Rockers In Richmond: Virginia's Early Skating History


Most accounts of early American skating history focus on New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts and Illinois but I was able to find a couple of wonderful sources that explored early accounts of ice skating in the Old Dominion state. Keeping in mind that in the eighteenth century the winters would have been much chillier than they may be today, it really comes as no surprise that as far back as 1766, people were taking to the ice in Virginia. Advertisements from the October 26 and November 2 editions of that year's "Virginia Gazette" indicated that ice skates (with or without leather) were sold at Sarah Pitt's shop in Williamsburg and at Balfour and Barraud's in Norfolk. Other settlers in the state ordered in ice skates from England.

Jane Carson's 1965 book "Colonial Virginians At Play" tells us, "Travelers seldom commented on skating - perhaps because they usually visited Virginia in warm weather. But [Philip Vickers] Fithian spent the winter, and when millponds in the Northern Neck froze over, he joined neighbourhood groups who 'diverted' themselves 'on the ice', either with skates or without them. [William] Byrd's friends, too, played on the ice at Westover and esxperienced some of the hazards of the sport in this climate. On an unusually cold day in December of 1709 he entertained a group of house guests with billiards and reading in the morning and more billiards after dinner until they lost one of the balls. Then they walked the plantation and 'took a slide on the ice.' The following morning they took a walk and 'slid on skates', notwithstanding there was a thaw. In the evening they 'took another walk and gave Mr. Isham Randolph two bits to venture on the ice. He ventured and the ice broke with him and took him up to mid-leg.'"

Gaines Whitley taking a break from ice skating. Photo courtesy Virginia Tech archives.

In the nineteenth century, Lottie Shipman wrote of the joys of winter ice skating in Richmond, Virginia thusly: "Over the ice with a glide, Skimming the frozen expanse, Rapidly darting aside, Joining the slippery dance; Gracefully carving a line. Dashing away out of sight, Cutting a fancy design; Such is the skater's delight." The January 24, 1852 edition of "The Daily Dispatch" noted the development of skating in the state from recreational to bona fide 'fancy' skating: "Some who were quite awkward a short time since, are not only masters of both high and low Dutch, but are making bold efforts at cutting their names on the ice!"

Cadets skating on a pond at Virginia Tech University, circa 1920.  Photo courtesy Virginia Tech Archives.

Two years later, "The Richmond Mail" noted the efficacy of two 'colored' skaters (their word, not mine), named Patrick Brown and George Tate, who competed in a one mile speed skating race on the canal on the Elmira. The winning skater won twenty dollars; those betting on the race won five hundred. By the 1870's, an outdoor skating rink had been built in Richmond, Virginia and fancy dress skating parties with a hired brass band were all the rage. However, advertisements from "The Daily State Journal" seem to indicate more often than not, this rink was open to 'gentlemen only'.  Having never once hosted the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Virginia may not be a state we often associate with figure skating... but that's not to say it isn't one without a skating history.

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