Ice skating has been popular in Europe for as long as you’d care to record it, but the technology ensuring its mass popularity in America developed in the last half of the 19th Century. The first formal skating club in the U.S. formed in New York in 1863. An undisputed star of the day was early figure skater Jackson Haines. He won the first American championship in 1864 and went on tour, dazzling fans with an array of skated patterns. He went on tour, courted the press, and even invented the first skate with a blade physically attached to a boot. Haines may also have been responsible for the glitz and glitter that somehow remains synonymous with the sport today. This all caused ice skating to become a craze, and cities with any standing water and freezing temperatures were pressed to develop and maintain ponds for skating.
Mr L. Hunt assumed the role of Lafayette Park Superintendent in 1871, and by all appearances, took his job very seriously. In the 1874 Report of the Board of Improvement of Lafayette Park there is no mention made of winter use of the park or its ponds.
John Albury Bryan in his book “Lafayette Square” references an article in the St Louis Globe Democrat of November 17 1880, which revealed that the “duck pond” in Lafayette Park had frozen over “and was being used as a skating rink by young men and maidens in the vicinity.” It credited the park commissioners with scraping the ice of snow, and adding a “snug little frame building with stove, chairs, etc for the special accommodation of the ladies” It added that “ a police force was in attendance to keep order and prevent rude boys and roughs from interfering with the more genteel visitors.”
By 1883, St Louis had fully contracted skating fever, and youthful crowds converged on the main lake in the Park.
L. Hunt worked to control a situation that mixed folks of various levels of skill and enthusiasm in close quarters, He was sorely tested by a public that saw winter skating as a right and a duty of the city to provide. As a result, Hunt came under more than occasional heat from newspaper complaint writers:
The Post Dispatch editor was responding like a man as frustrated as the writer by the park superintendent. And perhaps he was – the ice was the place to be in Lafayette Park. Styles of skating were created and analyzed to a remarkable degree in the papers. Local ice heroes were extolled for their daring and grace.
This, from 1886:
Of course, with time, the hooligans moved in, and by 1888, some rougher games were banned from the park, and even prosecuted in local courts: In a rather typical case, the paper reported a group of men “catching hands, forming a line, and swinging, the end man being sometimes fired along with the velocity of a cannonball”.
For the record, Cowan was fined $5.00 and released.
In 1888, the paper noted that “the river seldom freezes solid, and the ice is rough and dangerous. It is dotted with treacherous holes, and the unfortunate skater who enters one of them generally remains in the river till spring.” It stated that “the only body of water accessible to people within two miles of the city center is the little lake in Lafayette Park. Even it is only convenient to people living to the south of the railroad tracks, though while skating lasts, it is visited by people from all sections of the city.”
The Post Dispatch observed that “every afternoon and evening the pond at Lafayette Park is literally packed with men, women and children on runners. Other places have their quota of people, but the Park pond is the great central point to which a majority of the skaters gravitate. No sport or amusement affords such an opportunity for a display of grace as does the art of skating. There is no prettier sight than a skilled skater on ice…spectators will stand for hours at a time watching them.”
As as things could neither be filmed in action nor televised, the papers would resort to long, difficult to follow essays that attempted to describe the nearly endless variations on skating technique: Here’s a short sample:
Get the idea? In addition , there was ‘spreading the eagle”, the “high dutch”, the “grapevine”, “mercury”, “panhandle”, and “leg of mutton”. In a Post article from January 1888, the reader was introduced to the year’s new move:
And yes, there was some local celebrity attached to the sport. The same article notes that “most of the clever skaters, both male and female, live in the vicinity of Lafayette Park.” It singles out Ed Flad, Adolph Paul and Cliff Allen for special mention, indicating that they could be found on the Park pond every afternoon and evening during the ice season. Allen could “get across the ice more rapidly than any skater in the business”, and performed “the Chicago, the Richmond, the double eight and grapevine without any apparent effort”. Not bad for a guy who resembled Prince Albert with glasses.
The newspaper profiled the skating skills of many, including Ernst Miller the singer, Percy Hoffman, Charles Baker, John Dillon, Lou Hayward, Dr Ernest Cole and his brother Amadee, and an old man who was a regular attendee of the summer Thursday concerts in the park, known only as “Santa Claus”. No one knew “where he comes from or whither he goes, but his age, bearing, and gallant way of assisting a young lady on the ice, then skating away with her on his arm caused the young men to be jealous of ‘Santy’, whom they denounce as the old masher”.
The ladies, of course, drew their fair share of attention as well. Minnie Mason, Mamie DuBois, Minnie Lawrence, and Belle Clayton were all expert skaters. The paper also gave each woman’s now married name. Could it be that any of these marriages were the result of icy infatuations in Lafayette Park? The social register was one thing, but it must have been wonderful to be Professor Woodward’s daughter Didie, Madeline Bestoso, or Tillie Orthwein, and be lauded in another part of the paper for their athletic prowess.
By 1893, the paper bemoaned the lack of an extended ice season, and declared “The Gang’s Gone – An Old Timer Bemoans The Disappearance Of The Fancy Skaters” It wrote of a man of about 30 who was “cutting eights and double eights on a little corner of the pond at Lafayette Park. Every moment or two he would look sadly around at the clumsy work of the would-be skaters and shake his head.” He was one of a small class of skaters that “scorned the shinny and cross tag crowd”, and “floated about on a cross roll or a high dutch”, able to go through a crowd without a bump or jar.
This article pointed out that before Forest Park became popular, Lafayette Park was the “meeting place of the skatatorial four hundred.” The writer missed the stylings of Otto Nedderhut, Ted Cavender, and William Ittner, gone due to a prolonged series of warm winters and newer venues. Various styles and patterns were remembered and analyzed in the story, like so:
It also attempted to give advice on how to be cool; how one should hold his or her arms: “easily at the sides” and “in no case shall they be swung violently, or held akimbo”. Overall, the piece in the paper lamented the lack of skill from the current young skaters, and waxed nostalgic for the “good old days”.
Two years later, in 1895, we revisit the Lafayette Park hooligans, still up to cracking the whip, which was, by this time, a violation of city ordinance. 18 year old Adolph Methudy of 1800 Waverly Place faced the judge on a charge of skating in a chain of three or more individuals. Officer Humbrecht of the Second District was in uniform and on skates. As the paper put it, he was well-acquainted with the ordinances, but not in the use of skates. Methudy and 14 of his friends had a time of cracking the whip, sending the end man hurtling past Humbrecht. Later, it was believed the officer had gone, but he was hiding behind a bush. He bided his time for the right moment, then sprang and seized Methudy, allegedly beginning to beat him. When Methudy’s friends gathered round, the officer thought better of this, and dragged the young man to the Park House Police Station, where he was charged and quickly bailed out by a friend.
Before the judge, the defense attorney argued that the ordinance was written to read skating in groups of three or more “will be prohibited”, rather than “is prohibited”. The judge sustained this defense, and Methudy was released. Pressing their luck, the young men told the paper that they planned to have the officer brought up on charges to the Police Board, as his having skates on in the first place was a dereliction of duty. I’ve no clue on how that might have gone.
The younger crowd must have been a boisterous set, as they appear in the news a little later that winter, complaining about the parkkeeper. Mr. L. Hunt was now in his 24th year as Lafayette Park superintendent and remained strict as ever. Apparently, he would close the gates of the park at 6 p.m., refusing them the privilege of skating after dark.
On January 28th of 1895, The average temperature in St Louis for the day was nine degrees above zero. Perfect, even calling for the city’s first recorded use of an equine Zamboni:
In 1902, on the other side of the great tornado that razed the park, it’s nice to note that the lake had recovered enough to host skaters again, and that the authorities, presiding over what was left, still had rules to follow, and children to disappoint. We want exercise!
So there you have it, right up to 116 years ago. And for you sledding enthusiasts, sorry to bore you with all the skating, but you’ll get your due in our next thrilling installment. Happy landings!