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Winter Sports in East Gwillimbury: Skating

Now that we have arrived at a new year (and a new modified shutdown), it is now more important than ever to engage in outdoor recreation. Not only does it provide much needed physical activity, but also serves to meet with friends and family in a safe and healthy way. Since ice skating is one of the more popular winter sports in the world, today’s post will discuss the history of skating generally, and then we will talk about some skating-related occurrences that happened in the East Gwillimbury area, which were uncovered through newspaper articles and locals writing about their own experiences.

Skating emerged in Scandinavia between 4,000 to 2,000 years ago as a means of transportation between two locations. It gradually spread to other northern countries where water would freeze during the winter. The earliest types of skates were made from the shanks (or rib bones) of elk, caribou, or other large animals; the word ‘skate’ seems to derive from an early German word schake, meaning shank. People would skate on the canals in Holland during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. This was a popular subject for many portrait artists such as Hendrick Avercamp’s “A Scene on the Ice” (C. 1625).

First Nations groups in Canada, specifically the Iroquois, would tie animal bones to their footwear using leather thongs; and as early as 1604, French explorers were using skates to traverse the landscape.[1] The sport of skating was introduced to Canada in the 1840’s by British officers who were garrisoned in Upper Canada; it quickly gained a strong following, as it was thought to be an appropriate sport for girls and women to engage in for exercising purposes.

Locally, people would skate on naturally formed ponds as opposed to artificial skating rinks. In Queensville, the first skating rink “was opened at the north end of the Village in 1900 and then moved to Mill Street in 1922. [Later on], it was removed and rebuilt in the community park…”[2] In fact, Harry Hulse of Queensville would tour Canada and enter into speed skating competitions. He became famous as a speed skater in 1895 where, during a championship in Cleveland, he won the 440-yard skate final by doing it in 36 seconds’ flat.[3] He was very famous in Canada, but he could not break through onto the international skating scene. He died on August 12, 1959, in York County Hospital at the age of 84.

Grace Watts (nee Lepard) remembers that during her childhood, the senior classes at the Holland Landing would be “treated to skating parties of a Friday afternoon at the Long Pond on the Village’s west side.”[4] She could not participate in these skating excursions because she had weak ankles and did not own a pair of ice skates. Her husband Bill recalled that as a teenager that he and his friends would go to the ponds on the west side of town, known as the “Long Pond” or the “Square Pond” on a wintery afternoon to skate and play hockey. Unfortunately, these naturally occurring ponds no longer exist.[5] They were lost when the area was devastated by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The water levels in the river became diminished and were permanently changed due to this once-in-a-lifetime weather event.

Do you have any fond memories of skating in this area? If so, please let us know in the comment section below!

Figure 1: Speed skaters from the Old Orchard Skating Club, Toronto, c. 1925.

[1] Schrodt, Barbara. (2015, March 4). “Ice Skating”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from [2] Rolling, Gladys (1967). “East Gwillimbury in the 19th Century”. Toronto: Ryerson Press. Page 129. [3] Adams, Ralph M. (1936, April 2). “Broke World Skating Record, Ye Realme of Ancient Sporte”. Newmarket Era. Retrieved from [4] Watts, Grace & Watts, Bill. (2004) Holland Landing in the Post-War Years (in the Mid-1940’s and early 50’s). Oshawa, ON: The Label Shop Plus: 6. [5] Ibid, 16.

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