Archive for the ‘Edna Nelson’ Tag

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

 

 

 

 

 

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