A premier speed skating track in a Minneapolis park

A scrapbook of newspaper clippings about speed skating from 1953 to 1956 was recently given to Dave Garmany the recreation coordinator at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis. The scrapbook features articles on the speed skating scene in Minneapolis, the U.S. and the world in those years and includes several articles from Norwegian newspapers.

In addition to the newspaper clips were several programs from international speed skating events at the Powderhorn Park speed skating track, such as this one in 1953.

A cropped version of the cover photo, showing a massive crowd at a 1930s event at Powderhorn Park — likely the national championships in 1934, which were reportedly attended by 50,000 in two days — is in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Huge crowds attended the National Speed Skating Championships held at Powderhorn Park in the 1930s and 1940s. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Most of the clips in the scrapbook were about the rivalry between Minneapolis skaters Ken Bartholomew and Gene Sandvig. Bartholomew won 14 National Outdoor Championships from 1939-1960. Sandvig was often runner-up in the 1950s after he had gotten out of the Army and enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College. Bartholomew was a silver medalist for the U.S. in the Winter Olympics at St. Moritz in 1948. Sandvig skated for the U. S. in the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo and the 1956 Games at Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Planert skates were advertised in the 1953 speed skating program pictured above. The skates were not cheap. The list price for a pair of Planert’s “Olympic Model” skates in a 1955 ad was $60.

The skater featured in Planert’s ad, Leo Friesinger, was the bronze medalist for the U.S. in the 500 meters at the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Friesinger was from Chicago, which was also home to Planert.

Among other bits of info that caught my eye in news clips from Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune.

  • Minneapolis high school athletic director Giffy O’Dell hopes to bring back speed skating as a regular sport in the Minneapolis high school sports program. January, 1954. (I never knew it ever had been part of that program.)
  • Top Minneapolis skaters Ken Bartholomew and Gene Sandvig will not be challenged locally by two other elite Minneapolis skaters. Pat McNamara will return to Norway or will train in Japan. Johnny Werket is considering  spending the winter in Japan. January, 1954.
  • Werket and McNamara have created a new practice track early in the season on Augusta Lake in Mendota. They do not train at Powderhorn Lake.  They prefer the European style of speed skating used in the Olympics. The European track  is 400 meters compared to the standard American track (including the Powderhorn track) of 293 yards, four laps to a mile instead of six. Also in European skating all competitors race against the clock instead of against other skaters in a pack. (American-style speed skating at the time was in between the long-track and short-track skating in today’s Olympics. The Winter Olympics tried the North American pack-style of speed skating at the 1932 games in Lake Placid, New York. Canada and the U.S. won 10 of 12 medals skating that way. The 1936 games in Germany reverted to European-style racing against the clock — and Norway and Finland won 10 of the 12 medals. Pack speed skating returned to the Olympics as a separate demonstration sport, short track skating,  in 1988 at Calgary and became a regular Olympic event in 1992 at Albertville.)
  • Ken Bartholomew was a 14-time U.S. champion, but he skated for the U.S. Olympic team only once, winning a silver medal in 1948 at St. Moritz. He did not make the Olympic team again despite dominating the National Outdoor Championships for years. Werket was on the U. S. Olympic team in 1948, 1952 and 1956. McNamara skated in the Olympics for the U.S. in 1952 and 1956. Their greater success in making Olympic teams may have been partially due to training in the Olympic style of racing —  although Gene Sandvig also made the Olympic team in 1952 and 1956. All three were also much younger than Bartholomew. A commentary in the Minneapolis Tribune after the Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956 had this to say about the different styles: “The U.S. should adopt the Olympic system of competition — that is, a competition against time. True, it’s pretty dull for young Americans, as well as the few spectators who turn out. They (presumably young Americans and spectators) love the free-for-all scramble with all of its pushing, tugging, elbowing and the like such as popped up in the Nationals at Como over the weekend.” (The reference was to the races at Lake Como in St. Paul won by Bartholomew, in which Bartholomew and another skater got into a fight after the other accused Bartholomew of knocking him down. Bartholomew was obviously a racer, a strategist, not a time-trial expert that the Olympic style required. In other words, he was more Apolo Anton Ohno than Shani Davis, Eric Heiden or Dan Jansen.)
  • One reason the Tribune advocated changing American racing to the Olympic style: the Russians had started to dominate international speed skating. It had begun with a surprise victory by the Russians at the world championships in Sapporo, Japan in 1954. The U.S. had failed to send a team. The U.S. State Department had declined to pay the travel costs of John Werket, Pat McNamara and a third skater from Chicago, Ken Henry, who was an Olympic gold medalist in 1952. The State Department determined that the request for funds was “not meritorious.” (Tribune, January 31, 1954) The Russian victory elicited this comment on the sports page: “The time is at hand when the athletic leaders of the free world had better take Russia’s bid for international supremacy seriously. The Commies proved in the last Olympic Games they have made greater strides in track and field than any other nation in the world. Over the week-end Russia did the unexpected by winning the world’s speed skating championships rather decisively, beating the best Norway and some other Scandinavian countries have to offer.” Russian dominance had grown at the 1956 Winter Games.
  • The 1955 world championships were held in Moscow and Johnny Werket was one of three skaters to represent the U.S. after friends raised $700 to pay his expenses. Those three skaters were the first American athletes to compete in Russia after World War II, according to a February, 1955 Tribune article. Werket had high praise for the Russians. “Russians were tops,” said Werket, “as athletes, as hosts and as fans. It would be hard to find a fairer audience anywhere in the world.”
  • Nearly all Minneapolis speed skating teams in the 1950s were sponsored by American Legion posts. Wenell, Laidlaw, Bearcat and Falldin posts all sponsored teams.

The 1955-1956 program for the Minnesota Speed Skating Association

Finally this item from the annual program of the Minnesota Speed Skating Association, 1955-1956:

Missing Skater News

  • Tom Miller and Colleen Burke (Falldin American Legion Post team) married last June, Tom in U. S. Army, stationed in California
  • Gene Sandvig (Bearcat) on Olympic Team
  • Tom Hadley (Wenell) concentrating on studies, U of M on Evans Scholarship (Based on scholarship and golf proficiency)
  • Janet Koch (Laidlaw) is now Mrs. Vasatka
  • David Kahn (Wenell) out with knee injury suffered in football at Roosevelt Hi
  • Dennis Boike (Laidlaw) at Nazareth Hall Prep Seminary studying for priesthood
  • Tom Romfo (Wenell) recuperating from a bout with polio

For some reason, perhaps the mention of polio, the list seemed so 1950s. Poignant, too.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith


15 comments so far

  1. […] skaters that dominated American speed skating from the 1930s into the 1950s. That was a time when speed skating races at Powderhorn Park and Como Lake in St. Paul drew tens of thousands of spectators and speed skating was an official […]

  2. […] written before about the world-class speedskaters who skated at Powderhorn Park in the 1940s and 1950s and the high-level competitions held there. Now […]

  3. […] Minneapolis and the U.S. at the 1952 and 1956 Winter Games. (I posted more about those skaters here.) They might all be in this photo. Can you identify any of these people — skaters and others […]

  4. […] on you tube. His father and uncles skated for the Bearcat team as he related in a recent comment on my first speedskating post. Have a look at that post as well as others on speedskating, then click this link (or the […]

  5. Adam M on

    My father and uncles were all on the Bearcat Skating team back in the 50’s. I have quite a bit of old color 8mm footage that my grandfather filmed back then.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for the information, Adam. Those films must be cool. Were they shot at Powderhorn? Any pictures you could post here? Or any stories your father or uncles want to tell? We’d love to hear them. If you ever digitize any of that footage, let us know, too.

      • Adam M on

        David, The footage is very cool! Definately from a different time. I am pretty sure they were shot at Powderhorn. My father passed away quite a few years ago so I can’t be sure. Two of my uncles still live in Minneapolis so I can find out the details from them. I had the footage digitized a few years ago and I would be happy to share it with you. I will get it put together this weekend.

      • David C. Smith on

        That’s exciting, Adam. Thanks.
        David C. Smith

      • Adam M on

        David, I threw this together. I am planning on having a newer high definition transfer done in the near future. Enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8ewShuJeEo

      • David C. Smith on

        This is great, Adam.
        I’m pretty sure some of the first footage was shot at Powderhorn, but I don’t know where the later races were filmed. Can anybody identify the various rinks where these were shot?
        David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

      • Adam M on

        David, glad you like it! I just spoke to my uncle and he says that the footage is at Powderhorn. The footage at the very end is in Winnipeg. He is going to watch it and give me more details.

  6. […] medalist speed skater Leo Friesinger from Chicago (whom you already met in these pages here) had this to say after he won the Governor Stassen trophy as the 10,000 Lakes senior men’s […]

  7. MaryW on

    Thanks so much for writing this. Pat McNamara is my uncle, so I find this fascinating.

    • David C. Smith on

      If you have recollections of watching your uncle, or family stories about him, or photos — we’d be happy to post them.

      David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

  8. […] medalist speed skater Leo Friesinger from Chicago (whom you already met in these pages here) had this to say after he won the Governor Stassen trophy as the 10,000 Lakes senior men’s […]

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