Ice skating a popular pastime for Bemidji

Phil Wattles and Milo Meland skating in the 1950s at the municipal sports arena on America Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

Editor’s note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit

Whether it was horse racing or ice skating races, the early populace of Bemidji loved to watch the competitions and savor the excitement. Some even bet on the outcome.

In 1901, the Baptie brothers -- William, Norval and Jack -- operated a first-class skating rink on Lake Bemidji near the dock at the foot of Third Street. Hundreds of people turned out for the races on Lake Bemidji. One of the brothers, Norval, was eager to take on all comers. Over the next few years, he was acknowledged as the champion in the one-quarter, one-half and one-mile records of the world. Norval also set records for broad jumping on skates, barrel jumping, skating backwards and skating on stilts. Norval was a pioneer in figure skating and is credited with beginning the ice show.

Exhibitions and races drew many to the area. Miss Minnie Cummings, the world champion figure skater, gave an exhibition accompanied by music from the Bemidji band on Christmas in 1901. In February 1902, about 60 costumed skaters and 200 spectators were present at the masquerade carnival given at the ice rink. Prizes were awarded for the most costumed and best comic-costumed skaters.

The Baptie family moved from Bemidji back to Bathgate, N.D., in about 1902, and citizens expressed regret that no one continued to operate a rink. A citizen claimed that skating afforded an amusing pastime and helped keep many young men and boys out of the local saloons.


In 1906, C. A. Parker and E. E. Beck formed a partnership and put a slightly larger rink on the lake at the same location. The place had electric lights and a warming room. Races and the masquerade took place once again. In 1908, W. B. McLachlan, who owned the large launch, "North Star," on Lake Bemidji, prepared an excellent skating rink on the ice at the end of Third Street between the city dock and the boat house. McLachlan charged five and ten cents for admission. He kept a comfortable warming house for the skaters and a place to check their skates or other articles.

The first mention of a small hockey rink was in 1912. Some interest was shown, but then the popularity of a rink on Lake Bemidji waned. It was not until 1916 when A. P. White of Northern National Bank urged the City Council to construct a warming house and to maintain a new rink on Lake Bemidji that any action followed. The Crookston Lumber Company contributed the lumber for the warming house. The Carnival Association was formed in 1916 and spearheaded the care of the skating rink and a toboggan slide at the end of 10th Street. The toboggan slide proved to be so popular that the skating rink at the end of Third Street was largely ignored. After a few years, the slide proved to be too dangerous and when neighbors complained about noise, the slide was dismantled. Maintenance of a municipal rink was discontinued as well.

A few years later, a skating rink was built as part of the work of the recreation committee of the Red Cross. About 50 men and boys showed up to build the rink at the east end of 10th Street in time for Christmas in 1920. The committee also built several toboggan slides at the foot of Eighth, Ninth and 10th Streets along Lake Boulevard with longer chutes extending out onto the ice of Lake Bemidji.

After the first Bemidji High School between Sixth and Seventh Street on America Avenue burned in 1921, Mrs. Tom Smart set about establishing a rink on the open block. The Bemidji Park Board took over its operation in 1923. Hundreds of skaters also took advantage of the good ice on Lake Bemidji near Diamond Point.

In June 1935, the City Council moved to abandon the airport hangar project and to use the $1,500 worth of cut rough lumber to build an indoor skating, hockey and curling rink as a works relief project on the former Bemidji High School site. J. H. Wallin reported that the Curling Club would contribute $2,000 cash toward the construction of the rink and that the Park Board would stand the cost of maintenance. The sports arena opened its doors for the Christmas season of 1935.

The Fenson sisters, Norma and Marion, gained considerable fame as quality figure skaters. Marion auditioned for the Ice Follies as a 10-year-old ice skating prodigy. Carol Langhout performed with the Shipstad-Johnson Ice Follies in the 1950s, and the Bemidji Figure Skating Club produced many outstanding skaters.

After a winter of particularly heavy snow, the roof over the skaters' section caved in on Jan 4, 1949. It was a holiday for the students from St. Philip's School, but not for the public school. Fortunately, there were few skaters on the ice when the sawdust, wires, and rafters tumbled down on the ice. No one was seriously injured. The council decided to maintain the skating rink as an open one. Al Lortie sharpened skates and rented out skates for those who didn’t have any of their own. Bill Spencer, the caretaker, kept the wood fire going in the old warming house. The smell of scorched mittens and wood smoke is a common memory for the children who skated there after school and on weekends.


After a winter with heavy snow, a portion of the roof of Bemidji’s sports arena caved in on Jan 4, 1949. No one was seriously injured. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

Many will remember their favorite skating rinks. Nymore had its own, and in 1938, the City Council vowed to build a skating rink and recreational building in Nymore. In 1971, an addition was put on the Nymore warming house and the newspapers heaped praise on the new and improved building. Some will remember rinks at the Mississippi Avenue playground, another near the high school on 18th Street, and one at Cameron Park.

By 1967, there was much discussion about whether to update the municipal sports arena at Seventh and America or whether to tear it down and build a new sports facility. Ultimately, it was torn down and replaced by the Halvor Reise Rink on the north end of town.

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