Five Reasons to Skate at Puddle Dock Portsmouth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Skaters00HISTORY MATTERS

I have a brilliant new idea. Let's build a skating rink in the middle of  Strawbery Banke Museum. What say? Someone already thought of it? And you say a few people don't approve? Hmmm. I'm not much for politics, but I can tell you why this idea makes sense, a lot of sense, from an historian's point of view. (Click headline for full article) 

1. That used to be water  

They don't call it Puddle Dock for nothing. Up until the early 20th century the central field inside the museum gates used to be a body of water. "The Cove" flowed in from what is now the gardens at Prescott Park and under the Liberty Bridge where the flagpole still stands on Marcy Street. That explains why the houses at Strawbery Banke are ringed around a flat space once dotted with wooden wharves.

Hard to believe, but it has been suggested that  the Cove at Puddle Dock once rose enough at high tides to allow a small boat to navigate into the South Mill Pond. Tucked safely in from the swirling Piscataqua River, this tidal cove was an important feature to the original English settlers in 1630. The museum grounds form what used to be the back yard of the original plantation or "Great House" that likely stood where the Oracle House is today.

 Skating in Boston

The term Puddle Dock, like the name "Strawberry Bank," apparently derives from a location in England. The Puddle Dock region of London was a muddy area used as a dumping ground for barges carrying garbage collected in the city. Initially this area was the hub of Portsmouth maritime commerce. Before the Revolution, it was home of the rich, the famous, and the politically connected. The most powerful man in the province of New Hampshire, Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth, built his home at what is now the museum parking lot in 1695 overlooking Puddle Dock. But over time, our puddle also filled in with silt and by late in the nineteenth century it gave off a rank odor and was too clogged even for travel by canoe. The Cove was filled in and the neighborhood began to attract the city's immigrant and working-class poor. 

In the 1950s and 60s, Dorothy Vaughan, the first president of Strawbery Banke, wanted to dredge out the site and create a fresh water pond with small replica boats in the summer and skating in the winter. A skating rink here, reflecting the preserved, snow-covered, wooden houses would be the ideal way to visualize the way things used to be.

 Rusty Skate found at Strawbery Banke

2.  It's the neighborly thing to do.  

It is sheer coincidence, but just the other day a museum staffer found the blade of an ice skate in the basement of the Yeaton House on Atkinson Street. The rusty old skate is the kind that used to attach to the bottom of a boot. It may have been hanging around since the late 19th century. That doesn't mean the blade was used to skate on a nearby pond, but it serves to remind us that Puddle Dock was a neighborhood -- with stores, and kids, and families of all shapes, colors, and backgrounds.

Puddle Dock has been called "America's oldest neighborhood," and it was continuously occupied from 1631 until urban renewal in the early 1960s. A few renters have lived on the 10-acre campus ever since, and the new Heritage House program is creating income to restore 10 old buildings through residential and office rentals.

But most of all, since it opened in 1965, the museum campus has become a place of entertainment and education for all the neighborhoods of Portsmouth and beyond. Family skating in the winter is as natural to this historic site as the annual Candlelight Stroll and other seasonal events, including the July Fourth welcoming of new American citizens.

CONTINUE SKATING IN PORTSMOUTH

 


Cat skating on clam shells

3. Children need to come here.  

Learning to skate, ski, and sled safely are essential skills for children raised in New England. Nineteenth century Portsmouth authors BP Shillaber and TB Aldrich reveled in winter sports, but usually on the wild side. Shillaber, born in the North End, wrote about his "double-runner club" crashing their high-speed sled into a farmhouse. In another episode, a Portsmouth boy glued clam shells onto the feet of a cat in hopes of teaching it to skate on a pond with him. Aldrich, raised in the South End, described winter as the time when the average boy gets his ears frost-bitten, smashes his sled into another boy, bangs his head on the ice, and manages to "skate into an eel hole and be brought home half drowned."

Back in the 1970s, I knew a local boy who got in trouble on the ice. He was caught ferrying young passengers from Little Harbor School over to the cemetery and back on an iceberg. It was a risky ride, but he only charged 25 cents.

Safer than any frozen pond, a manmade rink at Strawbery Banke offers boys and girls the opportunity to learn to skate in a supervised environment. But you can do that at any indoor rink as well. The difference in Puddle Dock is that the skating would occur within the perimeter of that incredible historic neighborhood. The more time our kids spend around Portsmouth's historic houses, the better for all of us.

Don't look now, but we are losing our kids to  technology. Not only do they see the world on a tiny glowing screen, but we rarely teach our kids about history, especially local history. Instead even once-responsible TV channels are replacing educational history programming with garbage shows about ghost hunters and ancient aliens. In a precious few years, we will turn all our historic houses over to a new generation of stewards and benefactors. Will our children love and preserve historic Portsmouth as we have, or trade these buildings for gas stations and parking lots? The more fun these kids have at places like Strawbery Banke now, the more they will grow to cherish them.   

Skating in Portsmouth South Cemetery Pond /Portsmouth athenaeum

4. We've been here before 

According to a report by the Smithsonian Institution, the "first wave of enthusiasm for group sports swept America in the 1860s." The first recreational activity promoted among men, women, and children alike was -- you guessed it -- skating. Guides to on-ice etiquette fostered "a delicate respect for the feelings of others." Evening skating with live musical accompaniment was all the rage. 

Sure enough, a glance through a local newspaper archive finds a notice in 1859 suggesting the possibility of procuring a fire engine to flood the ice on both of Portsmouth's mill ponds. A skating field might then be created at a reasonable expense the Portsmouth Chronicle suggested. The city should immediately form a Union Skating Club, the writer said, elect officials, and collect dues to pay for the project.   

"Will not the city lend an engine, and cannot the whole thing be done by volunteers?" the Chronicle asked. Maybe it could in 1859, but no longer.

5. Portsmouth loves to skate 

In 1925 the Portsmouth City Council unanimously approved a budget of  $1,500 to maintain an outdoor ice rink under the Department of Public Works. The local Winter Sports Association agreed to work with the city on the plan, according to the Portsmouth Herald.  The 500 x 200 foot rink would be flooded to a depth of six inches and surrounded by a three foot fence, to be constructed by a company from Laconia.

The regulation-sized hockey rink, was constructed on top of the "upper pond" at the Pines off South Street. According to the newspaper, the construction was merely a matter of nailing together the boards and then spraying water into the enclosure "to give a proper skating surface." The same process was applied to the "lower pond" which would be dedicated to general family skating. The lower pond has flood lights, the paper noted, so that "it is available on the darkest nights." Plans were in motion to form a Portsmouth hockey team to compete with Amesbury, Exeter, and the University of New Hampshire. A two-horse plow was made available to clear the ice following snowstorms.

"This city has been starved for skating for years," the Herald reported, "and the crowds that have been on the ponds at the Pines and on the South Pond show the great interest there is in this wonderful winter sport."

Original work copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including STRAWBERY BANKE: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in the Making, available in local stores and on Amazon.com.