The sound of skates cutting through ice fills the small rink. Children laugh in the cold air and race for the puck. It is a scene that has taken place in this spot for the last 90 years. Each year the rinks at Congdon Park Elementary School are flooded and open for use by the many families in the area.
These skating rinks found their conception in the 1920s as a place for children to skate after school. The place was small and informal at first, flooded at the beginning of each winter by the local firemen and maintained throughout the season by city workers. In 1931 the park received its first warming house that was built by the city.
“That warming house had a big stove in the middle that would burn wood and coal,” said Bob Mars, a Duluth man who started kindergarten at Congdon Park Elementary in 1930 and learned to skate at the Congdon Park Elementary School rinks.
According to Mars, back then it was just a flooded field without any formal boards for hockey. This did nothing to deter the children who skated there, who each Saturday sectioned off half of the ice for a hockey game. Many of the local children, both girls and boys, would participate in these games.
“In the winter we would have days where it was 20 below and there would be no school," Mars said. "But by 10 in the morning all the kids would be out skating.”
The Congdon Park Elementary School rinks stayed unchanged for about 20 years until the 1950s when the city was hit with financial problems and could no longer afford to maintain the rinks. The everyday maintenance of the area then transferred to local volunteers who would help to clear snow from the rinks and flood them.
“The citizen involvement really started with the early rinks,” Mars said. “A lot of those early skaters in the 50s were prominent college players later on.”
Mars is an example of the hockey players that came from the Congdon Park Elementary School rinks, having played semi-pro hockey in Boston.
More changes occurred in the 1950s with the addition of boards for a hockey rink. The money to put these boards up came from the local community, raised through canvassing of the area.
“We had long winters here and it was a good activity for the young kids,” Mars said, who helped raise money for the boards.
More money was raised 20 years later in 1970 when the Congdon Park Hockey Association raised $13,000 dollars to build a new warming house on the opposite end of the rinks from where the original sat. Dr. Bill Merrick, Don Thoreson, Don Moline, Jim Claypool, Joel Labovitz, Ron Johnson, and Jerrold Polinsky headed this project by obtaining private donations through community canvassing.
“We traveled around the city and we realized that our facilities were the worst facilities in the city,” Merrick said, explaining why they found it so important to raise money for the rinks.
In 1971, the group donated the facilities to the Congdon Park Elementary School Board of Education, leaving these skating rinks the only ones in the city that do not reside on city property. Today it continues to operate through volunteers without the use of city funding.
“The kids used to clean the rinks themselves a lot, really a lot,” Merrick said. “Which they don’t ever do anymore. Now they have a Zamboni there and the city does the big plowing.”
Over the years progress has not stopped at the Congdon Park Elementary rinks, with boards for a second hockey rink going up in the years since 1970 as well as updates over the years to the warming house.
Unfortunately for the children of the Congdon Park area today, the future of these rinks is not as secure as its past. With the decision by the School Board to expand the gymnasium at Congdon Park Elementary School, it could mean the end of a 90-year-long skating tradition. The school board will soon vote on the issue on Feb. 28 to decide whether or not there will still be room for the rinks at the school. The current plans could spell the end of another piece of Duluth history that over the years has been close to many different members of the community.
Community members are fighting hard to keep the rinks through the Save the Rinks group formed in Sept. 2011, headed by Sara Vallie and Tracie Smith. These women have helped to raise awareness about the renovation plans, by creating websites for the cause and an online petition to save the rinks. As of Feb. 21, the petition for the rinks has over 1800 signatures.