Lois Littlejohn: Working Class Pioneer In Speedskating and Cycling; Essay by Robert Pruter

Lois Littlejohn overcame a dirt poor upbringing to become a national champion speedskater and a local champion cyclist, benefitting from support of the extensive sport institutions of modern Chicag0.

 

 

 

 

 

Lois Littlejohn was the first significant women speedskater to emerge out of the Chicago area who was not of Norwegian heritage. The previous outstanding skaters in Chicago were mostly all Norwegian, Littlejohn emerged in 1923 from the western suburb of Berwyn both as a top skater and a top cyclist and competed on the highest level for the next five years–in speedskating, winning numerous competitions, including the prestigious Silver Skates and one national championship; and winning many local cycling races. She was a feminist all her life, and was proud of her achievement, overcoming poverty and prejudice against women to achieve both in the sports world and the world of business and commerce. She ideally represented the thinking of modern urban Chicago on women advancement in all areas, but notably sports.

Lois Littlejohn was born on April 25, 1908, in Chicago, to William Littlejohn, of Scottish heritage and Louise Bradee Littlejohn of German heritage. Her father was a tradesman (gas fitter) who was not long in her life. Her mother and father got married in 1902, and six years Lois was born, in March 1909 he died, leaving his eleven month old daughter and 31 year old wife to their own resources, which was not much. Louise Littlejohn never remarried, and lived with only Lois for more than four decades, the mother supporting her child as a waitress. By the early 1920s, Louise and Lois Littlejohn had moved to Berwyn, a near western suburb known for its working class bungalow belt.1

Littlejohn grew up impoverished, probably deemed by her teachers as someone who would go nowhere in life, “…a woman who came from nowhere” related a relative in her obituary. When she was a youngster she wanted a bike, but all her mother could give her was a well used pair of figure skates. Not long after she was participating in small local speedskating race, a representative from the Nestor Johnson Skate Co. saw her beating other girls with her bedraggled figure skates. The company became her sponsor with a free pair of high end racing skaes. Apparently a similar thing happened in bicycle racing, because when she broke out as a top bicycle racer, a newspaper photo showed her on a spiffy racing bike.2

To illustrate concept in text

Lois Littlejohn emerged as Chicago’s top bicycle racer in 1923

Littlejohn first appeared, and got her first notice, in an Oak Park newspaper report on Austin-Columbia Athletic Associate derby at Columbus Park on Chicago’s West Side in early January 1923. The 14-year old unknown competing unattached probably surprised skating experts by finishing second in the 880 yard race against a field of much older veteran racers. A week later, her name appeared in the Chicago Tribune, competing in the annual West Parks Tournament for the Garfield Park team. Garfield Park was just a bus ride and transfer to an elevated line from her Berwyn home. She won the Girls Under 16 class 100-yard race. At this time she was recruited by the prestigious Northwest Skating Club. Spectacularly in her debut year for speedskating competition, seven days after her West Parks win, she won the Silver Skates tournament in the Girls’ Junior Derby 880-yard race. Probably younger than most of her competitors in this under 16 class she won her semi-heat and then the final with ease (“never was in danger of defeat”), She was obviously a future star in the making, and 45,000 fans were there to witness it. She closed her remarkable season in early February, with a 440-yard win in Girls under sixteen class at the Alverno Athletic Association Derby at Humboldt Park.3

Chicago Tribune readers would not have to wait a full year before seeing Lois Littlejohn again winning a race. In early May, in a “bicycle derby” sponsored by the Franklin Skating and Athletic Club, involving many of Chicago’s skating clubs, young Lois, who had just turned fifteen, won the women’s race–on a two and one-fifth mile course in Humboldt Park–for her “Northwest Sportsman’s Club” (her Northwest Skating Club off-season name). Skaters had found early on that bicycle racing was a superlative off season training aid in speedskating. The Chicago Tribune, not surprisingly, sponsored a large bicycle race each Memorial Day at Humboldt Park, called the Chicago Tribune Athletic Association Bicycle Derby. Littlejohn, staying true to her debut to sports fans in 1923, breezed to victory in the women’s race, finishing one hundred yards ahead her closest competition. The paper included in its report of the race produced a wonderful photo of Littlejohn posed on her racing bike. Littlejohn’s success in 1923 was one of the most, if not the most, spectacular debuts of any female sports stars in Chicago history.4

Littlejohn in 1924 did not have the same kind of year she had in her remarkable previous year, as she was competing in more races with older experienced women. She took third in the 880 mile behind two older and more experienced club skaters, Ruth Mulhmeier of the Opal Athletic Association and Olga Anderson of the Norwegian-American Athletic Association, both from a time when Norwegian-Americans dominated Chicago speedskating. At the Opal A.A. Skating Derby, she competed in the 880 yard in both the 16 and over class and the under 16 class, even though her 16th birthday was a few months away. Against the club women in the older class she credibly took third behind national champion Rose Johnson and Ruth Mulhmeier. She easily won the younger class against park and playground racers. In the Silver Skates, as the previous year’s Junior champ was required to compete in the Senior Class, although still not 16 years of age, and did more than credibly, taking second in the 880 yard to a Milwaukee skater. She was making a strong case as the top female skater in Chicago.5

In May, 1924, the Chicago Tribune considered it worth a small headline when they reported that Littlejohn sent in her entry for the annual Tribune Bicycle Derby. The paper remarked, while noting she won the Opal A. A. bicycle race a week earlier, that “Miss Littlejohn is one of Chicago’s leading girl athletes. In addition to being a bike rider of note, she is one of the city’s best skaters, having won the Tribune‘s junior silver skates derbies (sic) for girls.” She sustained her reputation and won the Tribune bike derby for the second consecutive year. In August she took a rare second place to Julia Kwak of Pulaski Park at the South Park District derby in a one mile race. She turned the tables on Kwak, beating her in a 2 1/5 mile, in the last race of the season in September at the Franklin Skating and Athletic Club derby.6

Littlejohn’s 1925 skating season was something of a letdown, given her spiraling success in her two previous years. The second derby of the season, at the Austin-Columbia A. A. Skating Derby took a third in the 440 yard behind the veterans, Olga Anderson and Ruth Muhlmeier. She was still a young at age 16 and relatively less experienced. Littlejohn had high hopes of doing well in the Silver Skates, but she had a disappointing experience. She took third in her semi-final heat, which qualified her for the final. But in the six racers in the final, she finished last, and out of an award, which are given to the final five. On most of the derbies in 1925 Littlejohn’s name did not appear among the top three finalists, either from not appearing to race or not competing well enough.7

In 1925, Littlejohn joined a new bicycle club, the Antlers Sportsman’s Club. At the Chicago Tribune Bike Derby in the third week of May, Walter Eckersall gushed that she “was easily the class of the girls’ race, and won as she pleased”–her third consecutive Trib derby title. At the end May at the Antlers Sportsman’s Club own derby, Littlejohn won the women’s 2 1/5 mile race. In July and September she competed in two bicycle meets in which her club won the team title, but which she took second each time in the women’s event.8

Littlejohn had the best skating season on her outstanding career in 1926, but that did not appear it would be the case in the season-opening Sleipner Ice Derby, where she fell in her race and was shut out in the top three medal winning spots. Next day at the Central States Meet in Elgin, Illinois, Littlejohn in a last-minute arranged 880-yard race, won and tied the world’s record. The record was disallowed, however, as the race was not officially scheduled. Littlejohn’s season appeared a bit bumpy, when she again landed in third place in the 440 behind two veteran Norwegian-American racers at the Antler’s Sportsman’s Club Derby at Humboldt Park.9

Littlejohn reached the apex of skating in Chicago, however, in the third week of January when she claimed the Girls’ Senior Derby mile championship at the Silver Skates, in what the Tribune described as an “easy” win. The paper remarked: “She has been one of Chicago’s leading girl skaters for three years and her victory was not unexpected.”10

Littlejohn competed at the end of January in what was called the International Championship, but what was in reality the North American championship, in New Brunswick, Canada. As expected favorite Leila Brooks of Toronto won the women’s title, which was based on point totals in four events. Littlejohn took third in the mile race, and second in the 880 yard. Two days later, at the National championship, in Binghampton, New York, Littlejohn achieved a national woman’s championship, tying with Brooks of Toronto, In doing so, she captured the 220 yard, beating her main nemesis in Chicago, Ruth Muhlmeier. She took third in the 440, behind Brooks and Muhlmeier; and took second in the 880 yards, behind Brooks and ahead of Muhlmeier. Littlejohn finished the 1926 season as both the top woman skater in Chicago and the top woman skater in the United States. She had reached the apex of her career, but she had several more good years ahead of her.11

Littlejohn, again cycling for the Antler’s Sportsman’s Club, had another stellar cycling season. Having won the Chicago Tribune Bicycle Derby the three previous years, the paper expected she would easily win again. On race day, May 23, she did indeed repeat as the women’s champ, and the paper ran a photo of her on her bike with two friends. In July, Littlejohn took a disappointing third in women’s race in the Opal A. A. Bicycle Derby, first place going to her fellow speedskating opponent, Jeanette Jacobson, of the Henry Playground team. Playgrounds were big in bicycle racing as well as speedskating, and Henry Playground won the team title of the Opal meet. Through the remainder of the summer Littlejohn either did not compete in any other bicycle derbies, or else she finished out of the top three finishers.12

Littlejohn opened her skating 1927 season at the annual New Year’s day derby of the Sleipner Athletic Club well in command as the top skater in Chicago, winning the 880 yard and beating two racers who had bested her in the past, Ruth Muhlmeier of the Opal A. A. and teammate Laura Bishop of the Northwest Skating Club. A week later, Littlejohn beat the same two racers in the 880 yard at the Woodlawn Businessman’s Association Derby. Littlejohn at the Western Skating Association championships in Elgin won the 880, but not the women’s title based on a point total from two events.13

While Littlejohn had a superb season in Chicago, she was considerably outclassed in the 1927 national and North American championships. She could not duplicate her national title in Detroit in February, where she lost to Elsie Muller of New York, a future Hall of Famer, in which Muller was dominant in all four events. Littlejohn’s best event was a second in the mile. In the International meet between United States and Canada in Pittsburgh, in early February, Littlejohn finished a disappointing tie for fourth for the women’s title, her 10 points well behind the 60 points titlist Leila Brooks of Canada.14

In the 1927 bicycle racing season, Littlejohn was with a new team, Fassler Boosters, named for a local Berwyn businessman. Littlejohn was the four-time defending champion in the Chicago Tribune‘s bike derby, but her reputation as one of most formidable bicycle racers in the city did not help, where she took a disappointing fifth place. Jeanette Jacobson, who the next year would win the Silver Skates, won the race, and continued her dominance over Littlejohn in bicycle competition. When Littlejohn entered bicycle racing five years earlier she was so far advanced over her competition she dominated the women events. Over the years the competition gradually caught up with her, and in 1927 it appeared that they had surpassed her. Her name did not appear in any other races for the rest of the year. She may have dropped the sport before the season was over. She never competed in cycling again.15

Littlejohn, while her career was clearly in decline, in 1928 and 1929 sustained herself as one of the top three skaters in Chicago, behind newcomers Elizabeth Du Bois and Helen Bina. In the first race of the 1928 skating season, Littlejohn won the opening race of the season at Winnemac Park, taking the 880 race. She had left her long time club, the Northwest Skating Club, having been recruited by the newly opened Illinois Women’s Athletic Club (IWAC), which was a large athletic club with a 17-story facility. IWAC’s mission was to advance women in all sports, and in its first month formed swimming, track and field, and basketball teams. Somewhat strangely, however, the club seemed diffident in supporting race skating. Littlejohn appeared to be the only woman on its “team.”16

Littlejohn demonstrated she was still one of if not the top speedskater in winning two early meets in January, 1929–the Norwegian-American Athletic Association meet on January 2, taking the 880 yard event, and a few days later at the Sleipner Ice Derby taking the mile race, beating two of her strongest opponents, Elizabeth Du Bois and Jeanette Jacobson. But after these meets, however, Littlejohn seemed to disappear through the rest of January and all of February, perhaps fighting an injury. Littlejohn finished her 1928 season on a high note at an indoor meet in late March sponsored by the Opal A. A., following a Chicago Black Hawks professional ice hockey game at the Coliseum in late March. She won both women’s events, 220 yard and 880 yard, beating Marie Pierce of the Bartlett S. C, in both events.17

To illustrate concept in article.

Lois Littlejohn, still champion speedskater in 1929

By the 1929 season, Littlejohn was still young at age 21, but she was in her sixth year of high level competition, and perhaps she was tired. During the 1929 season, she had a few wins against top competitors, but she lost more than she won. The IWAC had ended their experiment with sponsoring speedskating, and Littlejohn found a new team with one of the top skating teams in Chicago, the Opal Athletic Association, She had some successes, notably at the P. J. Moynihan Skating Derby for the Tri-State championships in early January, in which she tied for second for the woman’s championship won by her Opal teammate Elizabeth Du Bois. Littlejohn had the satisfaction of winning one of the two events, the 880 yard, besting Du Bois. A week later Littlejohn won the woman’s Illinois State championship, by taking second to Du Bois in the 220 yard and first in the 880 yard.

The Tribune ran a photo of Littlejohn accompanying the article.   In the Sleipner Ice Derby, Littlejohn helped her Opal team to the team championship, taking first in the 880 yard’. The remaining two events in the season, Littlejohn did not win, taking second to Du Bois in the 880 yard in both derbies. Littlejohn retired at the end of the season, and thereafter any skating she participated in were in the form of exhibitions. She actually had nothing more to prove, having won just about everything in the North American skating world. She was ready for the next stage in her career.18

In 1930, Lois Littlejohn was living with her mother in Berwyn. Her mother worked as a waitress in a tea room, and Lois was working as a beautician in a beauty shop. She rarely had any contact with her earlier life in skating and bicycle racing. In her beautician career she graduated from a beautician worker to a beautician proprietor, owning her own shop. She and her mother had moved from blue collar Berwyn sometime after 1935 to upscale nearby River Forest.   In the 1940s, Littlejohn occasionally participated in small ice carnivals, where she gave exhibitions.19

Lois Littlejohn remained unmarried all her life, which was a long one, 101 years. As a successful businesswomen she built her beauty shop into a successful real estate business, first buying the building that housed her shop, then building a strip mall, and purchasing other properties. Her obituary reported she began her hair dressing business at Marshall Fields, where she “catered to women from many established families, such as the Fields, Mortons, and Walgreens.” She closed her hair salon business in the late 1970s. Although retired for decades from sports, she was a big advocate for female advancement in sports and other endeavors, well aware that she was a pioneer in female achievement as a teen racing star of the 1920s.

A cousin of Littlejohn said, “She was a fierce feminist,” who used the name “L. H. Littlejohn,” because she did not think she would get the respect if she went by “Lois.” She cheered along Bonnie Blair’s five gold speedskating medals and female political advancement, as in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. On August 29 of that year she died, her legacy being one of the greatest women speedskaters Chicago, a two time winner of the Silver Skates and a national United States champion.20

Notes

1. “Illinois, Cook County Marriages, 1871-1920” database, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, 347905, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago: “Illinois, Cook County Birth Certificates, 1871-1940” database, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, reference/certificate 200234, Cook County Clerk, Cook County Clerk, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago;  “Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994” database, Chicag0, Cook County, Illinois, source reference 7595, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago, “Deaths,” Chicago Tribune 28 March 1909; Twelfth Census of the States, Schedule No. 1– Population, Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County,  Chicago, Ward 32, Enumeration District 999, Sheet 7B (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972).

2. “Lois H. Littlejohn: 1907-2008: Ice Skater Turned Hairdresser,” Chicago Tribune, 5 September 2008; “Winner of Girls’ Bicycle Race” , Chicago Tribune, 31 May 1923.

3. “Alverno Club Takes in Honors in Skating Event Put on by Austin-Columbia Athletic Association,” Oak Leaves, 6 January 1923; “West Parks Tourney,” Chicago Tribune, 14 January 1923; Walter Eckersall, “45,000 Fans at Tribune Ice Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 22 January 1923; “Alverno Speedsters Romp Away with Own Ice Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 5 February 1923.

4. “11 Mile Bike Race Won by Shiffner,” Chicago Tribune, 7 May 1923: “Entries First Record to Crack in Tribune Derby,” Chicago Tribune, Walter Eckersall, “20,000 Cheer Dark Horse in Bike Victory,” Chicago Tribune, 31 May 1923.

5. “Allen Wins Sleipner Ice Race,” Chicago Tribune, 27 January 1924; Walter Eckersall, “Dark Horse, Allen, Wins Silver Skates,” Chicago Tribune, 21 January 1924; Walter Eckersall, “12,000 Fans See N. W. Skating Club win Opal Derby Honors,” Chicago Tribune, 28 January 1924.

6. “Lois Littlejohn to Race in Trib Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 13 May 1924; “Here Are the First Five in the Tribune’s 3D Annual Bike Races,” Chicago Tribune, 26 May 1924; “Ed Merkner, Illinois Bike Champion, Wins Sherman Park Races,” Chicago Tribune, 25 August 1924, “Franklin Team Takes Feature of Cycle Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 2 September 1924..

7.  “Allen Takes City Skating Championship,” Chicago Tribune, 5 January 1925; “Here Are of the Summaries of the Silver Skates,” Chicago Tribune, 26 January 1925.

8. “Merkner Wins Twin Honors in Trib Bike Derby,” Walter Eckersall, Chicago Tribune, 25 May 1925; “Merkner Pedals Out Two Wins in Antler’s Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 31 May 1925; “I.A.C. Athletics Capture Celtic Meet with Ease,” Chicago Tribune, 26 July 1925; “Antlers Club Wins Humboldt Park Bike Meet,: Chicago Tribune, 8 September 1925

9. “Sleipner Skate Tourney is Won by Midwest A.C.,” Chicago Tribune, 2 January 1926; “Midwest A.C,, Opals Tie in Skating Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 3 January 1926; “Farrell Cops Skate Title; Franklin Park is Winner, Chicago Tribune, 10 January 1926,

10. Walter Eckersal,”50,000 See Reed Win Silver Skates,” Chicago Tribune, 25 January 1926;

11. “Chicago Skaters Trail in Ice Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 27 January 1926; “World’s Ice Skate Title to Gorman,” Chicago Tribune, 29 January 1926; “Ed Reed Ties for National Ice Meet Lead,” Chicago Tribune, 1 February 1926; “Farrell Wins National Ice Skate Title,” Chicago Tribune, 2 February 1926. The United States and Canada were the only members of the International Skating Union of America, hence the reference to “International Championship” often used to refer to United States-Canada competition.

12. “Antlers Enter Team for Trib Bicycle Races,” Chicago Tribune¸13 May 1926; Walter Eckersall, “Belgian-American C. C. Wins Tribune Bike Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 24 May 1926. Henry Bikers Win Opal A. A. Title Race,” Chicago Tribune, 19 July 1926.

13. “Opal A. A. Wins Sleipner Ice Derby, Midwest A. C. 2nd,” Chicago Tribune, 2 January 1927; Frank Schreiber, “Opal A.A. Skaters Capture Fourth Straight Ice Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 9 January 1927; Murphy, Farrell Tie for Western Skating Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 17 January 1927.

14.  “Chicago Girls Tied for Third in Skate Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 2 February 1927; “Girl Breaks 2 International Skate Records,” Chicago Tribune, 19 February 1927.

15.  Walter Eckersall, “Tribune Bike Derby Handicap Won by Wagner,” Chicago Tribune, 23 May 1927; “Scratch Races,” Chicago Tribune, 23 May 1927.

16.  “Begin Winter Campaign” , Chicago Tribune, 26 December 1927′

17.  “Tuning Up for the Silver Skates Derbies,” Frank Schreiber, Chicago Tribune, 3 January 1928; “Barrett Skaters Win Sleipner Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 6 January 1928; “N. Y. Rangers Give Hawks Another Defeat, 6 to1,” Chicago Tribune, 22 March 1928.

18.  “Wandra Takes Tri-State Ice Skating Title,” Chicago Tribune, 7 January 1929; Farrell Leads Opal A. A. to Skate Victory,” Chicago Tribune, 11 January 1929; “Farrell Wins State Skate Speed Title,” Chicago Tribune, 14 January 1929; “Skaters Clip Two Records in Amphion Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 21 January 1929; “Oneil (sic) Farrell Wins Western Title,” Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1929.

19.  Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Population Schedule, Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County, Berwyn, Enumeration District 1987, Sheet 12A (Washington, DC: National Records and Census Administration, 2002); Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940 Population Schedule, Bureau of the Census, Illinois Cook County, River Forest, Enumeration District 16-464, Sheet 7A (Washington, DC, National Archives and Records Administration, 2012); .”Playschool Youngsters Give Program,” Oak Leaves, 30 January 1941.

20.  “Littlejohn, Lois” Chicago Tribune, 4 September 2008; Patricia Trebe, “Lois H. Littlejohn: 1907-2008: Ice Skater Turned Hairdresser,” Chicago Tribune, 5 September 2008.

This entry was posted in Amateur Women's Speed Skating, Amateur Women's Sports and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Lois Littlejohn: Working Class Pioneer In Speedskating and Cycling; Essay by Robert Pruter

  1. Pingback: Helen Bina, Preeminent Chicago Playgrounds Product and National Champion Speedskater; Essay by Robert Pruter | The World of Early Amateur & Youth Sports in Chicago

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