Despite the on-again, off-again deep freezes of most Central Illinois winters, local residents have bundled up and headed outdoors to ice-skate since the 1870s, if not earlier.
“Ice-skating was not indulged in very much by grown people until Miller Park Lake was made, but boys skated any place they could find ice,” reminisced an 80-year-old Abraham “Abe” Williams back in 1950.
Those living on the city’s north side sometimes used Sugar Creek, and those on the south had access to several ponds that were once pits dug for the manufacture of clay drainage tile and brick. Today, these ponds include those at Lakeside Country Club, Holiday Park and the old Anglers Club. Spring-fed Houghton’s Lake, today part of State Farm Park, was also a popular spot for those fleet-footed on steel blades.
The first known reference to ice-skating at Miller Park on the city’s west side appears in the Dec. 5, 1895, Pantagraph. “Bloomington has found a new winter sport, and from this time on skating parties will be as common as bobsled parties and coasting parties have been in the past,” noted the newspaper.
That evening “mirth and jollity reigned supreme” as 400 skaters sped around the frozen surface. “The wind was as sharp as a razor, and those who stood on the bank shivered. But the moon rose, round and bright, over the eastern trees, and filled the entire valley with a flood of radiance,” added The Pantagraph. “Fancy skaters were there by the dozens, besides those who slid on their heads. And young ladies were out by the scores, some who could skate and some who couldn’t and some who were afraid to try.”
Skating at this time took place on the newly completed lagoon-like body of water north of the park’s arched stone bridge. When the city completed a second, much-larger lake on the park’s south end in 1902, skating often took place there.
Beginning in the late 1880s, the Bloomington-Normal streetcar company ran a line to Miller Park. On frosty evenings area residents, with clattering skates slung over shoulders, packed the Allin Street “cars.”
Much like dancing, ice-skating offered a socially acceptable setting for young couples to meet and court. No doubt many seasoned readers of The Pantagraph can recall winter evenings long past when they glided across the ice, sweetheart in hand.
Way back in January 1896 a feature in The Daily Leader (a long-defunct competitor to The Pantagraph) painted a picturesque portrait of a “grand skating carnival” with “belles and beaux … skimming on steel beneath the electric light and soft moonbeams.” In the early evening The Daily Leader reporter “mixed with the gay throng, 500 people, men, women and children; boys in knickerbockers, misses in kilts; young men and young women, all ages, all colors, all creeds, all nationalities, all political faiths.”
A day earlier a heavy snowfall had blanketed the city, so 25 men on skates pulled and steadied an improvised scraper to clear a track along the edge of the lake, “and in this the merry-makers glided in groups, one behind the other.”
From time to time through the decades city officials established other skating venues. In the winter of 1928-1929, for instance, the city flooded the old school lot at the corner of Oak and Monroe streets on the city’s near west side. Lobbying hard for the rink was Alderman Val Simshauser, described as “a champion of fun and safety for children.”
Despite the occasional appearance of such facilities, Miller Park remained the community hub for skaters. In mid-January 1942, an estimated 1,000 locals ages 2 to 70 “whizzed” over 10-inch-thick ice on Miller Park’s large lake. “There were children hardly able to walk on solid earth, scampering along on all fours,” noted Pantagraph reporter John Temple. And for those fleeing Old Man Winter, the park pavilion offered a “huge fire in the old-fashioned stove.”
Skating continued at Miller Park for another 60 years. In the early part of this decade, the Bloomington parks department stopped cleaning the lake ice with brooms and a small plow. The decreasing number of skaters and the opening of the indoor Pepsi Ice Center helped to end an outdoor recreation tradition dating back more than a century.