In the mid-1880s something new swept across the country. In fact, this something was so popular, it started a mania that reached as far as the West. I’m talking about roller skating.
At first, skaters had nothing but clunky, wooden-wheeled skates. Then ball-bearing wheels were invented about 1884 and things revved up from there! Roller skating rinks began to pop up all over the place, including the West.
Many of these rinks were built from the ground up and sometimes folks got inventive and converted the local dance or grange/meeting hall into one. All you needed was a good-sized space, a smooth hardwood floor, and you were in business! And a good business it was.
Roller-skating quickly became popular with young ladies, no matter what their social status. Who could resist gliding across a smooth floor to waltzes, quadrilles, and other dance music with wheels on their feet? This meant it became a good way for gentlemen to meet young ladies. Catching them was the problem.
Of course, some frowned upon such whirlwind behavior. Parents and those in political circles thought the fad would develop to much familiarity between the sexes. Doctors couldn’t make up their minds if skating was good or bad. On the one hand, it was a healthful diversion. On the other, it was more than a little dangerous. And there were those stalwart preachers who saw it as a sure pathway to Hell. Well, if it had all that going for it, how could a cowboy say no? Like a bronc they itched to tame, the cowboy thought he could tame a pair of skates.
But taming skates wasn’t so easy. A drunken cowboy in a rink in Wyoming who couldn’t get his skates to mind him, decided to ride his horse onto the rink floor. An rink employee grabbed the horse’s bridle and told the cowboy that if he didn’t leave at once, (and not return) that he’d have the undertaker pay a call. If that’s not a threat, I don’t know what is.
Believe it or not, Dodge City, Kansas had themselves a roller rink. Other cities with rinks were Cheyenne, Omaha and El Paso. In Montana Territory, Helena had “The Skating Pavilion” It had a whooping 65-by-100-foot maple floor and three-tiered wraparound galleries for people to watch the skaters. Here the “apple race,” was invented. All the skaters had to do (with no small amount of scrambling and falling down) was to be first to collect twenty-one apples from the rink floor and drop them in a bucket. I can just imagine the mad scramble!
Alas, the skating craze faded into the sunset, as fads tend to do, and didn’t make a comeback for seventy years. It became a craze once more in the fifties. How come none of us have ever heard of cowboys skating? Well, it’s because film and television ignored it. Viewers wanted to see their cowboy heroes riding their noble steeds, battling outlaws and rescuing the damsel in distress. Kinda ruins the whole cowboy hero thing if he did it on a pair of skates. However, one movie did put skating cowboys in their story. But it was made in the eighties, not during western film’s hey day. The title was Heaven’s Gate and had ranchers and locals having a roller-skating dance. I think I’ll have to rent that movie and see it for myself!
Do you skate? I can’t skate worth beans. Can’t ice skate either. Ah me. Weak ankles. Wouldn’t it be fun though to see an “apple race” and watch cowboys race all over a rink chasing apples? When was the last time you went skating? If you don’t skate, have you ever wanted to try?