Norwegian immigrants to Chicago played a huge role the development of winter sports in Chicago and suburbs, particularly speed skating, which became a major sport in the city during the 1920s and 1930s, and left a legacy of achievement that continued to send speed skaters to the Olympics for decades afterwards.
On the northwest side of Chicago there is a large Puerto Rican community. It is centered around a huge park, Humboldt Park, which has a large lagoon and wide expanses where the local residents play soccer games and baseball. And in the center of this park on a hill there is an imposing statue of Leif Ericson, its Nordic visage looking down at the brown faces kicking a ball around. The statue stands as a testimonial and the last remaining legacy of the vast immigrant Norwegian community that had settled in this section of Chicago in the last century. Large urban cities have experienced successive waves of immigrants, and Chicago was no different.
The Norwegians who came to Chicago created a winter play land in Humboldt Park to engage in their favorite winter sports of speed skating, cross country skiing, and ski jumping, which helped to define themselves as Norwegians. But these immigrants also helped to spread their sports through the Chicago area populace at large. This essay will examine how the Norwegians developed their sports in Chicago in the context of their other endeavors to retain their cultural heritage, notably May 17 celebrations and their veneration of the “first Norwegian-American,” Leif Ericson.
In 1999, I interviewed Olympian and Hall of Fame skater Eddie Schroeder, who competed in the 1920s and 1930s, and who was of Norwegian heritage. He proudly told me that, “the origin of competitive speed skating in Chicago came from the Norwegians, who lived around the Humboldt Park area—that’s where it all started.” Chicago in particular was huge in speed skating, and I posit three factors to the city’s success in speed skating—demographic, climate, and cultural. By cultural I mean the values and efforts of city people in the development of sports and recreation for all—men, women, children of all ethnicities, religions, and backgroiunds—reflective of modern twentieth century America.
The demographic factor deals with the city’s population as a whole as well as its sizable population in the Norwegian population. By the turn of the century, some 80 percent of the Norwegian United States had settled in the six Midwest states of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. While early Norwegian immigration was primarily rural, after 1880 the Norwegians increasingly settled in big cities, primarily Brooklyn, Chicago, and Minneapolis.1
In 1900, the census showed only three large cities that had more than a negligible number of Norwegians in their populations–Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis-St. Paul (counting the twin cities as one),. Chicago had the most Norwegian-born or of Norwegian parentage, with nearly 60,000, compared to the Minneapolis-St. Paul number of little more than 40,000. The 28,000 Norwegian immigrants in New York mostly settled in Brooklyn, and they were primarily sailors, and looked out to the sea rather than inland to the skating ponds and skiing trails.2
In terms of climate, Chicago had a decided advantage over most large cities in the United States. Taking an average of the January temperature, the key month for speed skating, only Milwaukee (21.8 degrees) and Minneapolis-St. Paul (10.8 degrees), had colder climates than Chicago (27 degrees). Other cities in the northeast sector of the country–Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York had average temperatures during the winter with too few days of sub-freezing temperatures to developed a sizable speed skating culture, being dependent on the building of indoor ice arenas to support the sport-St. Paul average was inhuman and New York average was barely freezing.
When you look at New York there were was not the abundance of outdoor rinks in the parks and playgrounds, in part because there was not the number of freezing days to make them useful facilities. On the other hand, where Chicago had no indoor skating rinks, New York had a number of indoor skating rinks.3
Norwegian emigration to the United States began in 1825, with a single sloop of immigrants, and by the end of the century 235,410 Norwegians had come to America. Chicago received its first Norwegian immigrants in 1836. They found work in a variety of trades, notably those involved in building construction, woodworking (shipbuilding, furniture), printing, engineering, and clothes manufacturing, as well as sailoring on the Great Lakes shipping industry.4
The Norwegians first settled on the near west side of Chicago, close to the downtown, but as the population of all residents fanned out as the city grew, the Norwegians gradually shifted north and west to settle by the end of the century into two areas in the northwest area of Chicago–the Humboldt Park area and just north of it, the Logan Square Community. The bulk of the 60,000 population of first and second generation Norwegians in 1900 lived in these two areas.5
Like most immigrants, the Norwegians attempted to retain their language and culture, and founded churches, schools, and clubs to help retain their heritage. Such cultural manifestations as literature, music, and sports benefited considerably from innumerable clubs formed by the Norwegian immigrants. In Chicago, for instance, when the Norwegian National Society in America was formed in 1899 as an umbrella organization for Norwegian-American clubs and societies, of the some 50 member organizations, 23 were from Chicago, and these included the various lodges, singing groups, welfare groups, and athletic groups. The athletic groups, which signified the Norwegian ethnic pride in terms of their athletic prowess in certain sports, included the Norwegian Turners’ Society and Sleipner Athletic Club. Sleipner was the first Norwegian athletic club to have its own clubhouse, which was built a few hundred feet from Humboldt Park.6
A notable group that worked to promote the Norwegian heritage in America was the Leif Ericson Monument Society. The Society represented the Chicago Norwegians special affinity to Leif Ericson. Historian Odd Lovoll commented that the explorer had a particular impact on the “ethnic mythology” of the Norwegian immigrants, who made Ericson’s discovery of America a particularly Norwegian cause. When the Society erected the statue to Leif Ericson in Humboldt Park in 1901, it was cause for great celebration in the community. Every year, the Norwegian-American community celebrated May 17 Day,
Every year, the Norwegian-American community celebrated May 17 Day, which is the date in 1814 that the Norwegians wrote a constitution and ended 400 years of domination by Denmark. Unfortunately, for the Norwegians, in July Sweden invaded and took possession of Norway, having been awarded Norway at the end of the Napoleonic wars because of Denmark’s alliance with Napoleon, May 17 Day like that of St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and other ethnic special days we see today, was celebrated with parades, mass convocations in Humboldt Park, and other rituals and festivities. The parade usually included all the athletic organizations, notably the Sleipner Athletic Club, the Norwegian Turners, the Norwegian Rifle Club, and the Norge Ski Club, that particularly reflected Norwegian pride in who they were by the sports they played and their triumphs on the international stage. A Chicago Norwegian bragged that the Norwegians of Chicago “celebrated the most Norwegian and most festive May 17 outside of Norway.”8
Chicago Norwegians used the day to dress up in old-country dress, especially little girls, Norwegians always made a Children parade as part of the May 17 festivities. Typical of the way the Norwegians celebrated May 17th was the 1908 celebration, which had a procession of children clad in traditional dress make it was down North Avenue to the Leif Ericson monument in Humboldt Park, where patriotic exercises were held.9
The Norwegians always celebrated with recognition not only of their country of birth but also their adopted country, with flags of both Norway and the United States. Most symbolic of their presence in the new world was their celebration of Leif Ericson.
Skiing is by far the most prominent sport that Norwegians brought with them to America. The National Ski Association had been formed by mostly Norwegians in 1904, in Ishpeming, Michigan, one of the most active skiing centers. The following year, Norwegian Chicagoans formed the Norge Ski Club, and worked to promote cross country and ski jumping in the Chicago area. The local Norwegian newspaper saw the founding of the ski club as a “patriotic act,” as skiing was considered the national sport of Norway. But skiing was not an everyday activity and not an urban sport and did not prosper in the city. Early on there were some cross country skiing meets at Humboldt Park, but the Norwegians apparently did not find Chicago parks conducive for even cross country skiing, because by the 1920s cross country events were held at Fox River Grove, near Cary, to compete, 35 miles northwest of Chicago.10
Similarly ski jumping failed to stay in the city. The Norge Ski Club arranged its first ski jumping competition in the Chicago area at Fox River Grove in 1907, and another one in Chicago around the same time. But the first hugely attended ski jumping competition was one held at Humboldt Park, when some 20,000 people watched. Then the Norge Ski Club purchased land in Fox River Grove, built a steel-frame scaffold, arranged train transportation to the event, and ski jumping soon became an institution there, especially after the National Championship Tournament was conducted there in 1912. Each year “Norge Day” was celebrated there with a ski jumping contest.11
Standing second to skiing in Norwegian affection was ice-skating, particularly speed skating. The cold winters of Chicago, which yielded many frozen ponds, lagoons, and flooded playgrounds provided the ideal environment in which speed skating could especially flourish.12
Norwegians formed the earliest speed skating clubs in Chicago, and Humboldt Park with its ice-covered lagoon in the winter, naturally became their playground and the center of this activity. The Sleipner Athletic Club was organized in 1894 as all-around athletic club, but it became especially famed as the originator and chief sponsor of speed skating races in Chicago. Its first speed skating meet was held in 1900, Sleipner billing its meet the “Illinois State Championship” for the first few years. Another early Norwegian club and sponsor of major competition was the Northwest Skating Club, formed in 1904.13
The early skating meets in Chicago were most definitely Norwegian affairs. If one examines the early competitors to the “State Championship” sponsored by the Sleipner Club, one finds an overwhelmingly Scandinavian makeup among the competitors, particularly Norwegian. Last names, such as Halvorsen, Bergendahl, Nilsen, Larson, Anderson, Thorsen, and Gustofson abound. Biographies published on the winners indicate they were virtually all Norwegian born or of Norwegian extraction, but there were a few Swedes in the mix.14
These were not small meets, and they appeared to attract far more than Norwegian onlookers judging by the number of spectators. According to newspaper reports, at least 30,000 fans witnessed both the 1903 and the 1904 Sleipner meets. The Northwest Skating Club meet in 1905 pulled in some 26,000 fans.15
Americans were generally reluctant to allow women to participate in strenuous athletic endeavors during the first decades of the twentieth century, limiting their competition primarily to golf and tennis (in its less athletic incarnation). The Norwegians saw ice skating as a healthful outdoor activity that was common in the old country and saw no reason why women should be excluded from even the most vigorous form of the sport, speed skating. At the Sleipner Club’s tournament in 1904, a women’s quarter mile race was inaugurated with four competitors. The mainstream papers treated their participation as a novelty. The Chicago Tribune, for example, gave the story considerable ink, and the two photos it ran were both on the women competitors. But women’s events would become routine in skating meets thereafter.16
The women in their early years of competition did not exude athletic vigor as did the later competitors. Minnie Hobler winner in the Sleipner quarter mile race in 1904 refused a week later to compete in a women’s half-mile race, claiming she could not skate that distance. By 1918, when champion Rose Johnson was in their earl competing the women were far more athletic.17
A substantial part of the country’s skating industry developed in Chicago. The Norwegian settlement around Humboldt Park produced three of the leading skate manufacturers in the United States, all founded by Norwegians. They were Nestor Johnson, Alfred Johnson, and F.W. Planert & Sons. The Nestor Johnson Company, according to one source, invented the modern racing skate. Skaters in the 19th Century had attached wooden slabs with runners onto their shoes. Nestor Johnson, who was a former speed skating champion in Norway and owned a bicycle shop, took the concept of steel tubing from bicycles and used that to build a tubular frame to hold the skate blade and to attach it permanently to the shoe.18
By 1905, a whole array of skating clubs had been formed in Chicago, usually based in the city parks, such as the Douglas Park Skating Club and the South Park Skating Club. The sport was rapidly becoming a citywide phenomenon, while the Norwegian-Americans continued to dominate the high-end competition up to the early 1920s. Norwegian-American-sponsored meets, notably those of the Sleipner club, the Northwest Skating Club, and the Norwegian Turners Club, remained the biggest through the early 1920s. The Illinois Athletic Club at this time, however, recruited skaters from the Norwegian club to form a top speed skating club at this time, an indication that speed skating was spreading well beyond the Norwegian community. 19
In 1917, the Chicago Tribune, under the encouragement of its sports writer Walter Eckersall, began sponsorship of the Silver Skates Derby. The Silver Skates became the preeminent skating event in the country, attracting up to 60,000 fans and thousands of participants during its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. The annual event began with just a Senior Men derby quickly expanded, adding junior and women derbies. The first Silver Skates Derby was won by a Norwegian, Arthur Staff of the Northwest Skating Clubs, one of the oldest of the Norwegian clubs in the city. Staff the same year won the United States national championship. In the early years, Norwegian-Americans won most all of the competitions. The 1918 Silver Skates Senior Skates champion was Sigurd Larson of the Norwegian Turners. The 1921 Senior Skates winner was William Steinmetz of the Norwegian-American Club, who also won International title in 1922..20
By 1918 the elite skating clubs, were annually sponsoring some eight or nine major meets a year, and regularly including one or two women events. The speed skating season usually began in early January with the Sleipner Ice Derby, a speed skating tournament sponsored by the venerable Sleipner Athletic Club in Humboldt Park. Most were held outdoors on frozen lagoons, but some were indoors. In 1919, for example, there was an indoor meet at the Chicago Arena, with both men and women events. The men raced a two mile, while the women raced a quarter mile. The quarter mile was won by the top female speed skater in the city, Rose Johnson, of Norwegian heritage, representing the Illinois Athletic Club. In 1920, Rose Johnson won the first International (actually North American) women’s championship at a meet in Lake Placid, New York.21
In 1921 Silver Skates Derby added a women’s race, a half mile event. The women winner, whom everyone expected to win, was Rose Johnson, who had been winning just about every derby since 1918, Johnson went on to win two more International women’s outdoor championships in 1924 and 1925, to add to her 1920 championship. She was one of the greatest female speed skaters to come out of Chicago, which the Amateur Skating Union had failed to elect to its Hall of Fame after its founding in 1959. The 1922 Senior Women’s Silver Skates winner was another Norwegian-American, Ruth Muhlmeier of the Opal Skating Club..22
The Silver Skates proved to be a watershed event, as the Chicago Tribune not only almost daily promoted the Silver Skates but also reported on every other meet, high and low, in the city, thus generating a huge interest and growth in speed skating. The Tribune competition helped to bring thousands upon thousands of Chicagoans and suburbanites, boys and girls, women and men, to skating competition as they flocked to the outdoor skating rinks and skating ponds and lagoons preparing for the annual Silver Skates. By 1923, the Chicago area in the wintertime was dotted with more than 600 outdoor rinks (more than any other city). And thousands of boys and girls of all national origins were skating, and the winter season was filled with speed skating contests and dozens and dozens of skating clubs. Thus, Norwegian domination of the Silver Skates and other derbies soon ended as skaters of all ethnicities took up the sport 23
Out of their Norwegian origins, speed skating and skiing had become All-American sports. The Norwegians had participated speed skating as part of their ethnic heritage, and by doing so gave all of Chicago a sport in which the city excelled. Chicago became the only city in which its public high schools participated in speed skating competition, and Chicago area produced speed skating competitors in every winter Olympic Games. Skiing was not a city sport, but residents of the city and suburbs took up skiing in vacation trips to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Colorado. But during the 1920s, as historian Odd Lovoll, noted, “The social world of Norwegian America gradually dissolved…as the second generation escaped into American society.”24
1. Telephone interview with Eddie Schroeder, 1 April 1999, Florida; Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement of the United States (Northfield, Minnesota: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1938): 251; Ingrid Semmingsen, Norway to America: A History of the Migration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1978): 122-23; 34.
2. The “Norwegian-American population,” was determined by totaling the Norwegian-born population and the population of those with Norwegian parentage. That would give a fair approximation of those who most closely identify with their Norwegian heritage and customs. U.S. Census Office, Twelfth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1900, Volume I, Population (Washington, D.C.: United States Census Office, 1901): 798, 802, 875, 877.
3. “Climate of 100 Selected U.S. Cities,” Infoplease.com [http://www.infoplease.com/pa/Ao762183.html], accessed 23 November 2010; “Average Monthly Temperature 1931,” BASICS, Baltic Sea Region Statistical Database [http://www.grida.no/prog/norbal/basics/klimat/temp.htm], Constitution and By-Laws of the Middle Atlantic Skating Association, November4, 1922, lists addresses of various indoor rinks as well as outdoor rinks, pp. 42-48.
4. Odd S. Lovoll, A Century of Urban Life: The Norwegians in Chicago Before 1930 (Champaign, Ill.: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1988): 5, 11, 80. 157-5
5. Ibid., pp. 226-29.
6. Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America (Northfield, Minnesota: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1940): 581-82; Lovoll, p. 249.
7. Lovoll, pp. 240-41.
8. Ibid., pp. 249, 263, 309.
9. “Chicago Has ‘Norway Days,’” Chicago Tribune, 17 May 1908.
10. Lovoll, p. 252.
12. Begen, p. 576.13.
13. “Skaters at Humboldt Park,” Chicago Tribune, 1 January 1900; “First in Skating Race,” Chicago Tribune, 2 January 1902; “New Year’s Skate Scheduled,” Chicago Tribune, 29 December 1907; “Revival of Ice Skating,” Chicago Tribune, 17 January 1904.
14. Programme for the Skating Tournament for the State Championship, Sleipner Athletic Club, 1 January 1904 (Chicago: Sleipner Athletic Club, 1904), np.
15. “First Prize to Langley,” Chicago Tribune, 2 January 1903; Walter A. Bermingham, Ánderson Sets New Record in Skating Meet,” Inter Ocean, 23 January 1905.
16. “Thousands See Ice Racing,” Chicago Tribune, 11 January 1904; “Anderson Sets New Record in Skating Meet,” Inter Ocean, 23 January.
17. “Thousands See Skating Events,” Chicago Tribune, 18 January 1904.
18. Lovoll, p. 253; June Gardner, “Expert Worker Puts Soul into Shaping Skates,” Chicago Tribune, 9 January 1949; Gary Washburn, “A Lot of Good Skates Made Johnson Roll,” Chicago Tribune, 17 June 1975.
19, Walter Eckersall, “Norse Turners Take Ice Derby with 27 Points,” Chicago Tribune, 21 January 1918; “Chicago Ice Skating Championships,” Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year-Book for 1919 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News Company, 1918), p. 268
20. “Silver Skates Derby,” General Skating Information (Chicago: Alfred’s Ice King, ), 16-18. National, North American and U. S. Open Long Track Champions Senior Men Champions,” Speed Skating Handbook 2000 2001 (Winfield, IL: Amateur Speed skating Union of the United States, 2001), p. 162.
21. “Indoor Ice Race Taken by Reed,” Chicago Tribune, 25 February 1919; “M’Gowen Wins International Skating Title,” Chicago Tribune, 21 February 1920. This championship is not listed in the ASU handbook, which mistakenly begins its list of women’s champions with 1921.
22. Walter Eckersall, “Norse Turners Take Ice Derby with 27 Points,” Chicago Tribune, 21 January 1918; “Silver Skates Facts,” Chicago Tribune, 30 January 1921; Walter Eckersall, “Bill Steinmetz Wins Tribune’s Senior Ice Race,” Chicago Tribune, 31 January 1921; “National, North American and U. S. Open Long Track Champions Senior Women Champions,” Speed Skating Handbook 2000 2001 (Winfield, IL: Amateur Speed skating Union of the United States, 2001), p. 164.
23. Julian T. Fitzgerald, “America Is Turning More and More to Out-of-Door Winter Sports,” General Skating Information (Chicago: Alfred’s Ice King, ), 1.
24. “Plan Record Year On Ice fir School Lads,” Chicago Tribune, 29 December 1922; “Club, Boy Skaters in Three Derbies Today,” Chicago Tribune, 13 January 1923; “Englewood and Austin Share Skate Honors,” Chicago Tribune, 14 January 1923; “Austin Cleans Up H.S. Titles,” Chicago Tribune, 27 January 1924; Lovoll, p. 309.