Ice skating and hockey became popular winter pastimes in Wellington County during the 1880s and 1890s when towns and villages erected arenas that protected the ice surfaces from sun and precipitation.
Skating, of course, goes back long before that. Rivers and streams provided surfaces that varied greatly in evenness, and required to be cleared of snow. And there was an added risk of thin ice and unexpected dunking in frigid water. The construction of arenas led to a greater degree of formal organization of wintertime activities.
The first generation of arenas were very crude affairs. They provided a roof and walls to keep the elements out and to provide shelter from the sun during thaws. Accommodation for spectators was uncomfortable, and the interiors were dark and gloomy.
The ice, of course, was natural. That meant that the arenas were rarely usable before Christmas, and organized hockey typically began about New Year’s.
Few, if any of the early arenas were municipal structures, as they are today. Instead, most were organized as limited companies, with shares purchased and owned by supporters of winter sports. The shareholders did not expect any dividends. The arena companies considered it a successful year when they broke even.
Obviously, managers of the arenas always sought new ways to increase their revenue.
In 1898, they welcomed a fad that spread across Wellington County and adjoining areas: speed skating. Several of Ontario’s fastest people on skates toured the area, participating in competitions put on by the managers of the various arenas. The purses offered could be considerable, up to $25, worth at least 75 or 80 times that when compared to the present-day wages and the purchasing power of the 2011 dollar.
The top skaters should be considered as professionals. They earned sufficient money over the winter season to support themselves for the rest of the year.
The arenas, to afford the substantial prizes, needed to pack their venues with paying spectators, and they usually managed to do so during the 1898 season, at 10 and 15 cents per head. There was also considerable gambling associated with the races, which added greatly to the interest in the races, and especially so when a well-known skater took on a local favourite.
One of the skaters appearing frequently during the winter of 1898 was a Toronto native with the improbable name of Harley Davidson. He was also an accomplished figure skater, touring as a duo with his sister, who always billed herself as “Miss Davidson.”
The Davidsons appeared at the Fergus arena on Wednesday, Feb. 9 of 1898. They were, apparently, well known as performers, because they drew an overflow audience for their show. They danced solo pieces and as a couple. The speed skating race was an addition to the Fergus program, with Harley Davidson taking on local champion James Forrester. The competition consisted of three heats, two of which were won by Forrester.
One of the problems with the race was that the ice was very soft due to a sustained mild spell. Poor ice was a constant danger to the speed skaters, potentially causing serious injury. Two nights after the Fergus race there were injuries to one of the competitors during a race at the Orangeville arena.
On Feb. 18, Forrester and Davidson agreed to a rematch at Fergus. The initial matchup had pleased both the arena management and the public. Davidson, anxious to restore his reputation, was determined to win, and took the race more seriously than he did the initial one.
Reports suggest that considerable sums were on the line. Many people considered Forrester’s first win as something of a fluke, and expected Davidson, who billed himself as a professional skater, to win handily. Others backed the local boy.
The skaters agreed to a match consisting of three one-mile heats around the arena. John Black, the Fergus grain dealer, acted as referee.
Davidson immediately took the lead in the first heat, but Forrester paced him closely until the fourth lap, when he tripped on a patch of bad ice. He quickly regained his feet, but could not catch Davidson, who won with a time of three minutes and sixteen seconds.
The second heat began as a repeat of the first, but this time Davidson tripped up on the bad ice near the end of the race. Forrester shot past him to win. The third heat was a repeat of the first, with Forrester falling on the seventh lap. Davidson won the match, but Forrester impressed everyone with his close pursuit of the professional skater.
By the end of the season every town had its local favourite speed skater.
In Elora, the champion was Tom Hillis. He won several races that season and quickly built up a considerable following. His big race in 1898 was a match with D.A. Galloway, of Galt.
That race, in Galt’s brand new arena, came off on Feb. 26 before a large Saturday afternoon crowd. Organizers offered each of the racers $25 each to appear, and they also shared 40% of the gate.
There was only a single heat, five miles in length. The ice was good that day and there were no falls or missteps. Hillis lost, but only by about 15 yards. His supporters from Elora, about 40 in number, were avid gamblers. They lost about $350, in addition to their travel expenses. More than 600 spectators packed the Galt arena that afternoon.
Speed skating competitions encouraged other activities in the arenas. Several high schools put together relay teams of their best and fastest skaters. On Feb. 25, four Fergus high school students, Bud Anderson, W.J. Anderson, Bob Nixon, and Vic Ready, took on a foursome from the Elora high school at the Elora arena.
A large Friday-night crowd cheered on their favourites. It was a four-mile race, with each skater taking a one-mile turn. Fergus fans were mute when it was over. Elora won by an eight-lap margin. The Elora boys repeated their victory, but by a much smaller margin, in the rematch a week later.
The speed skating races that season were immensely popular, typically outdrawing hockey games by a margin of two to one, and sometimes more. Still, hockey retained its audience, and every town with an arena had at least one team in league play. Even small centres, such as Grand Valley, had a junior and senior team in regional leagues.
One innovation of 1898 was a girls’ league, and their games added to the revenues of the small-town arenas. Not every town supported a girls team, and consequently the league covered a much larger area than the men’s leagues. The teams seem to have had some difficulty sustaining themselves, and consequently the makeup of the league could change significantly from year to year.
Orangeville organized a women’s team in 1897, which reformed for the 1898 season. Its first game that year, on Feb. 9 at Collingwood, resulted in a bad loss for the team, but the Collingwood team was older and more practiced, having been formed in 1895.
The return match also produced a victory for Collingood, but by a closer margin of 3-1. The crowd at the Orangeville arena, numbering almost 300, delighted the teams, but was far short of the numbers that men’s hockey and speed skating drew to the arenas.
It seems that speed skating, though continuing in subsequent years, never achieved the popularity it enjoyed during the winter of 1898. Women’s hockey persisted, but never could attract either players or spectators at the levels enjoyed by the men’s leagues.
The situation was quite the reverse of that of women’s baseball, which became far more popular than the men’s game in the middle part of the 20th century.