Archive for the ‘Winter Sports’ Category

Ice Queens: The First Female Speed Skaters in Minnesota

Dorothy “Dot” Franey, one of the best athletes in Minnesota history, achieved her greatest athletic success as the state’s first world-class female speed skater. When a Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame was created in 1958, the inaugural class included one woman, golfer Patty Berg. The second class of inductees, in 1963, featured a second woman, Dot Franey.

In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s celebrate some of the women who first clamped on skating blades and raced on Minnesota ice. While not strictly a Minneapolis park story, Minneapolis park rinks and lakes played a central role in the development of speed skating in Minnesota. By the 1930s, when Franey was at her best, the tracks on Powderhorn Lake in Minneapolis and Lake Como in St. Paul were the premier outdoor speed skating venues in the country. Although many of Franey’s finest performances were recorded on Minneapolis ice, she was from St. Paul, and like many other skaters from downriver, she wore the colors of the Hippodrome Skating Club. The State Fair Hippodrome was converted to a skating rink in winter—covered but unheated and advertised as the largest sheet of indoor ice in the country—in  December 1908.Hippodrome postcard

Sadly, we will never know how great Dot Franey might have been in the speed sport she dominated. As an eighteen-year-old she represented the United States in the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid when women’s speed skating was a “demonstration” sport and won third place in the 1,000-meter race—worth a bronze medal in any sport accorded  medal status. Still a teenager, she must have had high hopes for improvement in future Olympics, but that chance never came. Not only was women’s speed skating not promoted to medal status in the 1936 Winter Olympics as expected, its standing as even a demonstration sport was terminated. Women wouldn’t race on ice for Olympic medals until 1960 at Squaw Valley, California. At those Games, Dot Franey Langkop was a leader in the movement of Olympic alumni to support current United States Olympic athletes.

Franey likely would have done well had she had the opportunity to compete for Olympic medals. She won U.S. national championships, either indoor or outdoor or both, from 1933 to 1936. She never competed outside of North America, but her closest rival in the U.S., Kit Klein, won the first overall women’s world championship in 1936 in Sweden. By that measure, it’s fair to speculate that Franey would have excelled on the world stage as she had on the continental stage. She was such a dominant skater in her early 20’s that after she won a major competition in 1936 at Powderhorn Lake, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star wrote facetiously that Franey was “mad at herself” because she broke only one national record that weekend.

When Franey finally turned “pro” in 1938, meaning she could earn money from exhibitions, endorsements and appearing in figure skating shows—there was no professional speed skating circuit—her popularity was demonstrated by her endorsement of Camel cigarettes, which appeared in newspaper “funnies” around the country. Long before cigarettes were considered anathema to athletic performance, Franey claimed that the skaters she knew who smoked preferred Camels.1938-03-06 Dot Franey Camel ad

The timing of Franey’s decision to turn pro, may have been influenced by the decision not to include women’s speed skating in the Winter Olympics in 1936. Women’s participation in sports, which had grown steadily in the first quarter of the 20th Century, dropped off drastically in the 1930s, as notions of athleticism being unladylike were resurrected, vigorously promoted and lingered for another 40 years. In today’s world, Franey may have had even more options for athletic success as she was an all-star softball and basketball player, and a superb golfer. As it was in 1938, her only option to make a living from her athletic ability was limited to figure skating shows. Franey may have been enticed to the professional life by her friendship with Babe Didrikson, the most famous female athlete of her time, who was reported to have inked endorsement and appearance contracts worth $50,000 in her first year alone as a “pro” after she captured the nation’s attention at the 1932 Summer Olympics.  That was long before Didrikson made even more money as a champion golfer when she decided to give that sport a go.

Franey endorsed Camels and began a career skating in ice shows, including producing, directing and performing in an ice show that had a 14-year run at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas. Between Dot Franey and the Minnesota North Stars, I suspect Minnesota has given Texas about all it knows of skates on ice.

1934-12-30 Tribune 10,000 lakes preview photo rev

The 10,000 Lakes meet was the largest annual event at Powderhorn Lake, sponsored by the Lawrence Wennell American Legion Post. 1. Jimmy Webster, two-time national champ from St. Paul and the Hippodrome club. 2. Dot Franey. 3. Dick Beard, national junior champ from Minneapolis. 4. Olga Mikulak, Minneapolis. 5. Frank Bostrom, a Californian training in Minneapolis. 6. Patty Berg, Minneapolis “girl golf star who is also a flash on the blades.” Minneapolis Tribune, December 30, 1934.

Dot Franey was not the first female speed skater from Minnesota, just the best until then. Minnesota men were among the fastest skaters in the world in the 1890s and early 1900s. John S. Johnson, John Nilsson, Olaf Ruud from Minneapolis and A. D. Smith from St. Paul owned world or national records at distances from 100 yards to 25 miles, but there is no mention in newspapers of that time of women racing. Fancy skaters, such as Minnie Cummings, were well-known performers—she was the headline performer at the official opening of the Hippodrome Skating Rink on Christmas Day 1908—but the results of women’s races didn’t show up in newspapers until 1909.

The earliest reference to a women’s race that I’ve been able to find was a brief clip in the Minneapolis Tribune on March 3, 1909 that previewed the national professional championships in Cleveland, which featured all of the top men, including Charles Rankin from St. Paul. The story concluded, “Miss R. Leonard, champion of Ohio and Mrs. Charles Rankin will meet in a series of races for the women’s championship.”

Proof that women’s racing was in its infancy was offered by a short item in the Dayton Daily News the week of that projected race. “Girl Creates Championship” read the headline, followed by a terse report that began,

“There was no queen of the skating world and women held none of the records that set the speed limits of the ice rinks. So Miss Robina Leonard of Cleveland created a championship for women. She jumped in and set a record for the woman’s championship of the world.”

Later that year the Detroit Free Press published photos of Robina Leonard and Mabel Monroe of Detroit who were racing each other in a match arranged between Cleveland and Detroit speed skaters. Both women were photographed skating in ice-length skirts. The wind resistance created by those yards of fabric must have been demoralizing.

The race anticipated between Leonard and Rankin in Cleveland in 1909 apparently did not materialize. The reporting of the day gives no indication of how Lillian Rankin became a contender for a national championship, of other races she had won, or of  women she had defeated on her rise to national title contender status. Charles Rankin was a successful short distance racer, once holding the world record for 50 yards. Lillian and Charles together oversaw the skating program at the Hippodrome in the 1910-1911 season and the Minneapolis Tribune noted at the outset that they would pay “especial attention…to women skaters.”

Rankin was reported to have skated a few races at the Hippodrome over the next couple years, among them was a warmup race before a hockey game at the Hip against the local junior mens champion, which she won by inches, and a race against a woman figure skater in which they both wore hockey skates. In other words, more novelty than legit competition.

The first time women raced as a part of local competition appears to have been at the Twin City championships sponsored by the Hippodrome Skating Club in 1914. The promoters of the Hip announced they were donating a special cup for a women’s quarter-mile race. Three women entered, but I have not yet found a record of who they were.

Interest in women’s racing appears to pick up from that beginning. In early 1915 the Minneapolis Tribune announced “First Girl Skater to Enter Ice Races at Lake Calhoun” above a posed photo of Mabel Denny in a formal  gown. In a caption, the paper noted that there was a “revival” of ice skating at Lake Calhoun. For a few years interest in skating had waned in general. The Minneapolis Park Board closed its lakeside warming houses for skaters early in 1911 due to a “lack of interest.” The University of Minnesota didn’t even field a hockey team for two years in 1910 and 1911.

But that seemed to change by 1915. The Twin Cities championship at the Hip had more entries than in many years, so many that the organizers had to determine how to run heats and spread the races over two nights or risk massive collisions by running all skaters at once.  (This was in the days of “pack” racing, not two at a time against the clock as is the norm now and was in Europe then.) The 1915 championship included a women’s half-mile race for the first time. The race was won by Lillian Rankin, who had dominated the past with little competition. In second place was Edna Nelson of Minneapolis, who would dominate the future with much stiffer competition.

By the start of the next skating season, public interest in skating increased dramatically. So much so that the Minneapolis Tribune ran a full-page syndicated story in mid-December on the new craze in the most fashionable circles in New York, Boston and Chicago: dancing on ice skates. Dansants a glace and Ice Teas, the paper noted, were so popular that there weren’t enough rinks or instructors to meet the demand. Adding local observation, a Tribune headline two days later proclaimed, “Revival in Skating Seen; Keen Demand for Shining Blades.” The story quoted officials of the Minneapolis hardware store association predicting that 10,000 pairs of skates would be sold in Minneapolis before the skating season was in full glide.

1917-02-18 Star_Tribune PHOTO of Edna Nelson Indoor Champ

Edna Nelson with some of her trophies in 1917. While no longer racing in ankle length skirts, women were still carrying a lot of cloth around the rink. Minneapolis Tribune, February 18, 1917

For the next few years Edna Nelson remained at the top of women’s speed skating in Minnesota usually battling and often sharing the podium with Ethel Lee another Minneapolitan. The duels between the two became a primary draw to long-blade events on Twin Cities ovals. Their quarter-mile face-off was the featured race at the Hippodrome Skating Club’s eighth annual ice carnival in 1917. Nelson won by inches.

Neither of them, however, took part in what was billed as the first international women’s championship at Lake Placid in 1920. The only Twin City skater to score in that meet was Lillian Herman of St. Paul.

 

In the 1920s, Nelson and Lee gave way to Olga Munkholm of St. Paul as the fastest woman on ice in the Northwest, challenged and occasionally beaten by Gladys Malone and Violet Evans. I have been able to find very little information on any of those skaters, except that another Munkholm, Anne, perhaps a sister of Olga, was one of the leading fancy skaters of the time, performing across the western U.S. and Canada. Olga Munkholm was also the catcher on an All Star softball team from St. Paul.

1922-02-19 Star_Tribune PHOTO Olga Munkholm and men incl. Donovan rev

Olga Munkholm was  featured in a Minneapolis Tribune photo February 19, 1922 along with other stars of the Hippodrome Skating Club. In the stocking cap center right is Richard “Duke” Donovan, the first Twin Cities speed skater to compete in the Winter Olympics. He was on the 1924 team that skated at Chamonix, France.

In 1926 the Minneapolis Daily Star began promoting a Silver Skates Derby, a series of races for local boys and girls that gave them a chance to win a pair of high-quality racing skates. Silver Skates races—named for Mary Mapes Dodge’s 1865 novel, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates—had already become popular in New York and Chicago and they helped promote skating in general, but especially for girls who were given equal billing and prizes as boys. Preliminary races for boys and girls were held at playgrounds throughout the city with the finals at Lake of the Isles where the top finishers were awarded skates and other prizes.

The Silver Skates Derby also featured open races for adults, without the prize of skates. In the first Silver Skates Derby Amy Ostgard won the senior women’s title followed by Mildred Bjork and Violet Evans in front of a crowd estimated at 20,000. Bjork became the dominant woman skater in Minneapolis for the next few years, winning the 1927 Silver Skates title and the 1928 Minnesota championship. She was one of four skaters sent by Minneapolis to the national amateur championships in Detroit in 1928, but she did not place.

When the 1929 national championships came to Lake of the Isles, Bjork must have had high expectations on her home ice and she skated well on her way to a third-place finish. She was completely overshadowed, however, by Detroit skater Loretta Neitzel who stole the show that weekend by setting three new world records in the mile, quarter-mile and sixth-mile distances.

A couple of weeks after that grand spectacle, Dorothy Franey’s name appears for the first time in results of a girls race at the indoor arena off of Lake Street in Uptown Minneapolis. It was the first indication that Franey would skate to the fore of American women speedskaters—where she would remain for much of the next decade.

Perhaps it was fitting that in Franey’s last major race before turning pro, the national indoor championships at Chicago, she was denied a final title by a new teen sensation. The winner of that national title in Chicago was Mary Dolan, a Minneapolis skater in her first season in the senior women’s division.  The Queen was dead, long live the Queen. That victory was the first of many for Mary Dolan. She had skated to the top of women’s speed skating in the skate tracks of pioneer Minnesota skaters over the previous thirty years. There would be many more to come.

David C. Smith

If you know more about the skaters mentioned here or others who deserve recognition, tell us more in the comments section.

©2019 David C. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 99th, Don Johnson

Don Johnson, a great, but little-known Minnesota athlete, just celebrated his 99th birthday. I hope you will join me in wishing him many more.

Don was a champion speed skater at the leading edge of a generation of speed 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 sport in Minneapolis high schools. The sport thrived in part due to support from the Minneapolis Park Board and the excellent skating track it maintained at Powderhorn Park, but also due to sponsorship and hard work by several American Legion posts. Speed skating had similar support in St. Paul.

Scan Don Johnson 1948 rev.

Don Johnson winning the 440-yard national championship in 1947, narrowly defeating his long-time rivals Ken Bartholomew on the right and another Minneapolitan, Bob Fitzgerald, on the left who tied for the silver medal at 500 meters in the 1948 Winter Olympics.  At that time in the U.S. speed skaters raced in a pack, instead of racing against the clock as was done in the rest of the world.  Pack-style racing was considered more entertaining for fans and resulted in much more strategic races. (Photo courtesy of Don Johnson.)

For another view of Don winning a race, check out this newsreel Clip of him winning the 880 in the 1948 national championships. (His is the second race in the newsreel.)

The first Minnesota skaters to break onto the national scene in that era and win national titles were James Webster of St. Paul, then Marvin Swanson of Minneapolis in the mid-1930s. They were followed by Johnson and Dick Beard, high school teammates at Minneapolis Central, then in rapid succession by Charles Leighton, future Olympic medalists Ken Bartholomew and Bob Fitzgerald, John Werket, Art Seaman, Pat McNamara, Gene Sandvig, Floyd Bedbury, and Tom Gray. All were national or world champions or Olympians. Women enjoyed a run of success nearly as impressive, led by Dorothy Franey, Mary Dolan, and Louise Herou of Minneapolis and Geraldine Scott, Janet Christopherson, Gwendolyn DuBois and Diane White of St. Paul, all of whom won national championships. (Women’s speed skating was an exhibition event at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid and Dorothy Franey of Minneapolis was on the team. Women didn’t compete in speed skating again in the Olympics until 1960. Mary Lawler of Minneapolis made the 1964 team.) Many more Minneapolis skaters excelled — won national championships or set age group records — at junior and intermediate levels. Of course there have been many world-class speed skaters from Minnesota since the early 1960s as well, but by then the Twin Cities, especially Powderhorn Park, was no longer the center of the American speed skating world.

EPSON MFP image

This article from the New York Times, February 8, 1938 tells the story of Johnson’s victory. The rest of the article covers the other races held that night.

 

 

One of Don Johnson’s greatest triumphs was as a 19-year-old at Madison Square Garden where he won the Champion of Champions two-mile race at the Silver Skates tournament before a crowd of nearly 15,000 in 1938.

Johnson recalled that the celebrity starter for the race was former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey.

What makes Johnson’s victory particularly impressive was that he enjoyed some of his greatest successes at shorter distances such as the 440 and 880 highlighted above — and on longer outdoor tracks. If you’re a sports fan you know that Madison Square Garden is the most famous basketball arena in the world, meaning hardly large enough for a speed skating rink. The track was about the size of the hockey rink when the New York Rangers played in the famous arena. The track hardly had a straightaway. At 16 laps to the mile it was all corners. If there was a precursor to today’s short-track speed skating, MSG was it.

Two Weeks Pay

Johnson almost didn’t make it to New York for that meet. Right out of high school, he had gone to work for General Electric in Minneapolis. He couldn’t afford to miss two weeks of work to make the trip to first Michigan for the national championships and then to New York for the Silver Skates meet. The St. Paul newspaper that sponsored the race locally — he qualified by winning the race in St. Paul — agreed to pick up his pay for the two weeks he would be gone. (The outdoor nationals in Petoskey, Mich. were cancelled due to warm weather and rain showers.)

Johnson returned to MSG the next year, 1939, to defend his title along with his local rival Ken Bartholomew. As the New York Times reported on February 7, 1939 the two were among ten of the leading speed skaters in the country that took part in the event. The race had another capacity crowd in the Garden on their feet at the finish. The grueling race ended in what the Times called a “blanket finish” by the top four skaters. The judges deliberated for five minutes while the crowd awaited an announcement of the winner. The Times reported that spectators thought the delay was due to debate over whether Johnson or Vincent Bozich of Detroit had won or whether it was a dead heat. Ken Bartholomew had finished a hair behind them. The judges’ decision shocked everyone: Johnson, Bozich and Bartholomew were disqualified for “pushing on the turn.” The victory went to the fourth place finisher who represented New York in the race. Such was life in the rough-and-tumble world of pack-style racing — where “pushing” was part of racing.

Don Johnson 2014-9-4 (2)

Don Johnson when he was only 96.

Despite Johnson’s successes, he was not selected for the 1940 Olympic team. Neither was Bartholomew. The only Minnesota skater to make that team was Charles Leighton. Of course he never got to race in the Olympics due to WWII. By the time the Olympics resumed in 1948, although still highly competitive with the country’s best — as witnessed by the photo and clip above — Johnson did not compete in the St. Moritz Olympics, but attended the Games as an alternate.

Two of Don’s long-time competitors from Minneapolis, Ken Bartholomew, who married Don’s sister, and Bob Fitzgerald, who was an altar boy at Don’s wedding, tied for the silver medal in St. Moritz in the 500 meter race, the only Americans to win speed skating medals in those games. They proved that Americans could win medals even when they skated the less exciting European Olympic style. No pushing.

Happy Birthday, Don. We hope we’ve helped revive happy memories of good friendships with tough competitors.

David C. Smith

Minneapolis Speed Skating Update

The articles I’ve posted on speed skating have been among the most widely read of all topics I have covered. Many readers also have added comments that are full of interesting information and reminiscences. So I would encourage anyone interested in the history of speed skating in Minnesota, especially at Powderhorn Park, to revisit those posts to catch up on the latest info. (Click on “Speed Skating” under “Popular Tags” at right for a list of articles.)

Along those lines, I got a recent note from Patrick Fitzgerald that the description of the photo of the 1948 Olympic team was correct even though it was taken in February, 1947. The 1948 team was selected based on results of the National Championships the year before.

Bob Fitzgerald was the first man named to the 1948 team as a result of his winning the Senior Men’s National Championship in January, 1947, a repeat of his 1946 title. Both times he edged out Ken Bartholomew, another Minneapolitan, for the title.

Who is this Bearcat skater?

Who is this Bearcat skater?

A reader sent me a copy of the 11 x 14 photo above of an unknown skater, which he had found at a local garage sale. He purchased the photo as well as the size 10 Riedell skates the man in the photo was wearing. We believe he is wearing the uniform of the Bearcats from around 1950. Can anyone identify the skater?

I hope to have more recollections of the Powderhorn skating scene from the 1940s sometime this fall.

David C. Smith

© 2014 David C. Smith

Another Elite Powderhorn Park Speedskater

I’ve 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 reader Gayle Mosiman Meadows has shared more information about speedskating at Powderhorn in the 1930s, especially involving her late father, Roger Mosiman.

She sent this image of a program from a meet in 1938 that featured her father who was then 14.

Program from 1938 speedskating event at Powderhorn Park, featuring photo of Roger Mosiman (Gayle Meadows Mosiman)

Program from 1938 speedskating event at Powderhorn Park, featuring photo of Roger Mosiman. (Gayle Meadows Mosiman)

Mosiman was likely featured on the program because at the time he held the juvenile boys national record for the fastest time in the 220 yard sprint. The national record for intermediate boys at the same distance was held at that time by Roger’s older brother, Earl Mosiman. The Bearcat American Legion Post was one of four posts that featured prominently as sponsors of speedskating teams.

Gayle also sent a copy of photo of Roger boarding a train for a skating competition in New York, likely the 1940 North American Speedskating Championship in Schenectady, NY. He is being seen off by his mother, Lillie, and his younger sister, Bernice.

Roger Mosiman boarding train for 1940 National Speedskating Championship in Schenectady, NY. Roger is being sent off by his mother, Lillie, and younger sister, Bernice. (Photo courtesy of Gayle Mosiman Meadows)

Roger Mosiman boarding a train for the 1940 North American Speedskating Championship in Schenectady, NY.  (Photo courtesy of Gayle Mosiman Meadows)

Roger, who attended Marshall High School in Minneapolis, finished the multi-event competition for the junior boys championship tied with Art Bulrice of Saranac Lake, NY. In a one-sixth mile race to determine the title, Roger fell and had to settle for second place. Winning the men’s title that day was future Olympian Leo Freisinger of Chicago.

After Marshall High School, Roger attended the University of Minnesota and became a navy pilot in WWII. In the 1960s, he moved to Gig Harbor, Washington. Roger died there in December 2011 at age 87.

Many thanks to Gayle for the program, the photo and the memories.

David C. Smith

© 2014 David C. Smith

Ski Jump Update

So many people have commented on my article posted nearly two years ago about the history of ski jumping in Minneapolis that I thought I should provide an update. I was prompted by an exchange of emails this week with Greg Fangel who is the owner of woodenskis.com, where he buys and sells wooden cross-country skis and provides a great deal of ski information and links to other skiing sites. I’ve edited together some of Greg’s emailed comments below, with thanks.

I’ve been an avid cross-country skier since 1974 and currently live in White Bear Lake. I’ve been researching ski history for the past 5 years or so, mostly from a Mpls/St. Paul/Minnesota point of view. In my research, ski jumping comes into play, since it’s Nordic and one of the early forms of competition. I personally know Norm Oakvik, who is mentioned in your blog.  He organized many events and coached USSA teams in Minneapolis. Norm is a legend in the cross-country ski community in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I interviewed Norm in November of 1995 for a story in the Løype, a newsletter of the North Star Ski Touring Club.

Norm’s parents were from Norway and Norm started skiing in Minneapolis in the 1930-40s. He competed with the Minneapolis Ski Club in 1940-70s, specializing in Nordic combined in the early years. Nordic combined is ski jumping and cross-country skiing combined into one event. He was a driving force behind the National Nordic ski competition, which was held in Bloomington in 1976. Bill Koch came to ski that event.

In May of 2005 a few of the ‘movers and shakers’ in the Minneapolis ski community wanted to name a trail or system after Norm Oakvik at Theodore Wirth Park. We held a special meeting at Wirth with supporters and Norm present. Norm was so humble, that he didn’t want his name on the trails, even though he spent countless hours trail clearing, grooming, and coaching at Wirth. I don’t know how Norm is doing now, but he was recently in the hospital.

I’ve interviewed ski jumper Adrian Watt from Duluth who participated in the 1968 Winter Olympics and competed at the Glenwood jump in Minneapolis. He has some fascinating stories.

Minneapolis has a rich ski history and that should not be overlooked. We need to preserve that history for generations to come.

Greg Fangel

The ski jump at Glenwood (Wirth) Park in 1923 (Charles Hibbard, Minnesota Historical Society)

The ski jump at Glenwood (Wirth) Park in 1923. (Charles J. Hibbard, Minnesota Historical Society)

Greg mentioned that he’s interested in putting together an exhibit on local skiing history for a possible new project at Wirth Park.

Over the past couple years, several veterans of the Minneapolis skiing scene have commented on my original post on Minneapolis ski history. If you haven’t looked at those comments in a while, check them out. Add your own stories either here or on the original post. Thanks!

If you haven’t kept track of what’s going on with cross-country skiing in Minneapolis parks you might be surprised to find out about current trails, especially at Wirth Park. Get more skiing info at minneapolisparks.org.

David C. Smith

The Makwa Club’s Lake Calhoun Toboggan Slide

A couple of months ago I posted photos of a toboggan slide at Lake Harriet in 1914. Now I’ve rediscovered a description I had saved long ago of a toboggan slide from an earlier time on a Minneapolis lake. The Makwa Club—makwa is the Ojibwe word for “bear”—built a toboggan slide at Lake Calhoun in 1888, according to the Minneapolis Tribune, January 22, 1888.

The Tribune reported that the Makwa Club was formed in 1885 and had its first toboggan slide on Lowry Hill near Thomas Lowry’s house. For the winter of 1888 the club built a much grander slide at Lake Calhoun. The Tribune reported, “The slide is much superior to any that has been built in Minneapolis before and is probably as fine as any that is in existence in the country.”

The other toboggan slides in the city that winter were maintained by the Flour City Toboggan and Snowshoe Club and the North Star Toboggan Club. (Newspapers of the time referred often to the toboggan “craze,” much like the bicycle craze that would soon follow, and the canoe craze that came after that. Today, I suppose, we text or tweet.) The Flour City slide was a 1,000-foot slide near Ridgewood Avenue that ended near Franklin and Lyndale. The North Star slide was west of the city in what is now Theodore Wirth Park.

The only photo I can find of a toboggan slide from that era was the North Star chute on Glenwood Hill, 1887. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The Makwa slide was 220-feet long, running onto Lake Calhoun from the bluff on the east side of the lake where the Lyndale Hotel once stood. The slide had three chutes that had a drop of 55 feet and crossed both the street railway track—15 feet above the track—and Calhoun Parkway—24 feet above the road. (Yes, the Makwas did get the permission of the park board to build its slide over the parkway.) The slide met the lake ice about 50 feet out from the shore and the level runway continued 1,500 feet onto the lake. After a run of about 1/3 mile, toboggans hit roughed up lake ice that prevented them from running onto Lake Calhoun’s horse trotting track.

The grandest feature of the slide, however, “had never before been tried in any slide,” according to the Tribune: a wooden warming house and starting platform at the top of the slide, 10 feet off the ground. The front of the warming room was made almost entirely of glass and looked straight down the slide. The slide was illuminated by five electric lights.

The Makwas even had an arrangement with the motor (trolley) company by which the 7:40 train out from town every evening stopped at the foot of the slide to drop off club members and the 9:57 train made a special stop at the same place to pick them up for a return to the city after an evening of mirth. The slide was for the use of club members only.

The Makwa uniform was breeches and blouse of heavy gray French wool and stockings, toque and sash of cardinal. The membership of the club was limited to 200 and included many of the best-known young men of Minneapolis. The president of the club in 1888 was English journalist Harry P. Robinson, who was featured in an earlier article about his close friend John S. Bradstreet. Bradstreet was a Makwa, as was park commissioner Eugene Wilson.

The problem with the Makwa’s grand slide was that no one was willing to pay for it. In 1891, the Tribune reported that a lawsuit had been filed—in what it called the “Makwa mess”—by the man who built the slide in an attempt to recover his costs from the officers of the defunct club. Makwa Club members had been assessed $10 each to pay for the slide in 1888, but most didn’t pay. Some claimed that the officers of the club did not have the authority to spend the money on the slide. (I wonder if these claimants used the slide!) Of the $800 charged to build the slide, only about $300 had been paid. The Makwa directors, including Robinson, then sued individual members who hadn’t paid up. The Tribune reported on only two of those cases: one was not contested and the other lost on a technicality.

One of the “chief forms of pleasure that the belles and bloods of the city indulged in” that winter through “the most select of all the clubs” ended up being a free toboggan ride for most of them. (Tribune, March 20, October 18, December 22, 1891.)

By the fall of 1891, however, Makwa president Robinson had married the daughter of one of the wealthier men in Minneapolis, Thomas Lowry, so he may have found the means to pay the builder of the toboggan slide that was “much superior” to any other in Minneapolis.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of the Makwa Club’s Lake Calhoun toboggan slide, please let us know. We’d love to see it.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

Snowmobiles in Minneapolis Parks: 1967

Do you remember snowmobiles in 1967? I remember them as loud, smelly, uncomfortable and, by today’s standards, horribly unwieldy. Not what you’d expect to find in pristine city parks. But they were very trendy then—the latest and coolest—and Minneapolis parks have always tried to keep up with what was new and in-demand in recreational opportunities. On December 13, 1967 the park board approved establishing a snowmobile course on Meadowbrook Golf Course and renting snowmobiles there.

My snowmobile memories were prompted by the park board’s current interest in allowing snowmobiles on Wirth Lake in Minneapolis as part of a snowmobile convention this winter. I found some 1967 photos of snowmobiles at Meadowbrook a while back and scanned them just because they represented a moment in time for me.

Snowmobiles for rent at Meadowbrook Golf Course in 1967. (MPRB)

I watched the Vikings Super Bowl IV loss as part of a football/snowmobile party on a farm near Hutchinson in January 1970. (Many farmers in the area were pioneers in snowmobiling, encouraged by the farm implement companies—and their local dealers—that initially invested in the technology. It gave the companies and dealers something to sell year round.) Maybe the Vikings’ embarrassing loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that day tainted my perception of snowmobiles, too; I developed a slight, queasy aversion to them, recalling Hank Stram’s infuriating smirk and bad toupee every time I saw one.

But the snowmobile photos on this page piqued my curiosity for a couple of reasons. One, I couldn’t remember the company “Boatel” or their “Ski-Bird” from my youth. Turns out it was a boat manufacturer in Mora, Minn. that acquired a snowmobile company, the Abe Matthews Company of Hibbing, to broaden its product line. The company apparently manufactured most of the machine, but installed an off-the-shelf engine.

For more information on the Boatel Ski-Birds visit snowmobilemuseum.com and vintage snowmobiles.

The second intriguing aspect of the photo above is the decal on the right front of the machine, “Bird is the word.” In the few photos I’ve found online of the machines — Boatel stopped manufacturing them by 1972 — none of the Ski-Birds have that tagline on them.

If you are of a certain age, or a huge fan of Minneapolis rock-and-roll history, or a Family Guy devotee, you know the line is most famous from a song by The Trashmen in 1963.

Cover photo of Minneapolis surf rockers The Trashmen from their Bird Dance Beat album, their follow-up to Surfin’ Bird. Steve Wahrer (front) was responsible for the raspy vocal on Surfin’ Bird.

The Minneapolis surf-rock band’s Surfin’ Bird, their first record, climbed to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been covered by numerous groups, from The Ramones to Pee Wee Herman. (See Wahrer performing the song on American Bandstand and being interviewed by Dick Clark. The show wouldn’t pay travel costs for all four band members, so Wahrer performed alone. It must have been odd for him to perform that way because he was the band’s drummer.) It’s a hard song to forget, which was reinforced by its use in a Family Guy episode in 2008 that introduced it to new generations.

I wonder if Boatel bought the rights to the lyric for its Ski-Bird. Surfin’ Bird was based on two songs by The Rivingtons and although The Trashmen significantly reworked them, The Rivingtons, a LA vocal group, were given songwriting credit. So if Boatel did pay rights to use the line, The Trashmen probably didn’t collect anything from it.

I don’t know if these are customers renting snowmobiles or park board employees at Meadowbrook Golf Course. (MPRB)

The park board’s 1968 annual report noted that “ski sleds” were rented at “various wintertime locations.” I was surprised to learn from the 1968 annual report that it was also the first year electric golf carts were used on any Minneapolis park golf course; they were also first rented at Meadowbrook. So snowmobiles beat golf carts onto park board golf courses by a few months. The contract for 13 snowmobiles and 6 snowmobile sleds for rental was won by the Elmer N. Olson Company.

Golf carts and snowmobiles weren’t the only attractions added to parks in 1968 in hopes of generating new revenue. Pedal boats were added to Loring Lake, an electric tow rope was installed in the Theodore Wirth Park ski area, and construction began on a miniature sternwheeler paddle boat to carry 35-40 passengers at a time on rides through Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, and Lake Calhoun.

A constant in the 129-year history of the Minneapolis park board has been the search for new revenues to support an expensive park system. If given a choice between snowmobiles in the city and good food at well-run restaurants in parks, such as now exist in three locations and will be joined by a new food service at Lake Nokomis next year, I’d chose the food. Blame the Kansas City Chiefs.

I haven’t found any record of rental rates for the snowmobiles the first year, but in January 1969 the park board approved a rental rate of $3.64 per 1/2 hour (plus 3% sales tax!) for park board snowmobiles and a charge of $1.25/hour or $3.75/day for the use of private snowmobiles on the Meadowbrook course.

I wonder if the Meadowbrook greenskeeper liked snowmobiles on the course with so little snow. (MPRB)

A more contentious issue was a park ordinance passed in early January 1968 that permitted, but regulated, the use of snowmobiles on Minneapolis lakes and parks. By November 1970, before a third snowmobiling season could begin, some residents had apparently had their fill of snowmobiles in the city and the park board considered banning the use of snowmobiles on park property, including the lakes. Park Commissioner Leonard Neiman, who represented southwest Minneapolis, proposed rescinding the ordinance that allowed snowmobiling, which suggests that residents near Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun might have led the opposition. The board did not vote to eliminate snowmobiling from parks at that time, but it did reduce the speed limit for snowmobiles — from 25 to 20 mph — and added a noise-control provision that mandated mufflers. It also directed staff to consider which parks or lakes snowmobiles would be permitted to use. The decision to lower the speed limit on snowmobiles in parks was credited in 1979 (12/19 Proceedings) with essentially eliminating snowmobile permit applications. None had been received since 1972.

Sometime between 1979 and 2002 the park board made slow snowmobiling even less appealing by setting the price for an annual snowmobile permit at $350. Pokey and pricey wasn’t a big sale. The board voted in 2002 to eliminate snowmobiling permits altogether, because no one had applied for one in many years.

The park board proposes now to charge $1,000 a day for permitting snowmobiles (does that cover multiple machines?) to use Wirth Lake during a convention that MEET Minneapolis estimates will bring $1 million to the city this winter. Sounds like a reasonable trade-off to me — especially because snowmobiles have changed so much since 1970, and so few residences are within earshot of Wirth Lake anyway

Finally, here’s your cocktail party trivia for this week. One of only four survivors of the raft of companies that competed for snowmobile market share in the late 1960s is Bombardier, the Canadian makers of Ski-Doo. The company is now 50% owned by Bain Capital of presidential campaign fame. Of course, two of Ski-Doo’s biggest competitors are Arctic Cat and Polaris, both based in Minnesota.

I wonder if any of the Trashmen ever rented a “Bird is the word”  snowmobile at Meadowbrook.

Papa-oom-mow-mow.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

Lake Harriet Toboggan Slide

As the heat continues to burn grass and crops this summer, I’ll provide cool respite on the edge of Lake Harriet. Fred Perl, the park board’s forester, took these photos of the Queen Avenue toboggan slide at Lake Harriet in 1914.

Looking up toward Queen Avenue on the western shore of Lake Harriet. (MPRB)

Check out the canoe racks that line the shore.

The view from the top of the slide along Queen Avenue above the street car barn. (MPRB)

The views from top and bottom are cool, but they don’t show all the work that went into building this slide. You can only appreciate that from a side view.

The impressive structure of the Lake Harriet toboggan slide. Note the passage made for cars on the parkway through the lattice. (MPRB)

Feel any cooler?

David C. Smith

Minneapolis speedskating: Bearcat 8mm film from 1950s

Adam Martin has posted some fun 8mm film footage of the Bearcat American Legion Post speedskating team in Minneapolis from the 1950s on youtube.

Bearcat American Legion Skating Team. Appears to have been taken at Powderhorn Park. (Adam Martin)

Adam’s father—John—and uncles—Jim, Tom and Michael—skated for the Bearcat team, as he related in a recent comment on my first speedskating post.

The Martin brothers who skated for the Bearcat team in mid-1950s. (Adam Martin)

Have a look at that post as well as others on speedskating, then click this link (or the youtube.com link in Adam’s comment):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8ewShuJeEo

The first clips were shot at Powderhorn, I believe, but I don’t recognize where the clips at the end were from. Can anyone identify the other rinks featured — or tell us anything else about the clips Adam has provided?

Thanks, Adam.

David C. Smith

P.S. I just heard from Adam that his uncle identified the last clips as being shot in Winnipeg.

Minneapolis Park Memory: Ski Jumping at Wirth Park

I have received several very interesting comments from Jim Balfanz on my post about the history of ski jumping in Minneapolis. Today he sent me this photo of him (left) and his brother John, both champion skiers, in a double jump at Wirth Park in 1956. Jim copied the photo from the West High School yearbook of 1956. The original photo was “courtesy of the Minneapolis Tribune.”

In his comments, Jim has provided the names of many people who were important in Minneapolis ski jumping at a time when Minneapolis was producing national champions and Olympians.

If anyone else has memories, stories or photos to add either as comments on that post or in e-mails to me, I’d be delighted to post them.

Thanks to Jim and also to Jay Martin for his comments.

David C. Smith

Elusive Minneapolis Ski Jumps: Keegan’s Lake, Mount Pilgrim and Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park

The Norwegians of Minneapolis had greater success getting their music recognized in a Minneapolis park than they did their sport. A statue of violinist and composer Ole Bull was erected in Loring Park in 1897.

This statue of Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull was placed in Loring Park in 1897, shown here about 1900 (Minnesota Historical Society)

A ski jump was located in a Minneapolis park only when the park board expanded Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park in 1909 by buying the land on which a ski jump had already been built by a private skiing club. The photo and caption below are as they appear in the annual report of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners for 1911.* While the park board included these photos in its annual report, they are a bit misleading. Park board records indicate that it didn’t really begin to support skiing in parks until 1920 — 35 years after the first ski clubs were created in the city.

Minneapolis, the American city with the largest population of Scandinavians, was not a leader in adopting  or promoting the ski running and ski jumping that originated in that part of the world. Skiing had been around for millenia, but it had been transformed into sport only in the mid-1800s, around the time Minneapolis was founded. Ski competitions then included only cross-country skiing, often called ski running, and ski jumping — the Nordic combined of today’s Winter Olympics. Alpine or downhill skiing didn’t become a sport until the 1900s. Even the first Winter Olympics at Chamonix, France in 1924 included only Nordic events and — duh! — Norway won 11 of 12 gold medals.

The first mention of skiing in Minneapolis I can find is a brief article in the Minneapolis Tribune of February 4, 1886 about a Minneapolis Ski Club, which, the paper claimed, had been organized by “Christian Ilstrup two years ago.” That article said the club “is still flourishing.” Eight days later the Tribune noted that the Scandinavian Turn and Ski Club was holding its final meeting of the year. The two clubs may have been the same.

Ilstrup was one of the organizers two years later of one of the first skiing competitions recorded in Minneapolis, which was described by the Tribune, January 29, 1888, in glowing and self-congratulatory terms.

Tomorrow will witness the greatest ski contest that ever took place in this country. For several years our Norwegian cultivators of the noble ski-sport have worked assiduously to introduce their favorite sport in this country, but their efforts although crowned with success, did not experience a real boom until the Tribune interested itself in the matter and gave the boys a lift.

The Tribune mentioned the participation in the competition of the Norwegian Turn and Ski Club, “Vikings club” and “Der Norske Twin Forening.”  The Tribune estimated that 3,000 spectators watched the competition held on the back of Kenwood Hill facing the St. Louis Railroad yard. Every tree had a dozen or so men and boys clinging to the branches, while others found that perches on freight cars in the rail yard provided the best vantage point.

The caption for this photo from the Minnesota Historical Society Visual Resource Database claims the photo is from the winter of 1887, but was almost certainly taken at the ski tournament held on Kenwood Hill late that winter in February, 1888.

The competition consisted of skiers taking turns speeding downhill and soaring off a jump or “bump” made of snow on the hill. Points were awarded for distance and for style points from judges.

The winners of the competition were reported as M. Himmelsvedt, St. Croix Falls, whose best jump was 72 feet, and 14-year-old crowd favorite Oscar Arntson, Red Wing, who didn’t jump nearly as far, but jumped three times without falling. Red Wing was a hot bed of ski-jumping, along with Duluth and towns on the Iron Range. (The winner was perhaps Mikkjel Hemmestveit, who along with his brother, Torger, came from Norway to manufacture skis using highly desirable U.S. hickory. The Hemmestveit brothers are usually associated with Red Wing skiing, however, not St. Croix Falls.)

A Rocky Start

Despite the enthusiasm of the Tribune and the crowds, skiing then disappeared from the pages of the Tribune until 1891, when on March 2, the paper reported on a gathering of thirty members of the Minneapolis Ski Club at Prospect (Farview) Park. “This form of amusement is as distinctively Scandinavian as lutefisk, groet, kringles and shingle bread,” the Tribune reported. “With skis on his feet a man can skim swiftly over the soft snow in level places, and when a slope is convenient the sport resembles coasting in a wildly exhilarating and exciting form,” the report continued. The article also described the practice of building snow jumps on the hill, noting that “one or two of the contestants were skilful enough to retain their equilibrium on reaching terra firma again, and slid on to the end of the course, arousing the wildest enthusiasm.”

The enthusiasm didn’t last once again. The Tribune’s next coverage of skiing appeared nearly eight years later — but it came with an explanation:

During recent winters snow has been a rather scarce article. A few flakes, now and then, have made strenuous efforts to organize a storm, but generally the effort has proven a failure. The heavy snow of yesterday was so unusual that it is hardly to be wondered at that there arose in the breasts of local descendants of the Viking race a longing for the old national pastime, skiing…The sport of skiing was fostered to a considerable extent in the Northwest, and particularly in this city, a few years ago, but the snow famine of late winters put a damper on it.
— Minneapolis Tribune, November 11, 1898

The paper further reported that the “storm of yesterday had a revivifying effect upon the number of enthusiasts” and that the persistent Christian Ilstrup of the Minneapolis Ski Club was arranging a skiing outing on the hills near the “Washburn home” (presumably the orphanage at 50th and Nicollet). The paper also reported that while promoters of the club were Norwegian-Americans, “they do not propose to  be clannish in the matter.”

Within a week of that first friendly ski, Continue reading

Glenwood Toboggan Slide II: 1887

Since posting a newspaper photo of a toboggan slide on “Glenwood Hill” in 1887, I found this photo in the Minnesota Historical Society Visual Resources Database. This photo is purportedly of the same toboggan chute on the same hill in the same year, but they are obviously different places. The photo clipped from a newspaper had trees right up to the sides of the track.

The North Star toboggan chute on Glenwood Hill, 1887. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Looking up the hill instead of down, gives a completely different prespective on the possible location of the slide. I doubt that the slide in this photo is in the same location as the ski jumps that were built after the park board acquired land in the vicinity. Any guesses as to the location of this toboggan slide? Or the other one? Which one is the real “North Star” chute?

In the same wonderful photo collection, I found this picture of the St. Paul toboggan slide in front of the State Capitol, which I referred to in my earlier post.

A 1957 photo of the toboggan slide I rode as a kid, a few years later, in front of the State Capitol. (Minnesota Historical Society)

David C. Smith