Fergus Falls skating rinks have a long, rich tradition

While Carolyn Englehart doesn’t remember the year, the Fergus Falls native does recall her excitement when she opened one particular Christmas present: She got ice skates!

Those skates were well used during the 1950s, she said. Her favorite ice skating spot was the Lake Alice outdoor rink located a few blocks from her home.

Ice skating on Lake Alice, Fergus Falls, January 1933. The St. James Episcopal Church is in the background (far right). Photo used with permission from the collections of the Otter Tail County Historical Society

That rink is one of three outdoor rinks the Fergus Falls Park and Recreation Department maintains. The other rinks are located on Cleveland Avenue and Channing Avenue. All the sites have a rich history – more than a century – that includes masquerade balls, skating races, ice sailing, pick-up hockey games and just plain skating.

“Oh, the memories,” Carolyn said, as she recalled the fun of skating with friends. “We used to pretend we were in a skating show, and we would skate as fancy as we could. We held each others’ hands, and we would skate around the ice. It was fun.”

Lake Alice and the Cleveland rinks each have warming houses manned by city staff. Not only are the houses a place to warm up, they become a gathering place for skaters. Carolyn recalled getting treats there. “Selmer” was the man in charge of the Lake Alice house, she said. He’d tie skates and offer assistance to the skaters.

If the weather was 10 degrees below zero, the warming houses would be closed, she said. But when the weather warmed up, the rinks would be filled with skaters.

There’ve been many special events that’ve drawn people to the outdoor rinks. The first was a masquerade ball held in 1883 at Lake Alice. The Fergus Falls Journal called it an “enjoyable and successful affair” where only those wearing masquerade masks were allowed on the ice. A band played, and the event went off “as merry as merry can be.”

In 1910, Lake Alice was the site of skating races that drew several hundred people. Although there were other races and skating exhibitions, namely the “fancy skating” by Axel Jenson, it was the contest, the last of the evening, between John S. Johnson and T.V. Thomsen that drew the most excitement.

It was around 9 p.m. when the contest started, the Fergus Falls Journal reporter noted. Johnson and Thomsen took opposite ends of the rink. Thomsen had two unfortunate falls during the first lap, giving Johnson an advantage.

It was Johnson who was the victor, but the paper account noted that Thomsen almost overtook his challenger in the end.

People came together for some ice boating/sailing and hockey on Lake Alice in Fergus Falls many years ago. The ice boat on the left is called XPDNC Expedience. Photo used with permission from the collections of the Otter Tail County Historical Society

Move over, racers for ice sailing. Pictures from the early 1900s show sails on streamlined crafts which glided across the ice.

Hockey has been played at all three rinks, although Cleveland and Channing have plywood boards and rinks shaped like those typically seen at hockey arenas.

In 1931, the newspaper highlighted a story on the game.

“As everyone knows, ice hockey is the fastest game there is and is also fascinating, exciting and enjoyable to watch,” the account said. “This year we have a hockey rink on Lake Alice kept in good condition and with a powerful light at either end which enables us to play hockey in the evenings. Fergus Falls with its wealth of good skaters is an admirable field for the development of hockey and for that purpose a meeting will be held at the hockey rink tonight and all skaters are urged to be there with their skates and hockey clubs to assist in the formation of hockey teams and for the promotion and betterment of healthy outdoor sports.”

Apparently, for some, the rink and warming house hours weren’t long enough. In 1950, three students from Madison Elementary School brought a roll of soft cardboard carrying the names of 165 children to Park Superintendent A. T. Van Dyk. The petition asked that the Grotto Lake Skating Rink be kept open until 10 o’clock every night. The rink closed at 9 p.m.

Park board members met with the children and agreed to keep the rink open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, but members felt grade school children should be in bed shortly after 9 when there was school the next day.

“It is believed that most parents prefer to have their children home earlier than 10 o’clock,” the news account stated.

Carolyn Englehart stands next to one of Fergus Falls’ outdoor rinks. Although the rink isn’t flooded and ready for use quite yet, city crews are ready to maintain it once temperatures are cold enough to keep the rink frozen. This rink is located on Channing Avenue near the Broen Memorial Home, which stands in the background. Photo by Carol Stender

The outdoor rinks usually open after the first of the year, but Carolyn recalled skating one Thanksgiving since Lake Alice had iced over.

Fergus Falls’ indoor ice arena had been located at the Otter Tail County fairgrounds. Eight years ago the city built a new arena located near the public high school. Many skaters use the indoor arena, Steve Plaza said. The ice is maintained with a zamboni, and the climate is controlled. Even though temperatures might be subzero with windchill outdoors, the conditions are nicer for skating indoors.

There is open skating at the indoor rink Monday through Thursday from 1:30 to 3 p.m. and Sunday night from 6 to 7:30 p.m. There is no charge for open skate.

The Lake Alice rink is open after the first of the year, with the warming house open and manned Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Cleveland Rink is open from 3:30 to 8 p.m. school days and from noon to 8 p.m. on non-school days.

Lights at the Channing rink turn off at 9 p.m.

Care of the outdoor rinks starts when temperatures reach 32 degrees, Plaza said. The rinks are flooded, using a firehose. To start, water is put on the rinks every day for a week. Then the city crews put additional water on the ice three to four times a week. The additional water helps  smooth the surface.

The outdoor rinks remain popular. Last year 1,612 people used the Cleveland rink. “There was a lot of hockey going on there,” Plaza said.

Lake Alice had 825 people skating at the rink during the times when the warming house was open. That included the 605 people who skated at the lake during the town’s winter carnival.

And there were more. Those numbers were counted when city staff manned the warming houses and didn’t account for those skating when the houses were closed.

The ice seemed smooth and clear when Carolyn skated with her friends, she said.

Her skates endured many years of use and were even used by her son, but he painted them black, she said.

The skating memories made Carolyn wistful for that time she skated with friends.

“If I could try on a pair of skates, I would give it a try,” she said. “But I don’t know how my back or hips would handle it.”

But, oh, what great memories of being with friends outdoors.