#Unearthed: Skating Just For The Fun Of It

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. This month's 'buried treasure', entitled "When The Waters Are Frozen: Skating Just For The Fun Of It", comes to you from the October 1902-March 1903 issue of "Outing" magazine. The author is American skater J.V. Gillman.


A learned professor of psychology once said he could describe the whole trend of a man's past life, if the man would tell the mental images which arose when the professor pronounced certain words of a series. I tried the plan the other day - only a little changed. I wanted to know which was the dearer to the average heart—skating or swimming. So, after swearing seven men to tell the truth, I said "lake." When the answers had been written, I found that the word had called up in five minds a sheet of ice; in two, water. I am aware that the professor mentioned would pronounce this experiment valueless, on the ground that there were an insufficient number of instances (I think that is the phrase), but, nevertheless, so far as it goes, it shows that skating is mighty close to the average American heart—a little closer than swimming.

Then, with the same subjects, I pronounced the word "skate." Their written description of the resulting visual images proved that the recollections closest to the hearts of five were those of their earliest skating days. The other answers had a certain interest. One described a racing scene, at the national championships, last year. The writer of it said he had never skated, had weak ankles or something, and so had no personal experience to fall back on. The seventh saw a rink with men and women, and one woman in particular, who had blue eyes and - but, since he confided later that his engagement is to be announced at Christmas, I cast his answer out as induced by local and temporary disturbances, and hence irrelevant. I rather think these experiments will justify me in saying that our most permanent recollections of skates and skating are those very early ones when we were not sure whether we would keep our feet or land on our heads, but finally could glide along with something that suggested the flying bird.

For my part, these early recollections cluster about a farming community in the Middle West. There were a creek and half a dozen ponds - not the lakelets one finds in the East, but infinitessimal things, which ranged from thirty feet to one hundred yards in diameter. Snow followed closely on the heels of cold weather, so the few days of clear ice were precious. The actors on this scene were farmers' boys - no worse and no better and no wiser nor less wise, nor in any way different from other farmers' boys the world over. I think they appreciated their skates more fully than boys who have less trouble getting them. It took saving, then - the saving of hard-earned nickels for a long time, and the earning of money by methods devious and original.

Most of us, at first, had old-style skates with wooden bodies, a screw at the heel, and two straps that wound round heel and ankle until the skater suggested the picture of an ancient traveler sandaled for his journeyings. The runners turned up over the toe in front, and the bigger the curve the prouder was their possessor, for he imagined himself able to go over greater obstacles. It was into this assortment of old-fashioned skates that Frank Wilson came with a pair of "clubs." We called them "clubs," then, though we afterward called them "half clubs." Heel-plates and toe-straps held them solidly in place. Frank had earned those skates. He had plodded along the banks of the creek morning after morning, trapping muskrats. He had gone with his father quail-shooting, on an agreement whereby he was to carry all the game, and to have what rabbits were killed. Rabbits brought five and sometimes even seven cents, at the store. Then one day Frank set a mink-trap, baited with a chicken which had been carried down by cholera. He found in the trap next day, not a mink, but one of the biggest, blackest skunks it has ever been my fortune to see. He tackled it with a long pole, and thought it was dead: but it wasn't, and when Frank got home with the skin he was sent to the barn to bathe and change his clothes. We used to hold our noses after that in a superior way when he came round. But that skin brought a dollar, which, added to other savings, brought from the city a pair of skates advertised in the "American Agriculturalist".

Then came winter and ice, and the neighbourhood throng gathered on Saturday at the creek: and while the rest of us were labouring with our straps, Frank slipped on his "clubs" and sailed away. Then we recalled an old line from our copy books, "He laughs best who laughs last." The skating of that period was not fast nor fancy - it was just skating and nothing else. It was the fun that comes from gliding over the ice, of fast motion, with something of birdlike balancing. There were racings on the pond. Short, and impromptu: but the best days were the Saturdays, when we could start in the morning and skateaway and away and away. Down the creek, under the foot logs, over the flood gates, and around the bends and turns, where the deep holes lay, and where we had caught bull-heads and suckers in summer. Sometimes we found a bit of clear ice, and could lie with our coats over our heads looking down at the fishes. At noon there was always a fire in the woods where we ate lunch, and then the return and the feast at night, which was a bigger feast, for the reason that skating began just after butchering time.

But the best day of all this period came in the spring. The snow went away, and went so fast the creek could not carry off the water. So the creek broadened to a mighty river, and backed its waters up to overflow the ponds and the fields around them. The pond behind the school-house had grown to cover a whole cornfield. Then came a cold wave, which sent the mercury to zero in a night, and next morning the enlarged pond was a sheet of the glariest ice. It was not thick - not nearly thick enough to be safe. It bent and swayed, and sometimes the water spurted up behind the skater. But what skating it was! No one whose skating has been confined to solid ice knows the joy of gliding over a surface which bends and waves as you pass. We caught the spell of it. We knew the intoxication of adventure. We laid out a path across the pond and set out, one at a time, to see who dared be last across. Each crossing made the next more dangerous: the ice bent more and more: and more water came out behind the skater; but the exhilaration grew and grew till we were drunk with it, and we went sliding, jumping, slushing, right through till some one went in. Then we pulled him out and made a new path. It mattered not that we sat around the stove that afternoon on sharp sticks, to dry; nor that the teacher spent half an hour lecturing on the difference between bravery and rashness, and on the sinfulness of risking life needlessly. I think we all remember that noon hour as one of the occasions on which we really lived.

The old wooden-bodied skates passed. 'Half clubs' with their heel plates grew common, and went their way. Then came 'full clubs' with heel plates and no strap at the toe, but instead a clamp that opened and closed with a key. Then the heel plate went away, and in its place came a skate with clamps at heel and toe, both of which worked with a lever, and left nothing to be desired.

But by this time the old crowd on the creek had gone, too. It had passed on to another stage. This stage had new elements. There was no more rivalrry over style of skates; it was taken for granted that each had good ones. The rivalry was based on new grounds. There had come to the skating ponds others than the boy crowd. Rosy-cheeked girls were there - what girl is not rosy of cheek in winter on the ice - specially in the moonlight? And moonlight plays a big part, now, for the scene is the lake near a college town, and skating is attended with parties and chaperones and lunches and that sort of thing. And every night sees the lake covered. Just a little more sedate is the crowd that now comes to the water's edge. And boys may not race to see who shall first be skating. It is a race to see who shall have the privilege of putting on skates for the rosy-checked maids, and the influential chaperones. Then, two and two, each two clasping a stick, or each other's mits, they glide and circle and glide. They race and shout and sing. Now the wind rises, and sails are forthcoming, and they race with the wind, without an effort. The stir of winter is in the blood, the spell of the moon is on the merry-makers - indeed, when we come to recall it all, it really was better, a great deal better, than those boyhood days on the creek and the ponds: there were more worries and more work to dull the recollection; that is all.

One night's skating stands out above the rest in my mind. I happened down upon the north shore of the Lake of the Thousand Islands, one day in January, and wanted to cross to the American side. The ice was not strong enough for driving, but one could get across on skates if he knew the way, and was careful. Two boys were going to Grindstone Island, and they volunteered to show the route. We picked our way, among cracks and airholes, to the island. We crossed, and I went on alone. The ice was solid now, and new, and one unbroken glare. The sun had set, and the moon, all white and cold and arctic in its suggestions, was rising. And out from the village on the southern shore came skaters, men and women, youths and maids, and children. And they skated as one seldom sees skating in a promiscuously chosen crowd - skated with a grace and ease that told of endless practice. They were perfect skaters, for the reason that skating is a part of their living. When winter comes, and they want to go up or down the river or across to the Canadian villages, or to the islands, they must skate, and skate they do, perfectly. Figures and speed were combined, and bobs and chair sleighs came into play. Men laboured behind the latter, as some of us have laboured in summer, when some miss has occupied the front seat of the tandem; and harnessed themselves to the former, and went like sledge dogs down the lake to give some crowd of youngsters a breath-stealing ride. We know the Thousand Islands as a summer resort, and pity those who stay there the whole year round. Right there a weight
of pity turned to envy in my mind, and I vowed if I was ever blessed with a winter vacation I would go again to the Thousand Islands, and be a part of this gliding, rollicking. mid-winter life.

The ingenuity displayed by the young American - and the rather old American, too, for that matter - in securing skating ground has been a credit to his wits. The smaller cities have had their public ponds; sometimes in parks. Again the work of private individuals, who flooded some old lot, or dammed a stream, and charged ten cents admission. When snow has covered the ice, men with shovels and brooms have cleared it away, and the fun has gone on without interruption. And many thousands of tennis courts have done service in winter as skating ponds... The spirit of American skating is alike in city and country. It is pretty much the same rollicking crowd on each skating place - pairs and threes and fours and tandem lines and bobs and chair sleighs. American skating is skating for a good time rather than the fancy work, which delights the European and makes him labor over his figures until the sport goes out of the thing, and it becomes hard routine work. In general Americans have never taken to figure skating, as have the skaters of Continental Europe, though a few of our young men have become fairly proficient and upheld local honors against Canadians. Nevertheless it is a fact that Jackson Haines, who visited Europe in 1863, practically founded the present Continental style of figure skating. Americans have taken to speed skating, probably for the same reason that they have to football and baseball and track athletics. For the reason that what is strenuous and full of competition appeals to them. Since the championships of 1901 the National Amateur Skating Association of America. and the Canadian Amateur Skating Association have united in holding alternate competitions for the championship of America. Last year neither Americans nor Canadians carried off the chief honours. An Americanized Swede won the half-mile and five and ten mile championships, at Verona Lake, N. J. Morris Wood, of New Jersey, was the only man of the American continent who won. He carried the honours at one and three miles. The Canadians won nothing. While Peter Sinnerud was technically an American, he had learned his skating in his native country, and we cannot claim much glory from his performances. This year the speed championships will be held at Montreal, early this month, and it remains to be seen whether we shall not come in for a bigger share of honours.

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.