(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)
The ice called to Amos Blood. Each winter, as the cold settled in, he would look out from his hometown of Ticonderoga, New York, across the frozen waters of Lake Champlain, to the Vermont shore. Blood would grab his skates, which were just strips of wood with a curl of metal acting as the blade, and with short pieces of cord tie them to his boots.
Then, before anyone else in the area had marred the ice with skate tracks, he would push off for the journey to the far shore, tempting fate again. Being the first across meant that he braved the risk of hitting a patch of thin ice.
“He’d skate across ice that wouldn’t hold up a chipmunk,” said a woman who knew him.
Blood maintained the tradition until after his 76th birthday in the mid-1930s.
We may not go to those extremes, but I suspect there is a bit of Amos Blood in any of us who defy the cold of winter to extract a bit of fun. It’s a long time from November to April, and if we have to brave a little thin ice from time to time, so be it.
Ice can seem a daunting obstacle at times, but for at least as long as there has been a Vermont, people have seen it as an invitation to play.
The earliest account of winter recreation that I’ve run into dates from 1777. The story involves one of the Green Mountain Boys, albeit one whom few have ever heard of. Benjamin Everest apparently watched as a group of Native Americans, probably Mohawks, on the New York shore “prepared for a frolic on the ice; many of them had skates and were very good skaters.”
Where these skates came from is anyone’s guess. These may have been a metal-and-wood design, adopted from Dutch settlers in New York or from Canadians to the north, both of whom had longtime skating cultures. Or perhaps the skates were some Native American creation.
Everest’s tale has a serious side to it: He had been the captive of these Indians for the previous four months. (The story is perhaps suspect because it wasn’t written until 82 years later by a town historian in Addison.) In the story, Everest borrowed a pair of skates, on the pretext of wanting to try this strange sport. He lashed on a pair and wobbled his way onto the ice, never letting on that he was an experienced skater. When he had made his way far from shore, he is said to have made a dash for it and managed to escape.
Everest’s experience notwithstanding, skating didn’t catch on in Vermont until shortly before the Civil War. Skates were sold commercially along the lake from at least as early as 1859. In the years that followed, skating parties became popular on Lake Champlain, and presumably on many other Vermont lakes and ponds. Couples would promenade on skates, and girls would perform spins and jumps while boys roughhoused and played hockey. A bonfire burning on the shore would let skaters warm up and keep the party going.
Some people created a sport they called skate sailing, carrying a small makeshift sail and letting the wind push them across the ice. Others didn’t bother to create a sail. They simply held their coats open wide and let the wind do the rest.
Skating far from shore required a degree of courage — or foolhardiness — as it still does. Town histories are full of people who died falling through the ice. But most people who fell through seem to have made it back to land again, freezing and a bit embarrassed, but alive.
Playing on ice could sometimes take on a more formal appearance. During a five-day event in February 1886, Burlington hosted a winter sports carnival. Thousands of people, from local residents to leaders of East Coast and Quebec society, attended. Organizers set up a rink on the lake ice and illuminated it at night with torches. In addition to recreational skating, the rink was used for ice hockey games, skating races and a “fancy skating tournament.”
But people weren’t the only creatures taking to the ice to compete. Horses were also brought out to strut their stuff. Beginning in the mid-1800s and running into the 1930s, horse racing thrived as a popular sport on Lake Champlain. The races drew entrants from New York, New England and Canada. To deal with the difficult footing, horses were outfitted with rough horseshoes and raced as pairs along long straight tracks, when ice conditions permitted. Otherwise, organizers would lay out a roughly square track.
Initially, riders rode in sleighs, perhaps not wishing to sit atop a horse that might lose its footing at any moment. Over time, the sleighs gave way to sulkies, minimalist carriages with thin rubber tires. The races were run for little more than the adventure. Though some betting no doubt took place, the winner often received no more than a jug of cider and bragging rights.
People looking for something even faster turned to ice boating, which was popular on Lake Champlain from at least the late 1800s. In 1881, the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Republican newspaper reported that “(n)o more exhilarating winter sport is known in this country than ice boating. … Lake Champlain with its splendid sheets of water offers facilities for this sport unsurpassed.”
The newspaper wrote that the boats, some of which could hold at least three passengers, had sustained speeds of 60 mph. The Burlington Ice Yachting Association was founded in 1885, and by 1900, communities all along the lake were home to ice boaters.
But the sport wasn’t for everyone. Some people opted for the decidedly slower-pace activity of ice fishing. The practice dates back centuries. Native Americans would fish through the ice, setting up evergreen branches to protect themselves from wind gusts across the ice. Ice fishing remained a local tradition after the Revolution, but not until the late 19th century did anglers take to ice fishing more for fun than for food.
“Lake Champlain perch fishing through the ice is now in full blast,” reported the Plattsburgh Republican in March 1887. The next winter, the paper commented on a recent spate of frigid weather: “The rumor that Cumberland Bay is frozen to the bottom and that fishermen are quarrying perch out of solid ice lacks confirmation,” the paper quipped.
Since ice fishing requires ice thick enough to support the fishermen and their shanties, no angler was probably around to hear the children of Rouses Point, New York, at the north end of the lake, skate past. They shared Amos Blood’s ambition to be the first in their area to make it across to the other shore, about a mile away, and then back. No doubt Vermont children, taking the same dare, skated the opposite route.
As proof of their deed, those who braved the crossing would bring back a sprig of cedar from the far shore, sort of like Noah’s dove and the olive branch. But since the cedar is an evergreen, it wasn’t a sign of spring. The children knew that many months of smooth skating lay ahead.