Tag Archives: hockey

Gilded Age Ice Skater Carved Early Path

Staatsburgh State Historic Site, formerly the Gilded Age estate of the very wealthy and socially-prominent Ruth Livingston Mills and her husband, financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills, sits along the eastern bank of the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Commanding a view of the river and the Catskill Mountains, the estate’s Beaux-Arts mansion was once the scene of elegant house parties each autumn weekend for the glitterati of American society. The home is still filled with the original furnishings, art and décor chosen by Ruth and Ogden Mills after its redesign by prominent architect, Stanford White, circa 1895, from a 25-room home built by Ruth’s great-grandfather into the 79-room house we see today. 

Touring the home, one is struck by its opulence but also by its regal formality: Ruth’s bedroom, with its hand-carved bed on a platform, surmounted by a lavish baldachin (a kind of ceremonial canopy), and surrounded by walls of raspberry silk brocade, seems well-suited for a queen of society. 

Ruth Mills’ bedroom at the Staatsburgh Mansion.
A formal portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills painted in 1909 by artist François Flameng. Learn more about this portrait in this January 2018 post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Among her peers, Ruth was known for her acumen as a hostess, her exclusivity (reportedly opining that there were only 20 wealthy families in New York worth knowing), and her imperious poise.  As one of her contemporaries said:

“[Ruth Mills] would invite [guests] to her house…greet them with a limp hand, languidly extended, and a far-away expression, and then apparently forget their existence.  They were chilled but impressed.”

While it might be difficult to image, this reserved, aloof woman also had an athletic side uncommon for most women of that time. She helped build the popularity of the sport of figure skating as an early prominent practitioner and benefactor. And she also had a hand in the opening of one of the earliest indoor refrigerated ice rinks in North America.

My research into her history revealed some parallels with my own life. I have been a competitive figure skater for more than 20 years, and am a U.S. Figure Skating Gold Medalist after passing tests in four disciplines including freestyle and ice dancing. Now, I coach young skaters at a rink in nearby Saugerties.

For me, like it might have been for Ruth Mills, skating is athletic and artistic, allowing one expression through music and dancing.

Ruth Mills’ skating was widely recognized during her time. An 1893 New York Herald article praised her as an accomplished and graceful ice skater.  According to the newspaper, Ruth started skating with her twin sister Elisabeth when they were girls. That would have been during the 1860s, which was a time when skating was starting to become very popular in the United States. By that time, men and women were skating together on the same ponds (one of the few athletic activities where both genders were involved together), and even the press was supportive of women skating, extolling the health benefits.

Figure skating was the first sport where women participated for the pure joy of it and where their participation with men was widely accepted.  Skating became so popular in the mid-19th century that there was an estimated crowd of 100,000 on the pond in New York City’s Central Park on Christmas Day in 1860.

Newspapers of the day took note of Ruth Mills, with one reporter writing in the 1890s: “Mrs. Ogden Mills is quite too graceful and proficient.  As if by common assent, the others stop a moment to watch her do the double Philadelphia grapevine, about the most difficult gyration on ice known to the expert.” By this point, Ruth Mills would have been about 40 years old.

A portion of an account from the New York Herald on Jan. 6, 1895 on Ruth Mills’ skating technique.

Watchers of skating today might not recognize this move, but the double Philadelphia grapevine was seen as one of the most complex techniques of its time. As described in a contemporary magazine: “The double grapevine is the same as the single, except that a loop is introduced at the beginning and also at the end of the figure. It is executed, as in the single grapevine, by passing the right foot in front of the left foot with the chain step; but instead of making a half revolution, as in the single, the body is swung completely around by the means of two turns on the right foot and an inside loop on the left.”

Maria Reynolds demonstrates the double Philadelphia grapevine skating technique.
Illustration of the double grapevine technique from a skating instruction book of the period.

While newspapers of this time made a habit of fawning praise over wealthy and powerful members of New York society, it is clear that Ruth was an accomplished skater. To the modern skater, the fact that Ruth could maneuver gracefully on ice, in the corset and multiple layers of clothing covering her from neck to foot, which Gilded Age women were required to wear, makes her ability even more impressive.

Given Ruth Mills’ self-composed demeanor, I find it hard to imagine her falling on the ice in front of people. But she must have started skating very early in life and put in much practice to become as skilled and confident as she was. Some of that early practice likely must have been on the rough ice of the frozen Hudson River at Staatsburgh when she was growing up.

We know that the river was a very popular place to skate and we have a photo of the estate superintendent’s family skating in 1916.  The cove area near the estate’s powerhouse was a popular place for local village residents to skate.

Agnes and Bill Blair, children of the caretaker of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, skate on the Hudson River circa 1916.

While Staatsburgh was the primary residence of Ruth and Ogden Mills in the autumn, like many of their social set, the couple traveled with the seasons. New York City was where the elites dwelled in the winter months, as it was the season of the opera, and of lavish balls given in assorted Fifth Avenue mansions.

Whether dancing or ice skating, the elites of New York always preferred to pursue their leisure apart from the common folk, and in 1896, many of the wealthiest families, including Ruth and Ogden Mills, contributed to the construction of one of the earliest indoor ice rinks built in New York City, the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

Skaters at St. Nicholas Rink in 1901. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

When skating depended on a pond or river to freeze, skaters were at the whim of mother nature (sometimes they had only 15 to 20 days a season to skate), but after the creation of indoor ice surfaces, the skating season would extend much longer.

The St. Nicholas Skating Rink also was one of the earliest indoor ice rinks made of mechanically frozen ice in North America. The arena also was the site of the first game between women’s ice hockey teams in the United States, when in 1917 the St. Nicholas team defeated Boston 1–0.

An illustration in a 1900 issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine shows fashionable women playing ice hockey at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. (Photo Credit- Hockeygods.com)

Building this rink was an investment of $300,000 (more than $9 million today) contributed principally by elite patrons like the Mills. Located on West 66th street, the rink was less than four blocks from the couple’s mansion, and contemporary newspapers accounts stated that Ruth Mills skated there nearly every morning.

Shortly after the rink opening, an article in The New York Times noted that Mrs. Mills was to host an “ice tea.”  Not the popular beverage, this exclusive social event included both skating on the rink and tables to consume tea and light refreshments.

An item in the April 5, 1896 edition of the New York Times announcing Ruth Mills’ “ice tea” event at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

So here, Ruth Mills got to combine her interests in both luxurious entertaining and skating. Sadly, the St. Nicholas Rink was demolished in the 1980s after a long history of hosting skating and boxing matches.

If you would like to know more about this family, and the Gilded Age lifestyle they led and the mansion in which they lived it, make a trip to Staatsburgh State Historic Site the Taconic Region.

Nearly 200 acres of the historic Mills estate is within the Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills Memorial State Park, which is open every day, all year, from sunrise to sunset, with no fee for park entry.  It includes the Dinsmore Golf Course, one of America’s oldest golf courses, as well as trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.

Guided tours and special programs are offered at the Mills mansion year-round; for programs information and hours of operation, call (845) 889-8851, or visit our website.

The 79-room Mills Mansion, which is located on the 120-acre Staatsburgh State Historic Site in Dutchess County. (Photo Credit- Andrew Halpern)

Cover Photo: The St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Maria Reynolds, Ph.D., Historic Site Assistant / Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Reynolds has given lectures at Staatsburgh on “Gilded Age Tea & Talk” program series, presented each winter.  Now in its sixth season, this program series offers guests the chance to enjoy the site’s custom tea blend, created by Harney & Sons, along with scones, clotted cream, tea sandwiches and sweets, served in the mansion’s opulent formal dining room while listening to talks on various aspects of Gilded Age history. 

Ice, Ice Baby at Chenango Valley State Park

The Ice Age, which helped form Chenango Valley State Park in the Southern Tier about 12,000 years ago, is back in a big way.

After leaves are off the trees, but before the snow flies, park crews will create what is possibly the largest refrigerated outdoor ice rink in North America. And when they build it, hockey players young and old will come. 

At 24,200 square feet, this mechanically-generated ice sheet is more than 40 percent larger than the temporary outdoor facilities set up by the National Hockey League, which plays a handful of its contests outside each year.

Behold the frozen home of the Binghamton Pond Festival (called Pond Fest for short), a series of outdoor amateur hockey tournaments and youth events in the park that started in 2016, and now is drawing hundreds of youth and adult players to Broome County in January from as far away as California and Texas.

Teams compete at the Binghamton Pond Fest last year. Larger than an NHL rink, the Pond Fest refrigerated rink is divided into four sections.
Young skaters take to the ice.
A youth team member gets her game face on.

This year’s fest starts January 11 and again benefits the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier and its programs focused on youth suicide prevention and youth mental health awareness.

Pond Fest owes it creation and growing success to two men — Tytus Haller, its founder, and Mike Boyle, manager at Chenango Valley State Park — and to the reliability of mechanical refrigeration to create and keep ice even when Mother Nature is not cooperating.

“Our first two years, in 2016 and 2017, we were running the tournament on the lake. We’d be out there checking the ice all the time,” said Haller.

And both years, unusually warm weather during the tournament left the ice in poor condition, which reduced the appeal to potential players. Said Haller, “The first couple of years, it was mainly a local crowd.”

Tytus Haller, founder and executive director of Binghamton Pond Fest, and his wife, Libbie.

But that all changed when Haller — the assistant director of the SUNY Broome Ice Center in nearby Binghamton — decided if winter was going to be unreliable, it was time to free Pond Fest from the weather with a mechanical refrigeration system.

Such systems use glycol, tubes, pumps, and “chiller” machines to drop the temperature of refrigerated tubing beneath a rink into the mid-teens. This forms an ice sheet that can be maintained even in warm weather.

All Haller had to do was figure out a way to get the equipment, which was going to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars.

With the help of state Sen. Fred Askhar, who got a $150,000 grant to help Chenango Valley buy much of the rink system, the 2018 tournament was the first played played on refrigerated ice.

“Things really took off then and in 2019, when word got out what we had and what we were doing,” Haller said. “I have not found anyone else in North America that has a refrigerated outdoor rink as large as ours.”

Now, the tournament in the park is drawing youth and adult teams from states beyond New York including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and California.

One of those coming in with a youth team in 2020 is Dallas resident Seth Turner. He has ties to Haller and the region after attending and playing hockey at Broome Community College some two decades ago.

He attended the initial Pond Fests without refrigeration, and saw how it all changed once the equipment was added. Now a youth hockey coach in Dallas, Turner pitched the idea of a January trip to upstate new York to local families, and eight are taking on the expense to send their kids to Pond Fest.

“Having refrigeration is the pitch,” Turner said. “I was able to tell parents that their kids would be playing, no matter what, whether it was raining, or sunny, or snowing. And that we would be playing in a beautiful park, in the woods. That made it an easy sell.”

Hockey is an increasingly popular sport in Dallas, he said, due to the presence of the city’s NHL team, the Stars. Local interest is even stronger now that the NHL will play its outside “Winter Classic” on a refrigerated ice sheet in that city’s Cotton Bowl in January.

At Pond Fest, adults have three-on-three and four-on-four tournaments. Youth teams have six and 16 players for a weekend of hockey and other fun in the park. Pond Fest also hosts a skills and skating clinic and will now offer private rentals of the ice sheet.

Fireworks reflect off the ice at Pond Fest.

Boyle said the festival draws fans and families into the 1,137-acre park along the Chenango River, which also features sledding and cross-country skiing in the winter. The park’s two lakes – Chenango and Lily – were formed as glaciers retreated at the end of the most recent Ice Age.

“We love this event,” Boyle said. “We hope this keeps going for years and years to come.”

The park has added a fire hydrant near the rink, to make it easier to spray water on the rink mat system. Water has to be sprayed repeatedly in thin layers to freeze in order to make the strongest ice, a process that can take about a week to get the proper thickness on such a large ice sheet.

“Our crew here at Chenango Valley State Park has been fantastic. We have learned a lot about making an ice rink,” said Boyle. “We could build an ice rink in Florida now, if we had to.”

An electrical power upgrade is also in the works, which will reduce the need for portable electric generators that Haller has been bringing to power his multiple chiller units and pumps that move the 2,750 gallons of chilled glycol through the rink’s tubing system. His not-for-profit organization, Broome Winterworks, devotes about $25,000 annually to cover equipment rental, which is just a small part of the expenses that go into the event.

The rink refrigeration system set up before layers of water are sprayed inside to form the ice sheet. The freezing process takes about a week.
The finished rink.

Haller said the tournament in the park has turned into an economic benefit for the county, as visitors need lodging and meals.

“There are not a lot of outdoor tournaments that have a refrigerated system like we do. We are getting visitors coming up here from southern states, because they know we are going to have ice, even if it is 60 degrees and sunny,” he said. “It is no different than when people from New York State go south to the beaches during the winter. We have something here that they want and many of our players refer to the Binghamton area as a hidden gem.”

In addition to creating the wintertime fun, the multi-weekend event donates money to various youth programs including more than $23,000 so far to fight youth suicide, said Joanne Weir, development director of the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier. The money supports the association’s DFID (Do It For Daron) program, named after a 14-year-old who died by suicide.

“We are thankful for the awareness that is provided to our association by this amazing event,” said Weir. “The Binghamton Pond Festival has continued to grow each year, and so have the conversations. Every step that we can take at breaking down the stigma associated with mental illness is a win – on or off the ice!”

Film and television star (and amateur hockey player) Steve Carell gets a look at a Pond Fest 2018 winner’s trophy with members of a women’s team from California after their return home.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks.


All photos courtesty of Binghamton Pond Festival

Have a team interested in playing at Pond Fest? Registration information is available here.

Interested in ice skating available at other State Parks this winter? Check out this list.