SKATING ON THE LAWN By Mel Robertson
Anyone looking at the lawn behind no 12 King Street East in Burford on a winter's night in 1991 will see a level, snow-covered, place unmarked by anything but a few rabbit tracks. Nothing will break the silence but the sound of the wind, or the traffic on King Street. There is little to indicate that in the early 1920s this was the centre of local winter activities where crowds of skaters and hockey fans gathered every night as long as the snow lasted. This was the site of Burford's skating rink.
How and why was this place chosen? The "Why" was the fact that since the old indoor rink at the Fair Grounds had burned, Bur-ford people had no place to skate but the creek. The "How" was the fact that the area was an ideal place for a rink. The house was the Parish Hall of Holy Trinity church and was unused except for occasional functions. It was centrally located and had facilities that could be converted easily, and cheaply, into a rink.
The area was considerably different from what it is today. The back lawn was bounded on the west by a large grove of tall lilac trees which, with an old smoke house, provided a break against the prevailing wind. The level area extended almost as far east as Holy Trinity Churchyard. The present garages and trees did not exist. The house had a long, one story, brick extension attached to its north side. This had served as a kitchen, storage place and larder while the house was the Padfield residence. It was not used for church activities. In the extension were three rooms and a hall. Two of the rooms were designated as Men's and Women's skate changing rooms for, in the 1920s, it was considered to be indecent for men and women to put on their skates in the same room. The third room was a catch-all for just about anything and the hall served as a place for skaters and spectators to get warm. Nearby was a commodious back-house for anyone who needed it. This was probably the best place in the village for a rink particularly when the church provided it free of charge.
Operation of the rink was under the auspices of the local Chamber of Commerce who hired the rink operator. Water was obtained from a well behind the house and was pumped to the rink by a pump and gasoline engine that belonged to the nearby Lawn Bowling Club. Hoses were also Bowling Club property. Shovels, scrapers and other things just seemed to appear and dis-
appear from time to time. A little Quebec heater provided warmth in the skate changing rooms and wooden benches were collected from old barns and hay-lofts.
In the beginning there were no boards around the rink but as the snow was shovelled off, Ae high banks developed and kept the skaters in bounds. I remember these snow banks with pleasure for on a New Years Day afternoon in about 1924 they helped me to learn how to "take strokes". Until that time I was just walking around the ice on my skates without knowing how to glide. However, on that memorable afternoon I found that I could skate down the rather sloped ice at the southwest corner of the rink and stop myself by falling into the snow bank. Then I would trudge back through the snow to my starting place and go through the same motions of "taking strokes" until I fell into the snow. It was a tough way "to get the hang of it" but I learned to skate in this way and had many years of skating pleasure as a result.
After a year or two it was felt that boards should be added so that hockey could be played. Rough, unpainted, splinter-full boards were obtained by the Chamber of Commerce. This made hockey worthwhile but anyone trying to "rub out" an opponent along the boards got as many splinters as he did. At about the same time hockey goals were constructed from wooden 2x4s and chicken wire. These served their purpose but tended, towards the end of the season, to become loose and full of holes.
There was no hockey program for children in the 1920s and almost all rink time was devoted to skating. Hockey was limited to pickup games on Saturday mornings and between 7 and 8 at night. Skating took place from 8 to 11 on every night but Sunday when such activity was thought to be sinful. Light was provided by strings of electric lights with big tin shades that rattled abominably in any kind of wind. Admission for skating was 10 cents. Admission for hockey was free.
Snow clearance was always a problem for the single rink operator. If there was a particularly heavy snowfall he would get help from children by offering them a session of free skating in exchange for their help. I recall one time when I responded to such an offer and worked my butt off all one Saturday morning clearing the ice. When I went back to have the free skate I had been promised, the rotten S.O.B. who ran the rink waited until I got my skates on and then told me that I had to pay. I went
home rather than pay and always regarded this person with contempt. (People who are my age will know who I mean. He is no longer living.) The price of 10 cents was not excessive and\ I could have paid it but in the eyes of an 11 year old boy the refusal to honour a commitment was unforgivable. Others who received the same treatment felt the same way for in 1924 kids expected adults to keep their word. In the 1920s kids were much influenced by the books they read and f what they were taught at, Sunday School. The books/ such as the "Tom Swift": series emphasized such* thing as "Responsibility"^ and "Honour" - apparently laughable words in 1991. ^
Skating in the 1920s was just round and round going counter-clockwise. Anyone going the other way was apt to be run down or shouted to the sidelines. Girl skaters always stood along the boards while boys congregated in the centre of the ice. There was no particular reason for this but any boy or girl who violated this rule was told about it in no uncertain terms. When you wanted to skate with a girl you checked her out to see if she was a better or worse skater than you were. Pair skating was just arm in arm with the boy on the inside. Purists and "show-tried to look artistic. There was little chance for intimacy when skating with girls but I was told (I was too shy to find out) that some girls liked to sneak their hands inside a boy's mittens and hold his hand. I was told recently that one High School teacher, who was noted for her severity, was very adept at this little trick. Boys who didn't like to skate with girls indulged in games of "Cracking the Whip" in which a group would hold hands and then be swung around with the guy on the end being hurled into the boards. Another feat of stupidity was to see who could skate around the rink the most times without stopping. The ultimate in stupid skating games was to skate as fast as you could and then try to leap over the boards. Winners ended up full of snow and losers full of slivers.
One of the features of winter skating behind 12 King Street East was the Fancy Dress Carnival. One or two were held depending on the weather.
These were organized by the Board of Trade. Prizes were solicited from merchants and were displayed before the carnival in some store-keeper's window. Classes of prizes were awarded for the Ladies and Men's Fancy, Comic, or Unusual Dress. Prizes were seldom offered to children for the carnival was an adult (continued on pg. 7)
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event held at 8 p.m., a time when children were expected to be at home doing homework. They were not elaborate prizes but consisted of pairs of gloves for ladies and neckties for men. However, they appealed to many people and every carnival was a crowded success. There was no music to inspire the skaters. People just skated around until the frozen-footed judges decided who had won prizes. Large crowds of non-skaters thronged the snow banks to admire the costumes or to laugh at the antics.
Hockey was played at the rink and I have described it in a previous article. It would seem to have been primitive by today's standards. There was no score-board, no time clock, no players' benches and no penalty box. Ice markings consisted of very faint defence lines and referees rang a little hand-bell to stop play. Teams didn't carry many spares. If a forward got tired he dropped back to defence and the defence man went up front. If one or two subs were carried they stood in the snow with the opponents's subs and anyone serving a penalty, at the only gate to the ice surface. Penalties were seldom given and I cannot recall any fights. Players had a different attitude towards roughness in a game - if you were knocked over you got up and later on knocked the other guy over, and that was it. Referees tended to ignore anything less than decapitation. For example, I recall one game with Mount Pleasant when a local school principal, who was a good hockey player, deliberately butt-ended a Mount Pleasant player in the face while waiting for a face off. The butt-end of the stick cut the other player's face but the referee, who was about two feet away, didn't give the Burford man a penalty but he did hold up the game until the blood was mopped up.
Burford had a very good hockey team but did not play in any league. All games were exhibition games with teams from Scotland, the Brantford Church League, the Brantford Bankers League and occasionally (when they felt real confident) with teams such as the Glue Works team from the Brantford Industrial league. There was no admission fee for these games. Expenses were defrayed by someone going around the boards between periods collecting silver in an old hat. Ice was cleaned (but not flooded) between periods by volunteers walking up and down pushing scrapers. Goal judges stood behind the goals and indicated a score by raising their arms. They were in little danger from shots as the slap shot had not been Invented. Spectators in good numbers stood on the high snowbanks around the rink
which in some places were higher than the boards. Burford colours were red black.
Hockey games were not postponed by weather conditions and I can recall standing in the old smoke house at the west end of the rink watching a game that was played in driving sleet. At other times, soft ice reduced games to pedestrian events with the honours going to the guy who could run fastest on his skates amid the tufts of grass.
Skating and hockey on the lawn behind 12 King Street East in the 1920s may seem laughable in 1991 but we must remember that in the 1920s there was no TV and little radio to entertain people. Few motor cars were active in winter and people were confined to the village where they had to make their own entertainment. People did not how much spending money as they do now. Times were, different, attitudes were? different and moral standards were different. I do not. say that they were better, than today, only that they; were different and cannot] be judged by today's standards.
The snows of many winters have long since erased all evidence of the old skating rink. Possibly the only thing that remains is the remembrance of the thrill someone got when the girl of his choice curled up her fingers inside his mittens.