Archive for the ‘Winter Sports’ Category

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

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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.

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

This is why we love our parks: Powderhorn Art Sled Rally

Creative use of space. It is the true gift of parks. If anyone ever needed convincing of the incredible benefits of public spaces, they should have been at Powderhorn Park yesterday for the 4th Annual Art Sled Rally. Thrills, chills and plenty of spills. Marvelous creativity. Wacky fun. It’s what a creative community can do when it has a place to do it.

Cheers to South Sixteenth Hijinks for the idea and energy. Be sure to click the link above to learn more about the event and organizers. Especially check out the sponsors and please support them.

I didn’t see all the sleds, but among my favorites were the bear from Puppet Farm, (picture a bear sliding on its stomach, and, yes, there was a child seated on top of the bear sled, too) and a wild dinner table on a sled, which I believe was called “Dinner at the Carlisle’s.” Other favorites were a couple of dragons, a dragon fly, a bunch of eyeballs and a London Bridge, which did indeed fall down. Some pictures are already posted on artsledrally.com from Dan Stedman. I hope others will soon follow.

The greatest tribute to the event and the people who made it happen: as we walked away my daughter asked, “Can we make a sled next year?”

David C. Smith

Glenwood Toboggan Slide: 1887

It’s an old, wrinkled photo clipped from an unidentified newspaper, but it’s also the oldest photo I’ve seen of a toboggan slide in Minneapolis.

A privately run toboggan slide on “Glenwood” hill in 1887, years before the park board acquired land in the area.

The newspaper caption calls it the “North Star” chute and puts the date at 1887. That was two years before the first land (64 acres) was acquired for what was then Saratoga Park. The park was renamed Glenwood Park in 1890 and was renamed for Theodore Wirth in 1938. The majority of the land for the park we know today was acquired in 1909. I suspect that this hill was a part of that acquisition. Although I’m not certain, I think this slide was located near where the ski jumps were later built.

At different times the park board operated toboggan slides at Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, Glenwood (Wirth) Park, Columbia Park and Minnehaha Park. I don’t believe any of them were operated after the 1940s, but as always its difficult to discern from park board records when such services or programs were stopped.

The only toboggan slide I remember from growing up in the Twin Cities was the long slide erected on the approach to the State Capitol in St. Paul. I remember it being operated as a part of the St. Paul Winter Carnival. It was one of the highlights of winter life as a boy in St. Paul.

David C. Smith