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roller skates / rink

A frame shaped like the sole of a shoe, furnished with a metallic runner, or sometimes with small wheels, and made to be fastened under the foot, for moving rapidly on ice, or other smooth surfaces. — Webster, 1882

A beginner on roller skates, like an oyster, goes down easily. – The De Smet News, 1885.

Roller skating was all the rage in the 1880s, and De Smet had a roller skating rink by March 1883. It was located in Block 1, Lot 7, facing south on Second Street and just to the west of the alley behind Couse Hardware. Laura and Carrie Ingalls walked past it when going to and from school during winters spent in Pa’s building in town. The rink remained in operation until 1904, when the space was turned into a bowling alley. The rink’s location is shown in the photograph; the large building at the right is Couse Hardware, the building houses Ward’s Store and Bakery today. The photo was taken from Calumet, looking west on Second Street.

Roller skates had wooden or metal sole-plates, which attached to a skater’s shoes with strap and/or clamps. Varying in cost and quality, they were most often adjustable, which made borrowing a pair easy. Wheels were usually wooden, as was the skating rink floor. The advertisement shown appeared in Youth’s Companion many times in 1885.

Skating and the skating rink in De Smet don’t appear in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s published Little House books, but she included a story in her Pioneer Girl memoir. She wrote that she and other students once skipped school to go skating, but Laura confessed that was where she had been, once confronted by her teacher, Mr. Owen.

De Smet’s skating rink was the site of many events in the early years of the town, being both large and convenient. It was used for Grand Army of the Republic balls, holiday masquerade balls, plays, concerts, dances, and the space served as De Smet National Guard’s armory in the 1880s. Open on evenings and Saturday afternoons, skaters often skated to music performed by the De Smet band. Mrs. Jarley’s Wax works was presented there (see Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 19, “Whirl of Gaiety”) as was at least one minstrel show (see also Chapter 21, “The Madcap Days”). It was the site of many skating races. Little House characters Mary Power and her brother Charley were both excellent skaters, winning mile races and egg races with ease.

Dangers of Roller-Skating. Fairly soon after the roller-skating rink opened in De Smet, this bit of information appeared in print, and no doubt had more than a few mothers telling their daughters a thing or two:

When roller-skating was first introduced, we looked on it with much favor. We put on skates ourselves, and often accompanied ladies to the hall. They, we and our associates, enjoyed the exercise much. In some respects roller-skating seemed fully equal to skating on ice, in its graceful and complicated movements, and vastly superior in its freedom from the interruptions of snow and rain and wind and cold. We thought it furnished a fine combination of mental relaxation, physical exercise and social life. We saw in it a cheap and agreeable diversion for the people, free, we supposed, from the temptations which everywhere beset the young.

But Americans overdo many things, in pleasure, work, politics and religion. If the apostolic injunction, “Let your moderation be known unto all men,” were one of the Ten Commandments, we should be a nation of breakers of the Decalogue. Roller-skating became “a craze.” It was pursued as if it were the purpose of life; every night in the week, several hours at a time, in crowded rinks, with vitiated air and impalpable dust.

That moderately indulged in and duly regulated it would be healthful, and in many ways helpful for those already vigorous, we still believe. But the fruits of the present methods of pursuing the amusement are often evil.

The following, from the Medical Record, written by Julia Townsend Hill, M.D., is worthy of attention: “Sir: I am very much interested in this subject of roller-skating for girls, especially because I have from thirty to forty girls under my care for physical training and treatment. With the utmost care as to time and amount, I find it unsatisfactory. it seems to bring out any latent predisposition to disease. I have been compelled to forbid those who had the slightest tendency to kidney or heart trouble, in fact, any organic trouble, indulging in the sport. A case of anemia, the most intractable one I ever had to deal with, I am sure was caused by skating excessively.” Other physicians give a similar testimony.

All recreations may have their dangers if carried to excess. This new and popular one, like all others, needs to be used more wisely and conscientiously. [Image above adapted from one in Harper’s Young People, February 24, 1885.]


roller skates (PG)
     roller skating rink (PG)