the back story... which starts right here in Nova Scotia. The article "The Walkway Of Time: Highlights In The History Of Canadian Aviation" from the Canadian Aviation Museum talks about the development of the Aerial Exploration Association by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell: "The younger members of the A.E.A. included Glenn Curtiss, an American designer of internal combustion engines; Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge of the U.S. Army; and two Canadians, John A.D. McCurdy and Frederick W. 'Casey' Baldwin, both recent engineering graduates from the University of Toronto. The A.E.A.'s purpose was an ambitious one - no less than the construction of a 'practical aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man.' The Association operated alternately out of Hammondsport, New York, where Curtiss had a machine shop, and Bell's estate at Baddeck, a tiny Maritime village on Cape Breton Island. The A.E.A. was extremely successful, building and flying four airplanes in rapid succession. The last of these was the Silver Dart, designed by John McCurdy and considered one of the more advanced airplanes of its day. On February 23, 1909, McCurdy made the first airplane flight in Canada in the Silver Dart, taking off from the ice of Baddeck Bay and flying for about 800 metres." We know now that McCurdy was actually the first man to fly an airplane in Canada, but it was actually Baldwin who first flew it on March 12, 1908... but he did it down in the States. Here's where the skating comes in. In order to gain momentum and get the plane going, A.E.A. members took to the icy surface of Keuka Lake in Hammondsport, New York. Mark Kearney and Randy Ray's article "Casey Baldwin's Airplane: First In Flight" explains how the A.E.A. actually SKATED to try to get this plane moving and off the ground: "Baldwin got to fly the plane, named the Red Wing, because on the frigid say he was the only one of the aviation team who wasn't wearing ice skates. Since he was slipping on the ice, the others decided he would be most useful sitting in the cockpit." When the plane began to skid across the ice, the skaters (including Curtiss and McCurdy) managed to hold it in place while the skateless Baldwin climbed aboard. Henry Serrano Villard's "The Story Of The Early Birds" offers a great more detail about this momentous first flight: "The Red Wing, piloted by Casey Baldwin, sped over the icy surface of the lake on runners, bounded into the air, and actually flew for a distance of 318 feet 11 inches. Being virtually uncontrollable since it lacked any stabilizing device, it flipped over on one side and crashed. However, disregarding the practically unpublicized flights of the Wright brothers, this was the first time than an aeroplane was flown puclicly in America. The Red Wing was followed in a few weeks by a resplendent White Wing, designed by Baldwin. This model, because the ice had melted, was put on a tricycle undercarriage and taken for trials to an abandoned race-track known as Stony Brook Farm. It was soon apparent that to get the White Wing into the air was one thing, but to get back down without wrecking the machine was quite another. Smash followed smash in discouraging succession---fortunately with no injuries save to the feelings of the operator. 'It seemed one day that the limit of hard luck had been reached,' wrote Curtiss of these first ventures, 'when, after a brief flight and a somewhat rough landing, the machine folded up and sank down on its side, like a wounded bird, just as we were feeling pretty good over a successful landing without breakage.' The only way to learn was the hard way: by trial and repair, by study of stresses and strains, by provisional changes in details of construction. But on May 22, the White Wing, with Curtiss at the controls, flew a distance of 1017 feet in 19 seconds and actually landed intact in a ploughed field outside the old racetrack. It was cause for elation---and for the prompt construction, under Curtiss's direction, of a bigger, better, prize-winning plane: the June Bug." A replica of The Silver Dart, which McCurdy and Baldwin designed together, can be seen at the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum here in Nova Scotia. It's near the Halifax airport - you can't miss it!


Born in Höxter, Germany in 1951, Wolfgang Beltracchi was the son of a house painter and church restorer who supplemented his income by creating inexpensive duplicates of Rembrandts, Picassos and CézannesIt suffices to say Beltracchi had been around art his entire life and considering his father's side 'job', it was no surprise that he himself admitted to copying a Pablo Picasso painting at fourteen years of age... in a single day. After being expelled from school at age seventeen, Beltracchi took to a nomadic life. He travelled extensively, spending time in Amsterdam, Spain, Mallorca, Paris, Morocco, London and Paris, experimenting with LSD and putting on psychedelic light shows at an Amsterdam nightclub. He also paid his way across Europe by forging painting after painting after painting and selling them to the highest bidder. According to a 2012 interview with Joshua Hammer in Vanity Fair, "one day during his wanderings, he bought a pair of winter landscapes by an unknown 18th-century Dutch painter for $250 apiece. Fischer had noticed that tableaus from the period which depicted ice skaters sold for five times the price of those without ice skaters. In his atelier, he carefully painted a pair of skaters into the scenes and resold the canvases for a considerable profit. Thirty years ago, fakes were even harder to detect than they are now, he tells me. 'They weren't the first ones I made, but they were an important step.' Soon he was purchasing old wooden frames and painting ice-skating scenes from scratch, passing them off as the works of old masters."

In 1993, Beltracchi married his wife Helene and took on her last name. They worked together a husband and wife con-artist team with an elaborate fictional back story about grandparents who had been art collectors in the twenties. While police have identified almost sixty paintings they suspect to have been forged by Beltracchi, he admitted to have forged hundreds of paintings by over fifty artists. This went on for almost four decades until the husband and wife "team" were finally arrested in 2010. Both were given prison terms which they are serving in an 'open prison', meaning they both are allowed to leave and work 'day jobs' and return to prison at night. Although like in any good story the bad guy 'got his' in the end, he sadly bilked millions out of art collectors worldwide. An exact figure of how he much he swindled out of buyers is really anyone's guess at the end of the day. It's especially saddening to me that he decided to drag skating into his art forgeries. Perhaps more heartening is the story of Marei von Saher (a former West German Junior Champion skater and mother to British Champion and Olympian Charlene von Saher) who has in recent years made considerable headway in long-standing legal battle to have several paintings stolen from Jewish relatives by the Nazis during World War II returned to the family. The universe has a funny way of dishing out justice in its own funny ways and it's heartwarming to see a some positive come to the life of a German skater in the wake of a German forger who spent so many years making money using depictions of skaters to rip people off.


From the infamous McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit to an American inmate who sued himself and asked the state to pay, history is peppered with stories of litigious lawsuit lovers. Sadly, the skating world has not been immune. On January 8, 1956, a married, thirty six year old mother of three from Billings, Montana named Ada Cassaday gathered up her family and headed over to the City Of Billings Municipal Park skating rink for a refreshing morning skate. She had her figure skates on when she arrived and before taking to the same ice she had enjoyed skating on since 1945, she noticed that the ice had frozen in a pitted manner. Although she acknowledged that conditions were less than ideal, around the rink she went three times. Ada and her husband suspended their four year child in the air between them as they glided along. Surprise, surprise, down came the rockabye baby, mother and all... and an injured Ada decided to sue the city. In district court, Ada's case was deemed a nonsuit because the law assumed the risk of falling on the ice, adding that her child dangling had been 'contributory negligence'. Unwilling to take 'no' for answer, Ada appealed... and the case was submitted to the Supreme Court of Montana on April 16, 1959. Curiously, there was discussion as to whether or not the fact that she wore 'sawteeth edge' (figure) skates had added to the risk in the fall. Ada's lawyer Joseph P. Hennessey, argued that his client " did not know whether the saw teeth on the front of her skate caught in the ice or not" and the transcript of the legal proceedings acknowledged that "skating on observed and tested rough ice with sawteeth edge skates certainly is a risk." In the end, Ada's case went nowhere. It was noted in the legal transcript that "the only cases which have imposed liability are cases where there was a hidden, lurking, structural defect, or where the defendant permitted rowdy, rambunctious, dangerous use by patrons or employees which were the proximate cause of the injuries. We have been unable to find any case, nor was one cited, which allowed recovery in the circumstances herein set forth." The moral of the story? Ice is slippery, honey.


For decades, a flooded field on the corner of Mount Auburn and Willard Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts was home to the Cambridge Skating Club. Conceived by Frederick Swift and established in 1898, the club boasted such eminent members as George H. Browne, Maribel Vinson, Theresa Weld Blanchard, Nathaniel Niles, Sherwin Badger and Bernard Fox. Joan Tozzer and Grace and Jimmie Madden all won competitions at the club in its first fifty years. Largely overshadowed by the who's who of figure skating that graced the ice at the club over the years are two siblings who dedicated their life to skating in Cambridge: The Milligan Brothers. Frank L. Milligan came from Nova Scotia in August 1887 at the age of twenty two to Cambridge to work as a labourer. Two years after his arrival in Massachusetts he was 'discovered' by none other than eminent skating author George Browne. Impressed by Milligan's skill in cutting fancy figures on Fresh Pond, Browne got Milligan a job as an assistant to the club's superintendent Stanford Smith and a skating instructor. Frank Milligan taught the club's members figures, the Waltz and Tenstep and by 1904, he was so in demand as a teacher of skating that he brought his brother Jim in from Nova Scotia to take over his off-ice responsibilities so he could focus solely on teaching. For over twenty five years, Jim sat in the club's old gate house guarding the entrance to the rink. Arthur M. Goodridge's 1948 historical record of the club recalled, "It is believed that Jim can call by name more Cambridge people than anyone else and that Frank knows more Cambridge grandmothers by their first names than any other person. Frank and Jim are full of stories of the old days. One night when something went wrong Jim had to go down the man hole in the poorly lighted Willard Street sidewalk to turn off the water. Dressed in white cap he emerged in the darkness to confront the trembling form of the most frightened lady he had ever seen. Frank delights in one about the night his former boss, thinking few likely to come, permitted skating on ice not strong enough. Fifty came. One broke through. Forty-nine gathered to witness the rescue. Fifty waded out!" In 1917, Frank Milligan took over as the club's superintendent but continued his work as a skating instructor. Goodridge recalled, "If record of such things had been kept it might be possible to prove that Frank has taught more people to skate and taught more people to dance the ten-step than anyone else in the world. Be that as it may, no one can deny him his record of hours of the night nursing ice and fighting snow in order to have skating on the morrow. He has a great knowledge of ice and is weather wise beyond belief. For his marvelous understanding of children the Club and many fathers and mothers owe much. Frank loves the Club as its members as they love him." In 1929, The Milligan Brothers even installed a sound system so that club members could skate to photograph records. Both brothers served the club for over fifty years, passing away in the fifties.


Blogging about skating history is (on a good day) ninety percent detective work and ten percent happenstance... and it was through the latter that I came upon this charming story from Scottish skating history about a twenty two year old potato farmer who went on vacation to Switzerland and returned an international champion. Shared in its entirety, here's the blurb from the Monday, January 27, 1947 edition of the Dundee Evening Telegram: "When 22-year old James Best, of 34 Victoria Terrace, Dunfermline, left last week for a fourteen-day holiday in the Swiss Alps, he had no intention of entering any skating competition. He took his skates just in case he would be near a rink. But he will return an international figure-skating champion, having beaten 12 French and Swiss entrants in the contest for the Arthur Cumming Cup at Wengen. Younger son of Mr. William Best, market gardener and potato merchant, Jimmy learned to skate himself and later had tuition from Mr. Cartwright, former instructor at Dunfermline Ice Rink. He started skating in 1930 when Dunfermline rink was opened. He holds a silver medal for the intermediate examination of the National Skating Association, and with Miss Margaret Young, of Kelty, was runner-up in the Scottish Pairs Championship at Paisley last year. Miss Young, who is also a silver medallist, and Miss Sheena Balfour, of Kirkcaldy, who is Scottish Junior Champion, are among the party holidaying with Mr. Best. He works in his father's business in Baldridgeburn, Dunfermline." You know, the stories that jump out and charm you sometimes aren't about the skaters who 'make it'. More often than not, they are about the skaters whose stories we only catch a fleeting glimpse of, whose special moments on the ice as skaters are only one adventure in a much bigger life story. That's something that any of us who have skated  can probably relate to, myself included. Belated congratulations to this skating Scot on a wonderful vacation surprise almost seventy years ago. Returning home to the potato fields, I am certain it had to have been a memory that provided great comfort.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.