Vintage ice skate in the collection at the Norwood Historical Society


This yarn is not Written for the youth of today. It is dedicated to the kids of the 1890’s, who still remember the high-voltage kick they got from the Old Farmer’s Almanac promise, “There will be skating by Christmas!”

Of course, if the 1944 youngsters can lay down their “comics” for a few minutes or stay out of the “movumpitchers” for an afternoon, they may find in this opus something which will surprise them about how and where the kids of old Norwood used to skate. For in the 1880’s and ’90’s there were selfrmadc recreational programs, bossed by the boys and girls without synthetic interference from the oldsters and carried out with rip-roaring success both winter and summer and with little damage to Property, health or morale.

Now if that Christmas freeze set M a week or so before the great day, the fathers and mothers of this town knew it pronto. The older boys brushed off Santa Claus like snowflakes by going straight t0 headquarters with a blunt request “Father, please gimme a Pair of Barney & Berry skates for Christmas! Willya?” Or it might “e a pair of “Acmes.” Barney & Bçrry were making the skates of the nation in a factory in Spring- field, Mass., and had been for a couple of generations. Where the “Acme“ was made I don’t remember, but it was a good old skate, too.


The 1890 models were the new “clamp” style. They were preceded by the old-fashioned wooden “rocker” type which was popular in the early Colonies and hadn’t been changed much since the Dutch invented it in Holland. The foot rested on a piece of hardwood shaped like the sole of a shoe, in which the runners or blades were firmly set. In the heel was an inverted screw and this was screwed into the shoe heel by turning the skate around and around. Then it was strapped heel and toe. The end of the runner curled up in a graceful flourish. If it caught in anything the skater curled up suddenly m something less graceful. But oldsters will remember many a lad who could skate on these rockers like nobody’s business.

Right here, if any modern kid happens to read this, he will get a jolt. Usually, in the ’90’s, folks brought their rockers to the pond already screwed onto a pair of shoes, which they then put on their feet. Such skaters were considered deep-dyed sissies. And to this day the writer cannot see or wear a pair of shoe-skates without a secret feeling of shame. Early impressions linger.

For you see the lure of the ‘clamp ’ skate was the alleged sense with which they could be donned right on the ice. They had a sliding clamp on both toe and heel which fitted over the shoe sole and bit into the heel. These clamps were wound up with a metal kve, like an alarm clock. Usually the shoe was covered with snow or slush. Likewise the clamp. Putting them on was quite a little job. And if not done correctly and tightly, your skate went zing-g-g! after a few preliminary double-eagles or backward rolls. Most people wore heel straps as a result, and these soon stopped all leg circulation and the feet began to congeal. Hence the big roaring bon-fire which the boys built on the edge of the pond where one could cluster every little while and thaw out while eating an apple or wise-cracking with the girls, who did most of their skating around the fire when they were not being painfully carried, boosted or shoved over the ice by a perspiring and adoring beaux. The 1890 girls were not too athletic and were proud of it. Only the minority could skate or swim. And this was strange, because it was this minority which got their men on any outing. A few of the very pretty or kittenish ones got their men on the ice. But it wasn’t because they could skate. Or at least that is the way it looked to me. I wouldn’t know. I was a woman-hater.

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So let us put our new Barney & Berrys in the green baize bag with our initial embroidered on it in a loud color and sling it over our shoulder — taking the road to Ellis Pond. Taking the road is literally what we did. We walked— and didn’t like it. But there were no autos, no buses, no street cars and only the rotten rich adults had horses and sleighs. It was worse walking home on weary and half- frozen dogs. Later we had the great and space-eating bicycle. But it was seldom practical in winter. But for swimming — boy!

Ellis pond, in the era wc are considering, was owned by the Ellis family. ’ Isaac Ellis’ paper mill stood beside its dam until 1885, when it burned down for the last time. The little lake was open to the public for skating. The Ellis folks used it only for cutting ice to fill the big ice houses on its south shore. They did not consider that the merry throngs of skaters polluted it. Nor did they. What mattered it if a citizen, in the following summer, found a cigar stub in his refrigerator? He merely muttered, “Boys will be boys.” Or a good, stout, black elastic garter? He just sighed, “Girls will be girls.” Now the Winslow Bros. & Smith interests own the shore property of the pond and thus keep its limpid waters pure and chaste by forbidding skating on its surface, so they can own me snore properly or me pona and thus keep its limpid waters pure and chaste by forbidding skating on its surface, so they can do something or other to sheepskins down at the- tannery.

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This was the town’s most popular skating spot, with ice which was always pretty good and a dandy spot against a big boulder on the mouth of Bubbling Brook as it entered Ellis on its west shore. Here was the cheerful, crackling fire to welcome the skaters who had skimmed up from the dam, where one put on his skates.

At that time Willett Pond had not been created by its namesake to drain away a cozy little pond up the brook called Guild’s mill pond. Skating was good here if you wanted a little privacy to learn how before attempting the big time at Ellis.


Among the other smaller ponds were Purgatory down in the dark and beautiful shade of the genuine Christmas trees of ancient Purgatory Swamp, .off of present Everett street. This pond was a honey for skating and swimming. And there was a small baseball diamond on its shore of velvety green grass. Another skating hole was Cock Robbins pond, a spring-fed reservoir up on the hill near Cedar street and used to supply water to the mansion built by Mr. Robbins and now owned by Nick Abdallah. Then there was the Car Shop Dump pond, a puddle filled with drainage water behind the present Brake Shoe Co. plant, originally the New Haven Car Shops.

But the most spectacular skating was down on the Neponset River, when the water was high and the meadows Hooded. Only the hardy lads and lassies “skated down the river.’* Starting at Neponset street, with a south wind at their backs, crowds would skate down as far as Ilvdc Park or even to Milton Lower Falls. But coming back against the wind was a long and jolly chore, with many a rest on the bank to smoke, skylark and catch the breath. Folks boasted about skating down the river.

In comparison with many other towns. Old Norwood’s skating facilities were rather limited. But they were far better than they are today. And they bred some fine figure-eight artists who perhaps may read the above and remember the care-free days that arc no more.


But let s not forget the immortal “Snakeup.” It was a banner skating spot right in the center of town. An easy walk for everybody. “Snakeup,” supposedly an -Indian name although no one knows how or why. occupied what is now the baseball field and lawn of the Elks Club House. Long and narrow, and fed by a big spring which was always green, winter and summer, with thin ice through which somebody was always falling, this skating-hole was where most of us learned that art. There was a stone-wall on its cast edge upon whose sunken rocks we sat to put on our Barney & Berry’s. Here it was that Norwood’s champion girl skater, Miss Grace Tibbetts, who lived over on Chapel street, did her stuff with the star men skaters —the Corbetts, the Samples, Percy Thompson, and many another. Stell Baker, later Mrs. Alec Ambrose, was a close second to Miss Tibbetts, in grace and speed. Perhaps there were a few others but they don’t come to mind at the moment Anyway, they formed a line background for the gangs of hockey players who tore around and tore the crowd which loved to come to Snakeup, with all its disadvantages. It was Snakeup which gave its name to “The Old Frog Pond School,” which was built in the 1860’s., over on Washington street at the corner of present Walnut Avenue, on the site of Dr. Bruce’s late veterinary ‘ hospital. This was the first. private school in South Dedham, the first church vestry, the first kindergarten, the first high school, the first newspaper office and birthplace of the DAILY MESSENGER, and the fust animal hospital and gravestone factory.