The Backstory: Ice Skating in Ann Arbor

Humans have been skating for over three millennia. Based upon a pair of ice skates found at the bottom of a Swiss lake, scientists believe that people have been gliding across the ice since about 1,000 B.C.E. Possibly, the activity began when someone needed to get away from someone (or something) quickly… and across a frozen body of water.

It is conceivable that Ann Arborites have been ice skating since someone realized that the Huron River froze in the most delightful ways. One of the earliest local mentions of ice skating comes from the Michigan Argus, which reprinted an article proclaiming skating as “one of the most exhilarating of all pastimes.” It also recommended that one wear a “vail” in cold weather lest one catch the deadly disease of pneumonia, and advised against carrying anything in one’s mouth while ice skating because, well, even in 1862 they knew that was not a wise thing to do. 

The December 1, 1893 issue of the Ann Arbor Argus noted that over 200 ice skaters were on the Huron River the previous Sunday. It also reported that skaters found Allmendinger’s carp pond safe to skate on, if a “bit crowded.” And the ice on the Argo Dam was “like an immense field of glass” as skaters flocked to it. 

Pictures of happy kids skating at Burns or Allmendinger Park in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are easily found in the online archives of the Ann Arbor News. In 1964, the supervisor of the parks department, Sheldon Sproull, asked voters to approve a bond to pay for an outdoor artificial ice rink at Veterans Memorial Park. He noted that natural ice rinks were costly and difficult to maintain and noted that, if this rink was built, “the city possibly may find it can eliminate some of its ‘natural’ ice skating surfaces.” The city built that ice rink at Veterans Park in 1972, and later another ice arena at Buhr Park. The pictures of happy skaters at natural rinks seem to stop after that time.

Until this year. At a city council meeting in May of last year, Stephen Kunselman proposed taking $89,169 from the general fund reverses for the creation of natural ice rinks at Allmendinger, Burns, and Northside parks. The idea passed council unanimously. Kunselman fondly remembers skating while a kid in Ann Arbor. “There were about seven outdoor rinks at one time,” he recalls. “I spent most of my time at Scheffler Park, near Huron Parkway and Platt. Most of the rinks had outdoor shelters with little furnaces, bathrooms.” 

Kunselman was thrilled to use natural rinks to teach his young children to ice skate in the late 1990s. When his now adult children returned home over the holidays, the whole family went ice skating together. “The whole era of growing up and having that opportunity to ice skate, and then being able to teach my own kids…it is all one big fond memory,” Kunselman says. 

The excitement over the new natural ice rinks is shared by many. City Councilmember and Parks Advisory Commission member Julie Grand says, “I have never heard such a uniformly positive and effusive response to a city amenity in my entire time on either Parks Commission or City Council.” She has received numerous personal responses from residents saying how the rinks bring the neighborhood—young and old—together, and how they have watched kids learning to skate under the guidance of their parents. 

Ten-year-old Jaegun Song spent some time this weekend skating at Northside park with his family. He sums it up the best, saying, “It’s pretty cool to have an ice rink behind your school because it’s so close." 

May we all be gliding on the ice for another three millennia.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website, as well as at bookstores in the Ann Arbor area.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.