Ice Skating Was Once Whiting’s Major Winter Sport
Clarence Gehrke was a pretty good ice skater. But, one day, when the teenage boy spotted a girl skating alone, he slowly approached her. He told her that he didn’t know how to skate very well. The plan worked. She offered to help. “After she put her arm around me for guidance, and advised me what to do,” he remembered many years later, “I broke away and skated like a pro. Of course, she became angry with me and wouldn’t talk to me for about an hour. Then, she consented to skate with me and that was the start of a long and beautiful friendship and marriage.”
Clarence and Betty Long Gehrke met on an ice rink in Whiting Park at a time when skating’s popularity was growing in Whiting. In an area surrounded by lakes, ice skating wasn’t anything new to Whiting-Robertsdale in the 1920s. Local historian and newspaper columnist Archibald McKinlay said there was a time “when people could skate from Whiting to Hammond and to East Chicago.” Even in the 1930s, Ann Habzansky Keightley recalled, “We skated from 125th Street and New York Avenue to Calumet Avenue.” A group of young people celebrated the arrival of 1895 in Whiting on the ice of one of the local lakes.
The lakes, however, weren’t always safe. In early 1925, for instance, the Whiting police received numerous calls from people who spotted young boys skating as far as a mile out on Lake Michigan, and the police issued a warning to stay off the lake.
To make skating safer, the city of Whiting created numerous ice skating rinks. As early as 1894 the city flooded a baseball field to accommodate skaters. In early 1907, the city flooded a lot between the kindergarten and manual training building and added a light to allow for skating after dark. “It’s too small to accommodate Whiting’s large list of expert skaters,” a local newspaper said at the time, “but it is a step at least in the right direction.“ By 1939, the city had seven ice skating rinks. The fire department flooded fields on 125th Street in the Stieglitz Park neighborhood, at 121st and Kelly Place, at 119th and Central Avenue, on Schrage Avenue, at the sewage pumping station on Atchison Avenue and Ohio Street, and behind the city’s old water filtration plant. But the biggest and most popular was the ice rink in Whiting Park.
The Whiting Park rink was in the area which for many years served as the tennis courts and more recently as a sand volleyball court. The lagoon, as it was called, was flooded as early as 1909 for skaters to use. A wood-framed, two-room shanty with a coal-burning stove was constructed adjacent to the ice rink to let skaters come inside to warm up. In 1954, the shanty was torn down and a two-story, heated, concrete block building was constructed on the same spot. The building is still there, next to the sand volleyball court, used for a different purpose. Three floodlights illuminated the rink for many years, but the 1954 improvement program replaced them with thirteen new sets of floodlights.
Arch McKinlay once wrote that there was a time when ice skating, not basketball, was the Region’s major winter sport. The peak of popularity for ice skating in Whiting was probably from the 1920s through the 1950s. It was so popular in 1942, that Donald Spurrier, Whiting’s public works commissioner, pleaded with residents to stop calling his office to check on ice conditions on the city’s rinks. The numerous calls were keeping his office employee from getting any other work done.
In 1924, the city celebrated its love of skating with an ice carnival held at the Whiting Park lagoon. The main attraction at the carnival was its skating competitions. Boys, girls and men competed in different categories and events. A crowd of seven hundred showed up for the carnival in 1926. In 1927, Steve Stofick of Whiting became something of a legend when a local paper proclaimed that “he should be crowned the ice skating champion of Whiting.” Stofcik led a field of twenty skaters from the start of his race and held on to the lead until he slipped just two turns from the end of the eighth and final lap. He not only got up and retook the lead, but he won the race by nearly thirty yards. Almost twenty years later, in 1945, the winner of the boys’ race, junior division, was 15-year-old Al Pilarcik of Whiting, who grew up to be even better at baseball than he was at skating. He had a successful career as a major league baseball player in the 1950s and 60s.
While races and competition appealed to some, most went to the lagoon just to have fun with friends, or maybe, like Clarence Gehrke, to meet someone new. Arch McKinlay used to skate in the lagoon. He said he and his friends “showed up, picked an unoccupied girl, and took her for a spin around…much like dancing.”
The most tragic incident connected with ice skating in the Whiting Park lagoon happened in 1942. Four students from East Chicago Washington High School went to Washington Park and Tod Park in East Chicago to skate but were not happy with the condition of the ice at either location. So, they came to Whiting. After skating in the lagoon, they got into a car to head home. As they approached the railroad tracks at the 117th Street entrance to the park, crossing guard Mike Dragnick saw them coming. He frantically waved his red lantern. The driver, 18-year-old John Suty, did not see Dragnick, nor did he see or hear the fast-moving freight train which also approached the intersection. Suty and fellow passenger, 16-year-old Helen Kochis, were injured in the accident, but 14-year-old Sharon Coe and 18-year-old Louis Haderich were killed.
Arch McKinlay also went to East Chicago Washington and knew the four schoolmates, especially Sharon Coe, who he grew up with. “Sharon, my beautiful friend and playmate” he wrote 65 years later, “was laid out at McGuan’s Funeral Parlor in the dress she was planning to wear to the prom. Virtually the whole school was there. And I have never stopped thinking about Sharon.”
In the 1960s, ice skating dropped in popularity and gradually the ice skating opportunities shrank. In 1964, for instance, Hammond’s Park Board voted to eliminate skating at a rink in Forsythe Park. “The rink…does not have enough attendance to justify its operation,” they stated. The city continued to flood an empty lot at 119th and Warwick Avenue for a few years, but before long that also came to an end.
Both Whiting and Hammond have made attempts at reviving skating. Whiting made a major push to bring skating back to the park lagoon in the 1980s. The effort got off to a rough start. It was supposed to be ready by December 1985, but then nature produced the second coldest December in local history, which delayed the final stages of construction. It was ready by January 1986, but then nature produced unseasonably warm weather and the water would not freeze. By March, other problems had popped up. The ground was not level, which meant that when it froze the ice was not level for skaters. Plus, the liner used in the rink had ripped and needed to be replaced.
Nature is one of ice skating’s best friends, and among its worst enemies. Over the years there were many winter days when the temperatures didn’t get low enough to freeze the ice. “It’s hard for me to believe,” Clarence Gehrke said when he was 85 years old, “that there was a time when I wished for cold weather so that I could go ice skating in Whiting Park.”
But not everyone loves cold weather, and with so many other warmer options to choose from, ice skating does not have the same widespread appeal that it held for earlier generations. “The good old days are gone,” lamented local resident Don Wilson in 1995, looking back at the years when he enjoyed not just skating, but sliding down the snow-covered hills in Whiting Park. “Now with TV, everyone is a hermit; no one gets together as much out there; the couch potatoes stay in and watch the idiot tube instead of bundling up once in a while and enjoying the fresh air out of the north.”