At a sports park dedicated to snow and ice, generations of Petoskeyites have formed a love of winter that defines them.
This story is featured in the December 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring,
Will be to arrive where we started,
And know the place for the first time.
At Petoskey’s Sheridan Elementary not long ago, I told the young writers in Mrs. Hintz’s fifth grade classroom that I too had a writing assignment. “It’s about the Winter Sports Park,” I said. Immediately, hands shot up across the room telling me how they had skated, skied, or sledded through the wash-board bumps, crashing into each other at the bottom, how they played hockey, or slid out of bounds down the steep, fenced-off dune we called “Suicide” when I was a boy.
Suddenly I recalled buried memories of my early youth in ski school with the neighborhood dads, in the final days of wood-core skis with screw-in edges, Cubco and “bear-trap” bindings attached to lace-up boots, and of middle school, the evening I had schussed through the narrow gap between the rope tow and the pines just to impress Jeanie, the girl who later would give me my first kiss.
Such is the power of a place to summon from us memories of our youths, and I imagined how decades from now, a return to the park might conjure from these children old memories of deep sledding snow or of the football field–sized ice rink, where girls and boys have learned for generations to twirl, speed skate, slap hockey pucks before games, and of course, celebrate the annual Winter Carnival.
But there is something deeper yet in all of this. In our youth, playing in the snow and on the ice establishes our affinity for winter, defines our northern identities. We become those who hazard and love the cold, who downhill and cross-country ski, ice fish, snowshoe, play outdoor hockey in ungodly temperatures, and do so with an unconscious pride and affection for the season, while others would gladly fly away south.
I was fortunate that the park was just down Rose Street from my house. In winter I could ski through the short, steep hardwoods behind my house, poling and ski-skating along the un-sanded snowpack road through the parking lot and up to the rope tow, where by 12 years old, my friends and I had learned to get up a bit of momentum before grabbing on, avoiding a jerk from the fast-running rope and saving wear and tear on our gloves.
It was the seasoned skiers’ entertainment to watch the new kids let the thick, slightly frayed, nylon rope rip through their knitted mittens until they finally grabbed on hard enough to be yanked forward. Many of them failed to lean back and wound up on their faces a few times before making it to the top, which required no small effort, hanging on all the way up the steep path through the tall pines. To get to the top without wearing out our arms, the crafty among us learned to hang on with the right hand in front and the left hand behind our backs, like a brake.
I concede there was much middle school and high school naughtiness of which I shall not speak, but I do recall the annual February carnivals, ski races and bump-jumping races down Suicide and, most vividly, the older kids in the shed blasting Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” repeatedly over the cheap loud-speaker, a song that even decades later would echo in my head when I skied for speed, and Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” when I skied with rhythm. This, and how all neighborhood kids and those from the country whose parents dropped them off—skaters, skiers, sledders—would pile into the long, narrow, chicken coop-style warming house with a rubber floor, to thaw fingers and toes. That brown, clapboard structure is long gone, replaced years ago by a more modern, spacious lodge with a snack bar, tall windows, and a deck overlooking the hockey rink in back.
In the summers now you’ll find youth soccer and educational programs on the groomed grass, but in 1971 the park was mine to explore on my own or with friends. I was 10 when my older sister Annie and I discovered—then spent half a day lugging—a large Petoskey stone we dug up, all the way to Clinton Street, then halfway up the steep hill to Mr. Sheafer’s house, across the street from our own. The sweetest old man in his late 80s, Ed Sheafer was a folk artist and retired sign painter from when billboards were hand painted. He had been building and decorating a long concrete retaining wall down his double lot on Clinton Street and up Rose Street past where he’d made a six-foot concrete black bear that held up his flag pole.
To reward our exceptional efforts that day, Mr. Sheafer put our stone prominently at the head of the wall, where it is to this day, and invited us into the house for cookies and chocolate milk. That was when I saw the mural he’d painted, a self-portrait on his living room wall of when he was a boy my age at the time, heavily dressed in brown, waving to me in front of a wooden toboggan run that appeared to stretch a quarter mile downhill. “That was at the park,” he said, and I realized for the first time that the old were once young and that the park had been their playground too.
Mr. Shaefer passed in his 90s, taking with him the stories he could have told, but the Little Traverse Historical Museum on the Petoskey waterfront collected only photos and memorabilia from his day. When I visited the museum, curator Jane Garver introduced me to dozens of images and news reports, mostly about the Annual Carnival, which, after a first go in Petoskey’s downtown in 1927, was moved to the Winter Sports Park in 1928, where it has remained every year since, except 1944 and ’45, during the end of World War II.
In those early years, with no community-wide snow removal, if it were a heavy winter, as many of them were, Northern Michigan was snow-bound. As I perused black-and-white photos, mostly of ecstatic adults, image after image, and viewed amusing old digitized film clips on the museum website, I couldn’t help but imagine how pent-up citizens of the day must have felt, some of them isolated for three or four months. How starved for community and entertainment they must have been by the time February rolled around, so that as the days finally grew sunnier and longer the adults came out of hibernation to act as teenagers again. And evidently, they held nothing back, driving cars over the ice with friends clinging to ropes behind; careening down the long wooden toboggan chute they’d built, people piled on old-fashioned sleds; ski-flying off their wooden launch and crashing into deep snow.
Each year the festivities grew; the community welcomed other communities to join in, and as the word of entertainment spread, the carnival flourished, attracting participants from around the north and beyond. The Petoskey community held speed skating competitions—eventually the national championships. They organized “fancy” skating competitions, barrel jumping and choreographed plays on skates (“Hans Brinker and the Golden Skates”); parades that stretched two miles with floats and bands, grotesque figures and comedy shows. They held huge luncheons and organized an annual evening ball attended by governors of the State of Michigan, even University of Michigan Heisman Trophy winner, Tom Harmon, whom they crowned King of the Carnival. They held ice boat races, dog team races, bobsled races, hockey games—including the Championship Hockey Game—Michigan State College vs. Michigan Tech, and more: toboggan racing, cross-country skiing and snowshoe racing, a fox chase and ski jumping.
Each year festival organizers offered prizes for the oldest man on skates and crowned queens of the carnival based on the numbers of memberships they could sell, to help fund the carnival. Bozo the Skating Mule (two men in a mule suit) performed spirals, spread eagles and other tricks. I found postcards of Bozo in full regalia. But over the years the most impressive feat of all was achieved by local artist Stanley Kellogg and a crew of city workers who labored for nearly a month constructing a wood frame and then cutting and hauling enormous blocks of ice from Little Traverse Bay uphill to the park to build lighted ice thrones and ice statues. The largest sculpture included 700 tons of ice.
Events such as these attracted visitors from southern Michigan and beyond who came by “snow trains” from Ann Arbor, Detroit and Grand Rapids, even as far away as Chicago, New York, Cincinnati, Pennsylvania, St. Louis. Many of the pilgrims were longtime summer people who had never been Up North in the winter. They were greeted with open arms, welcomed to participate and treated to special horse-drawn tours.
After the war years the carnival began to wane in scope, but even now the community has no intention of ever letting go of tradition, and though skiers from Petoskey now more often learn the sport at Nub’s Nob or Boyne Highlands, activity at the park remains vibrant, even thriving, with both day and evening free-skating, skiing and sledding and a host of skating and hockey clubs, even a newly introduced curling club.
The February carnival still offers games and competitions for the whole family, the most unusual of which is the annual “international” bump jumping competition. A descendent of the 1930s “snow scooters,” the bump jumper is often claimed as a Northern Michigan invention—a simple flat seat made from a laminated piece of wood connected to a single wooden runner, like a thick wooden ski, curved up in front and tacked underneath with sheet metal, to reduce friction. It’s basically a seat on a ski. In the 1970s, Meyer Hardware, in downtown Petoskey, sold them and almost all the kids had one. We would race each other, or try to survive the washboard bumps at the bottom of the hill, running to get momentum, then dropping on the seat and balancing with our legs out straight, off the ground.
Of course, that was many years ago, but to know its lineage now, and, like my children and those fifth graders, to have grown up there, the Winter Sports Park becomes more than a rink, a hill, a lodge and a carnival. We maintain it and its traditions as a signature of a northern community: Lest we hear echoes of Citizen Kane, in which, after accruing material wealth and power, Orson Welles’ character, Charles Foster Kane, yearns on his deathbed for the snow sled of his youth, “Rosebud.” Perhaps the Winter Sports Park is our Rosebud, a reminder of the gifts we have in northern life, in a town like Petoskey, where we have preserved a space for everyone to play.
Take a Petoskey vacation.