The ABCs of Lowell History: S is for Skating

The ABCs of Lowell History is back for another round. This popular series explores a wide variety of topics in Lowell area history in weekly online articles and is written by volunteers from the Lowell Area Historical Museum.

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S is for Skating

Local roller-skating popularity trends have followed that of national trends. The first roller-skating boom was from around 1880 until 1910. Skating rinks popped up everywhere and skates began being mass produced. In Lowell a skating rink was built by 1884. It stood south of Train’s Opera House, on land now occupied by King Milling Company’s silos.

Roller-skating was for everyone. The skaters skated to the music from an untiring orchestra, and there was even a gallery above, where spectators could also enjoy themselves. Professional skaters traveled around the country and Lowell was able to bring in some of these acts.

Dancing couples

Crazy as it seems today, initially there was some controversy with the sport. Saloon owners were not happy with the trend, they thought the young men ought to be sitting in their saloons instead of spending their time and money at roller rinks. In 1885, the newspaper, in defending roller-skating stated, “Properly managed, the roller rink is all right and roller skating, not carried to excess, is a healthful amusement. The Lowell Rink is patronized by scores of the best people of Lowell and was never more popular than it is today.” It was also written “say what you will, roller skating is a healthful exercise and rare sport. Like eating, it shouldn’t be carried to excess. The proper use and the abuse are two very different things.”

At the Presidential Election of 1884 it was announced that “Managers of the Lowell rink have at great expense, made arrangements to receive by telephone the election news of the night of November 4, and will give an election party on that evening. Good music and a big time expected. Supper will be served at W. J. Medler’s and J.C. Train’s. Election news will be received there as early as at Grand Rapids.”

This original rink later burned and was not rebuilt, as the popularity of the sport had decreased.

Dancers Barb Adams, Ardis Johnston, Marlene Coors

Another brief roller-skating era occurred around 1940. The United Methodist Church opened up their gymnasium for roller-skating for the community during the winter months. It was very popular while it lasted.

The next local experience in roller-skating was accomplished by William (Chris) Christiansen and the American Legion. The Legion wanted a memorial for those who had served in wars. Chris had seen an idea in a magazine stating that a good memorial is one that is living, active, and one that fulfills a community need. The Legion decided on a bowling alley and recreation center. They purchased the old East Ward School on Main Street and work began in 1945.

American Legion owned Skating Rink and Bowling Alley in old East Ward School

Originally eight bowling lanes were built. Some local businesses and individuals donated towards the project, including businesses sponsoring bowling teams. The Legion’s share of the proceeds from the Lowell Showboat also went into the Bowling Alley. Only 10 years after beginning, the Legion Memorial Building was paid for, and income was going into operations and paying for the recreation center to be built on the second floor. The recreation center included the roller-skating center.

The skating rink opened in November of 1958 and the managers, Neil and Pat Johnston, were introduced to Lowell. They performed for the crowd, demonstrating skating, dancing, and acrobatic skating. Pat was a professional skater and instructor. Neil instructed the crowd that “skating was a dress up sport and participants were expected to keep the atmosphere of dignity and good manners in effect and still maintain a place where everyone could have a good time”. The rink would be open at set hours, along with options for group rentals.

Jack Adams with Sammy the Chimp

Jack Adams followed the Johnstons as manager, and worked for 27 years at the rink, now called the “The Legion’s Big Wheel”.

Many people today remember the rink as a social highlight of their childhood. Bands played live music, and Sammy the Roller-Skating Chimp performed for the crowds. Speed Skating contests were popular, as were dance lessons and competitions. Local winners went on to State and then to Nationals. Cindy Adams Kropf is one local champion with a story of lost opportunity. Cindy earned first place in the State Speed Skate competition but was unable to go to Nationals due to her inability to endure long car rides without getting carsick. The National Champion that year for her age group was the skater Cindy had defeated to earn the State title. Cindy’s brother Jerry also represented Lowell well as State Champion one year and going on to take 4th at Nationals.

Jerry Adams, speed skating State Champion, 4th in Nation

Through the years the skating rink was enjoyed by the community. Church youth groups came from neighboring communities for outings at the skating rink. Jack Adams used an American Legion bus to pick up skaters from surrounding communities to skate then brought them home. School classes and senior citizen groups all enjoyed private skating outings.

Later the rink and bowling alley would be sold and run as Rollaway. Currently the owner of the building and land is working through the process to put apartments on the property. The land has seen an elementary school, a living memorial offering recreational opportunities to the community, and possibly housing in the future.

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