By Peggy Derrick
I have never been on ice skates: I grew up in California and Hawaii, where I learned to swim and water ski. The first time I ever stepped onto frozen water was as a young bride, visiting her new in-laws in Minnesota. When the pond we was walking on began to boom and crack, I was terrified and fled to shore in a panic, abandoning my new husband to his fate. Ice skating was the last thing on my mind.
La Crosse has a new public ice skating rink, in Riverside Park, this winter. With skating rinks in Pogue and Copeland Parks, that makes three free, outdoor places to skate under the stars. But years ago there were many more skating rinks in city parks, and skating was a very popular pastime.
Sonja Henie played a big role in popularizing the sport of ice skating. This Norwegian skating phenomenon won 10 world championships between 1927, at the age of 14, and 1936. She won three successive gold medals in the Winter Olympics of 1928, 1932, and 1936. From there she went on to star in her own ice skating show, “Sonja Henie’s Hollywood Ice Review,” that travelled the world for many years, and starred in Hollywood movies. Henie was a superstar before the word was invented, and she had the business acumen to translate her popularity into a financial empire that included product endorsements like the one she made for these skates.
Called “Sonja Henie Pleasure Skates by Nestor Johnson,” the box cover shows a dimpled, smiling Sonja holding up a pair of these skates with a signed endorsement “The skates to ask for!” Henie was actually responsible for popularizing the more feminine, white skating boots. She won her first world title, in 1927, in white boots worn with a svelte white velvet costume that came to just above her knees. Apparently the audience was both shocked and delighted, and female skaters have had the aura of ballerinas ever since.
When these skates were new, around 1938, the most popular skating place in La Crosse was the “Lagoon” at Pettibone Park. It’s very possible these skates, donated to LCHS in 1985 by Katherine Spence, saw action there or at one of the many other outdoor skating rinks in the city at that time. They show good use, but have been well cared for, and are still stored in their original box, making me think they were a treasured possession.
I hope that lots of kids find ice skates under the Christmas tree, so they can enjoy the rinks and the opportunity to learn a sport that will get them outside in the winter. For now, I’m sticking to my ugly snowshoes, and staying off the ice…just in case.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.