LOOKBACK: Ice skaters used to flock to Cedar
Winter fun on river offered where Main Street ended downtown
By Tim Ruzek, Cedar River Watershed District
On a beautiful January evening in 1908, about 300 people laced up ice skates and stepped onto the frozen Cedar River on the edge of downtown Austin.
As they skated, a band wearing fur coats, caps and gloves played music from a corner of a rink set up on the river.
“Every light was turned on and the strains of the band, combined with the laughter of the crowd, made the place one of pleasure and enjoyment,” wrote the Austin Daily Herald in 1908.
Local businessman Harry Furtney had created the skating rink a few years earlier on part of the Cedar River, just north of where Main Street used to end downtown. Fencing around the rink allowed him to collect admission fees.
“Skaters who had not been out for years were down to enjoy themselves,” the article stated. “A great many who came to skate spent the time in sitting down and getting up.”
For many decades — dating back at least to the 1860s — locals headed to the Cedar River during winter to skate on the backwater areas created by the downtown dam. This area was referred to as Lake Lincoln in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
In fact, George A. Hormel, founder of today’s Hormel Foods Corp., enjoyed skating on Lake Lincoln in the 1890s. In his autobiography, “The Open Road,” Hormel described spending a Sunday afternoon skating with his fiancee Lillian on the Cedar River a day before opening his new plant along the river.
“At sundown, we crossed the river for her first inspection of the plant,” Hormel wrote. “It was a thrilling moment.”
Furtney’s rink came about in the early 1900s in the same Lake Lincoln area of the Cedar River. Today, this area is much different near the city pool. Back then, this stretch of river was referred to as “swamp land,” featuring several channels, backwater areas and wooded islands.
This site underwent massive changes from about 1915 to the 1920s when the city and state dredged and filled these areas to create Horace Austin State Park and a more lake-shaped waterbody that today is Austin Mill Pond.
Prior to all that, though, Austin’s Lake Lincoln swamp land was a winter escape for locals.
EARLY YEARS OF SKATING ON THE FROZEN CEDAR
Back in 1867, the Mower County Register reported Austin’s skating season had started and “every day can be seen persons of all ages enjoying this most healthful of exercises.”
“The Cedar River, with the aid of the ice king, furnishes us with skating rinks that even Chicago or St. Paul might envy. We know, for we have been there on skates, too,” the Register wrote.
Being the envy of others also apparently went toward those in California. Two articles in the Herald from December 1905 referred to Californians likely being envious of Austin’s ice skating offerings.
“Austinites who are in California may enjoy looking at roses in winter but no one could wish to look on a prettier winter picture than Lake Lincoln with hundreds of boys and girls gliding over its glassy surface,” the Herald wrote.
Another article stated, “Our California friends will probably turn green with envy when they learn that the old Cedar is frozen and black with skaters, who look cozy and warm in furs and mittens. You can’t have our cake and eat it.”
Each winter in the late 1800s, Austin newspapers — a handful of them in that era — reported ice-skating conditions, especially at Lake Lincoln.
In December 1876, the skating rink was “nicely arranged” with a high fence surrounded the ice, which was going to be kept clean and in good condition at all times. Eight years later, an article reported “young kids of this city” were starting a skating rink at the city pound (not clear where this was located).
Ice skating seemed to pick up in popularity by the 1890s based on the number of newspaper articles and special events that offered live music and/or an illuminated rink at night.
In late December 1891, for example, Andrew’s Band provided “fine music” during night skating at Lincoln Park.
“The skating rinks and toboggan slides were in good order and everything was well lighted up by electric lights,” the Mower County Transcript wrote. “There was just enough ozone in the air to put everyone in good spirits.”
River ice reports varied from “the ice on Lake Lincoln rink was in splendid condition” in December 1895 to a December 1896 report that “snow has been cleared away on the skating rink at the head of Main Street. Skating is fine.”
In late November 1895, a newspaper reported someone cleaning snow off Lake Lincoln at the head of Main Street “getting ready for a skating rink tomorrow.”
FURTNEY’S RIVER RINK BEGINS
On Dec. 1, 1905, local news reported that two young men — Furtney and Hilker — were building a “cozy little dressing room on the bank of the river at the head of Main Street.”
The duo was working to open a skating rink and maintain it for the 1905–06 winter season. Local news proclaimed the rink as “brilliantly lit each night by two arc lamps” using electricity.
During the previous winter in 1904, the city apparently was offering a skating rink at the same location and involved the city flooding the rink overnight to create new ice.
With the business venture of Furtney and Hilker, though, the rink “promises to be a popular place this winter.”
“The ice will be kept in perfect condition!” a news article stated, adding that the river had frozen 2 inches thick and was “in fine shape.”
After two seasons in business, Furtney announced plans in October 1907 to bring back the skating rink at the head of Main Street along with a toboggan slide that dumped out onto Lake Lincoln at the head of Main Street.
That year, the Herald also reported on Furtney pleading to police for help with “a way to defeat the small boy” who was finding a way to skate without paying his rink’s 10-cent fee. Knowing it was free to go on the rink without skates, the boy was pushing his skates under the fence and walking through the gate to see a friend before grabbing his skates and enjoying “the fine skating.”
That winter in January 1908, the Herald wrote about Furtney getting a band for a Wednesday night skate at the rink.
“There will be fun for all gliding over the ice to the music of the band or zipping down the slide at lightning speed,” the Herald wrote. “Mr. Furtney has gone to considerable expense to give our young people an enjoyable place for healthy exercise, and he should receive a liberal patronage.”
The following 1908–1909 season, Furtney partnered with Dan Guinney to open the ice skating rink at Furtney’s old stand at Main Street’s north end, even offering season tickets for sale.
“This will ensure the lovers of the sport a fine place where they may enjoy this winter pastime and also receive courteous treatment and the best of service,” a newspaper proclaimed.
Austin’s historic flooding in June 1908, however, had washed Furtney’s ice rink house more than a quarter mile downstream, where it remained for months. Furtney, Guinney and “a lot of boys” eventually got the house on ice in early December 1908 and slid it back to its original spot.
After all that work, Furtney & Guinney’s rink experienced lackluster attendance that 1908–1909 winter season.
“We have been at quite an expense in keeping the skating rink open this winter,” the duo wrote in a “Notice to Skaters” in the Herald’s Jan. 19, 1909, edition, “and the lack of interest and small attendance by those holding season tickets leads us to believe that our efforts are no longer appreciated.”
“We will keep the rink open this week, and, if we find that those holding season tickets do not care to use the rink any more, we will close thereafter for the season,” they wrote.
That was the last winter for Furtney’s rink. In summer 1909, Furtney and his family moved to Rochester for his work as a mason. He later moved to Arizona.
POST-FURTNEY SKATING DOWNTOWN
Skating near downtown continued on after Furtney but not always on the river, which was changed dramatically with the creation of Horace Austin State Park along the south and west sides of today’s Austin Mill Pond.
In late December 1920, the Mower County News wrote the headline, “Skating danger will be eliminated with new land rink.”
Lowering and raising of the Cedar River at the Hormel Mill (located on the east side of the river at today’s downtown dam) was causing cracks in the river’s ice.
The following winter (December 1921), however, the city took the skating rink back to the Cedar River’s ice near the state the park’s bathing beach (today’s southwest corner of Mill Pond).
“A lighted circular area about 200 feet across” was created on the river with electric lights hung by the city engineer’s department, the Herald reported.
“Instead of flooding a portion of the park for a skating rink, the river will be used this year for the purpose,” the Herald wrote. “Fourteen poles have been set in the ice to suspend a string of lights about 20 feet above the ice. Reflectors will be placed behind the lights to concentrate the illumination on the rink.”
That same 1921–22 winter, the Mower County News headline called for skaters: “C’mon skating kids, the river is frozen over.”
Every day since the Cedar’s ice had been frozen to a safe depth, the article wrote, Austin kids had congregated on the ice with “every conceivable form and shape of sleds, skates, skis, etc.” The snow was scraped off the 4-inch-deep ice, allowing kids to enjoy “sport-skating” all day.
“It will not be long before the older generation will be ‘piking’ off with the kids to join them in their games of hockey. Last year saw as many grown-ups on the ice as youngsters,” Mower County News wrote.
A January 1922 edition of the Herald described the park’s playground being a winter “Coney Island” based on the number of people.
“It was just impossible to judge how many were there with skates on,” the Herald wrote.
A recent blizzard had covered the skating rink’s ice for about two days but the “kids couldn’t stand for that so immediately got busy and cleaned it off,” the article says. “It was only a matter of a few hours until the rink was as popular as it was before the snow. One lone boy was done at the rink with skates on pushing a street cleaner’s cart taking off the loose snow that was left on the ice.”
RIVER SKATING PROVES RISKY AT TIMES, LEADS TO LAND RINK
Skating on the Cedar River — as always is the threat with frozen waterways, especially rivers with their currents — proved dangerous at times, particularly away from the Lake Lincoln skating rink.
The Herald ran a headline on Nov. 19, 1900, titled “”TREACHEROUS ICE — Small boys have narrow escapes from drowning.” The article reported several “narrow escapes” of boys skating upriver from downtown.
“The ice is very unsafe and parents should order their children to keep off until colder weather,” the Herald wrote.
In early December 1906, a 13-year-old boy was skating on the Cedar River on the city’s north edge when he and a few friends decided to skate further upriver. The boys had reached a back bend of the river — just west of today’s Hormel Foods plant — when the 13-year-old, who was leading the group, hit thin ice and went under.
A couple living nearby went out in a boat, with another couple getting in a separate boat to try to help the boy, the son of an Austin train conductor. The boy was pulled out after efforts to drag the river found him in 15 feet of water. Attempts were made to revive him for two hours but to no avail.
The Minneapolis Tribune wrote about the boy’s death, stating that he was the fourth person to drown at nearly the same spot of the Cedar River in the past 20 years.
At the start of the 1910–11 winter season, the Herald — which at the time was located near the Lake Lincoln skating are the head of Main Street — wrote an article titled “Dangers of Skating” following the death of a 22-year-old man, who fell through the ice at Albert Lea’s Fountain Lake while skating.
“We noticed boys and girls skating on the Cedar River today,” the Herald wrote in November 1910. “‘It’s perfectly safe,’ we were told when we warned some of the youngsters of the danger. The ice is not safe. While in places it may measure several inches in thickness, there are places where the river is not frozen over. Places that were covered with ice Friday are open water today. The Cedar River is not safe for skating until we have had weather considerably colder than we have had this fall.”
Later that same month, the Herald ran another article, “Keep off the ice,” stating that “weather conditions make skating on the river a great danger.” Herald staff wrote that they felt required to continue publishing warnings against river skating.
“We met a bunch of happy, red-cheeked girls with skates over their shoulders on their way to the river to skate,” the Herald wrote. “They were going there with the consent of their mothers for it was certain that they never could have left home with their skates without being seen. Yet, these happy girls took great chances. We were glad when they left the ice.”
At that time, 5 inches of ice had been cut from the river (considered thick and strong enough to hold up a horse) but it was cut “far from the moving streams,” the Herald wrote. The Cedar River is a “treacherous stream. Its waters fed by springs is considerably above the freezing point and only the surface is yet frozen.”
“We have seen men crossing the river on the ice in the morning and, before night, the river had melted it away.”
“The Cedar River each year gets its toll of human life,” the Herald wrote in 1910. “South of us, five lives of skaters have been taken this fall, and, here in Austin, it will yet claim its toll unless the boys and girls are compelled to keep off until the ice is safe.”
The previous evening a story went around town that three boys had drowned in the Cedar River at Austin’s Lafayette Park. “It spread rapidly and many of our people went to be believing it was true.” That story was false.
During the 1950s, Austin Mill Pond started experiencing other challenges to its winter ice with unsafe softening happening from the city’s storm sewer draining into the river from the west and the Hormel plant discharging warm warmer on the east side.
In 1954, the Herald reported on New Year’s Eve that there was good ice skating and tobogganing in Austin’s parks, with all rinks in good shape except on the Cedar River at Austin Mill Pond. The Herald warned children to stay off the ice there.
In January 1955, the Herald’s front page ran a photo of softened ice on the Cedar River at Austin Mill Pond due to the city storm sewer.
By December 1956, the Hormel plant’s emission of warm water into the Cedar River at Austin Mill Pond was creating unsafe ice conditions for skating. The Herald ran photos titled “Tradition broken” showing the customary skating rink moved upriver from Mill Pond. It was placed “in front of the northwest gate of Geo. A. Hormel & Co.”
“Warm currents of water from the plant prompted the move as a safety measure,” the Herald wrote. “A new warming house, lights and supervision are provided.”
The Herald wrote at that time that “skating and hockey rinks throughout the city” were being opened by Austin Park & Rec. Some of the sites included Decker Acres, Crane Addition on North Wildwood, Northeast Playgrounds, Galloway Park, Sterling Playgrounds, Athletic Field and Driesner Park — areas that were flooded and cleaned but not supervised.
Supervised areas included the frozen-water skating areas on East Side Lake (created in the 1930s by damming Dobbins Creek) and the lagoon below Skinners Hill along with the land-based rink at Kaufman Park in southeast Austin.
In 1963, Austin opened the ice skating season at two rinks — Wescott Athletic Field on the west side and Kaufman Park on the east. The city, however, still opened rinks on the local waterways, including East Side Lake and the Skinners Hill lagoon.
At the time, the city also offered eight neighborhood rinks but with no warming facilities or supervision, including at Galloway Park; Banfield School; Neveln School; Northwest Park; North Driesner Park; Decker Acres Playground; Crane Playground; and Wildwood Park.
At Wildwood (located just north of Interstate 90’s bridges over the Cedar River), a backwash area of the river was used for skating but not created by the city until the ice was at least 6 inches thick.
In the 1970s, Austin built Riverside Arena to offer its first indoor hockey and skating rink.
Today, Austin has two indoor ice rinks at Riverside Arena and Packer Arena. Outdoor skating rinks are offered by Austin Parks & Recreation at two park locations: Galloway Park on the west side and Kaufman Park on the east.