Skating (around 1885)

By Walter K. Billings

I was about six years of age and it was Christmas time. We had been at Grandfather’s and I had been given a lovely pair of red skates. Unfortunately Christmas Day was on Saturday, and to wait until Monday to try them was almost too much too think of. Sunday forenoon I bored holes in the heels of my boots with a gimlet, tried on the skates, took them off, and finally went out of the house the back way and was off to a small piece of ice near the edge of the creek. It had been snowing so I had to clean off the ice enough to have a clear spot and then put on my skates again.

I had never tried to skate before, but that day I got so I could go across and back without falling, more than three or four times ! I certainly was proud of myself, and the little red skates and in fact at the age of 81, I still have one of those skates.

But all things must come to an end, and tired out I climbed the hill to the barn, went in through the lower door, through the doors at the front of the barn and walked on to the house. When I went in my father said, “Where have you been ?”

“Down to the barn,” I replied

“No further ?” he said.

“No.” I said

“Where are your skates ?” he asked and when I told him, “Down in the barn”, I knew I was caught. He went to the barn, and around to the back where he found my tracks coming up the hill.

Then I saw him coming back to the house. He invited me out to the shed, saying it was bad enough to go skating on Sunday, but to lie about it was worse. I got a good strapping, but it was worth it; I had learned to skate.

The Lyn Pond, in the first part of the winter was a great spot and young and old were on the ice each day. I had done my chores at the farm and then my skates, with new straps, were slung over my shoulder and I was off for the whole afternoon. The ice that day was like glass, you could go away up around the bend, around the island, then on up the creek and through the woods, clear out to Seeleys.

A young lad about my own age, I think his name was Mulligan skated along with me, in fact we were together all that day, swinging along, hand in hand and we had a lot of fun together. I knew very few of the other boys and was quite contented to have him for company. Tired out at last, I took off my skates and walked home. I never knew that mile home to be so long before.

Next day word came to the farm that the boy I had skated with was very ill with diphtheria, but I kept still and did not tell them that I had been with him all the day before. For a couple of weeks afterward I could imagine my throat was getting sore, and I would steal out and get some salt and water to gargle until it was almost raw.

The boy I had been with got worse, and he finally passed away, but I never was sick, and did not tell mother about it until long afterwards.

The teacher at the Howard School, Jack Shaw, was a young man, who was studying for a medical course at college, and at noon, after eating his lunch, he would put his head on his arms and go to sleep at his desk.

One day there were only about nine boys at school, no girls at all. After we had seen the teacher settle for his nap, we took our skates and started for Howard’s flats, which at that time were covered with a lovely sheet of ice. Not satisfied with staying there, we raced down to the creek and away back towards the other street, climbing over logs and fences that divided the farms, continuing on behind the Parslow farm aand build, past the farm that later was the Thompson place, till we came to the rapids. One of the boys who knew this locality said there was a nice pond above the rapids, where once a dam had been built, making poser for a small factory that was owned by a Mr. Niblock, who manufactured wooden horse rakes.

I remember we had one of these rakes at the farm before father purchased a new rake with steel teeth. The old rake was a well built machine but to dump out the hay you had to step from a board at the edge of the shafts to a platform, the frame of which passed over the axle of the rake; then you had to hang on to a post behind the horse so that your weight would lift up the teeth made of turned oak. When the hay was all cleared from the teeth you stepped back to the board you first stood on and let the teeth drop down again. It was a tricky job, as you might get your foot caught. I did that once and got a bad squeeze.

But to go back to my story… We climbed up around the rapids, and sure enough there was the lovely sheet of ice on the pond, where we played shinny until we were tired and ready to start back. But it was slower work getting to the school, and as we neared the road we saw a man with a load of wood on his way home. That made us realize that it must be nearly three o’clock. Going to the schoolhouse everything seemed very still, so one of the boys went around to the side window and looked in. There lay our t stretched out on his bench, his coat rolled up for a pillow, and sound asleep.

It was pretty cold outside, we did not want to waken him, so we opened the door, walked quietly in and all stood behind the stove till one of us sneezed and our teacher sat up. Looking at his watch, and then around the room and seeing us at last, he said “Take your seats”.

In a few minutes he said, “We will now take our geography class. You may all come to the front. “One of you put some wood in the stove, and I want you,” pointing to one of the others, “to draw a map on the board of the St. Lawrence River, showing towns from Prescott at the east to Gananoque at the west.” Then

He picked up his medical book and went on reading.

The boy at the board was an artist who could draw a plan of any farmhouse and barn in the neighbourhood so that you knew at once whose it was. He started with the rapids below Prescott and a drawing of the town, then came to Maitland, where another group of buildings was shown, with the windmill tower, then on to Brockville. Then we saw what he was doing. It was a picture of the creek, the Parslow buildings, the Thompson place and the pond and rapids.

Then to finish it, the barn and house of the Howard place with a drawing of the old well, the long pole on the post, and the rope and bucket to lower into the water ! It was pretty hard for us to keep from laughing. He then drew a picture of the school, adding some other buildings to represent Gananoque. The teacher stood up, walked over to the board and said, “You have got your plan the wrong way, the rapids run east and you have them running west.”  He went on to Maitland and said, “Yes, you have got the windmill in all right.” Then on to Brockville. “Hum, yes, very good but you have put the towns on the wrong side of the river. But what is this post with the pole and bucket hanging down on the rope?”

“Oh,” the boy said “That is the pump house at the waterworks.” Well that broke up the geography class, and in a few minutes we were on our way home.

I never found out whether our teacher recognized the drawing, but we did and had many a laugh over it all. I would like to have that picture now.

Skating parties were all the rage, as each winter brought its share of ice. One year, 1887, there was a lovely sheet of ice on Gardiner’s flats, located just east of the Chemical Works on the Second Concession. One moonlight night we took our spring wagon, got a load of the young people on board and drove down to the ice, There was a big crowd fro that neighbourhood already on the ice, a chair and hand sleigh had been brought and the girls who could not skate were treated to a swift ride, or just hung on to the chair and tried not to fall down. A couple of the boys would get one of the girls on the sleigh, go away up the ice and swing around, sometimes the runner would catch a root in turning and away the passenger would go rolling over again and again.

When we started for home after getting our passengers on board, a lot of the boys going our way climbed on the wagon, and finally with the heavier load the rrear axle started to bend, with the result that one of the wheels was rubbing the box. We had to unload our passengers, all but the driver and walk the three and a half miles back to the farm.

I have many pleasant memories of my good times on my skates but that night always seems to be a highlight of them all.

This story is taken from the book “How Dear to My Heart” by Walter Kilborn Billings, published in 1954.

 

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