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Local ice skating continues its annual popularity

These lucky early 20th century boys sported real shoe skates.(Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

There have always been three basic forms of ice skating, speed skating, figure skating and just plain fun skating, which latter class probably describes most of us. Us? Yes, I too was once a victim of those truly ‘cheap’ skates, the kind that fit flat (almost) under your regular shoes after buckling them on as tight as you could. Very few children in our old times had real shoe skates, because most parents refused to sink money into special shoes that would be useless after only two winter months, and probably outgrown by the following winter. Yes, we all learned when we were fairly young just where that old expression “cheap skates” came from: They came from our feet, and off our feet, always when we didn’t want them to, and we had to make the best of them.

Most older people today will relate that their earliest skating happened close to home, either at an iced-over neighborhood vacant lot, or at rinks created on nearby grade school playgrounds. Playground skating rinks were usually created by fathers who were volunteer members of the grade school’s PTA, sometimes aided by the school custodian. In my case, for example, Amsterdam’s west end Guy Park Avenue school’s playground was flooded every January. Our custodian, with one or two PTA parents as monitors, would also keep the school’s basement open for warming, and to give us a place to put on our skates. Nobody lived very far from their grade schools in those old times – Amsterdam had ten, for example – and since we all walked to and from school every day, returning in the evening to skate was nothing unusual. Various friends who grew up in our Fulton County cities and villages have shared similar experiences with me.

I’ve spent some time trying to trace the locations of our earlier Fulton County area skating rinks via newspaper references, and indications are that many were simply frozen-over millponds, referred to by the name of the mill owner, such as Shriver’s and Maylender’s ponds in Johnstown and the West Mill pond in Gloversville, but there was one very large community rink established specifically for ice skating in Gloversville as early as 1884. The Nov. 15, 1884 Amsterdam Democrat, quoting a dispatch from the Gloversville Intelligencer, stated, “The grand opening of the Gloversville skating rink will take place this evening. The rink is now finished, and under management of Messrs. Peck and Whitaker, it is without doubt one of the finest in the state, and will no doubt be largely patronized.”

Some rinks apparently didn’t exist without occasionally controversy, however. The January 2nd, 1885 Amsterdam Democrat, an apparent critic of happenings in Fulton County, prattled, “The patronage of the Johnstown skating rink, which has run the longest in this section, is slowly but surely decreasing and the managers are not “making their salt.” Johnstown and Gloversville seem to take pleasure in grasping a popular craze for the time being with a tenuous grip, and then when wearied with it, drop it like a hot potato. Combined with dissatisfaction felt with the management of Gloversville’s rink, it too is bound to take a tumble in no distant day.” Johnstown, however, gave it another try the following winter, and in 1886 remained open well into February, before the Feb. 18, 1886 Fulton County Republican reported, “The Johnstown skating rink was permanently closed Saturday last. In the future, the space will be used by Joseph Younglove in connection with his lumber business. It has never been a very paying investment.” Apparently Johnstown’s unpopular rink had for some time been skating on thin ice.

Gloversville’s early rink, however, didn’t ‘tumble’ as the pessimistic Democrat predicted. Rather, it continued, and many newspaper entries over the years occasionally refer to it. It did, however, have some difficulties that weren’t its fault. The mid 1880s saw the rise of the Knights of Labor, and their use of both the ‘strike’ and the ‘boycott’ as tools of persuasion in struggling for higher wages. On Jan. 2, 1886, in a major show of force against Gloversville glove and tannery factory owners, Fulton County’s knights took over the skating rink for what the press called “an immense meeting.” “The meeting was a secret one, but it was decided to hold fast to their demand for higher prices for labor.”

The Republican gave no indication regarding just how this ‘immense’ meeting could have been kept secret. Obviously, no skating took place that night, and very little if any skating could occur after February 5th either, for on that date, the Glens Falls Messenger reported, “The Gloversville skating rink has been closed. It has been boycotted by the Knights because it belongs to one of the glove manufacturers who refuses to pay the men and women what they ask.” Oh well, if one couldn’t skate in Gloversville that winter, there were alternatives, if one could get to them. The Feb. 19 Daily Saratogian, for example, noted, “The Northville skating rink calls many of our young people away to spend winter evenings there,” and the December 29th 1885 Democrat referred to skating contests at Broadalbin’s rink.

Ice skating still maintains its popularity, alongside skiing, snow shoeing, and snowmobiling, and if your children wish to participate, please, please buy them real shoe skates if you can. There are too many ‘cheap skates’ around already.

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