OLYMPIC LEGACY: The legacy begins
Lake Placid marks 90th anniversary of 1932 Winter Olympics
(Editor’s note: This story is part of an “Olympic Legacy” series to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. What happened that year led to this village hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980 and the continuing legacy of training Olympic athletes, inspiring future Olympians and hosting international winter sports events.)
LAKE PLACID — Beverley Pratt Reid sat in a blue recliner next to the fireplace of her Wilmington Road home on Friday, Jan. 14, two days before her 89th birthday. A mile away toward the village, just off the same road, she was born on Jan. 16, 1933, exactly one year after the Olympic Arena was dedicated for the III Olympic Winter Games.
Reid, who retired as the town and village historian at the end of 2021, has always had the word “Olympic” in her vocabulary. By the time she was old enough to begin skating at the arena, her older siblings had been using the Olympic facilities.
“They were all involved in the sports,” Reid said.
Some played hockey, some ski jumped, some skated. Her half brother, Stan Benham, was 18 years older and earned silver medals as the pilot of two- and four-man U.S. bobsleds during the 1952 Olympic Winter Games at Oslo, Norway. Benham was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 1983, and Reid joined him as a Hall of Fame inductee in 2015. She volunteered on the hockey and speedskating committees for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in her hometown.
In 1952, Reid was working in Albany and spoke to her friends about her brother competing at the Olympics.
“‘The Olympics? What are those?'” Reid recalled people asking. “People around me didn’t know what they were. Where here, all you had to do was say ‘Olympics’ and at that time they were referring to the 1932 Olympics.”
Reid’s family was one of many in Lake Placid that benefited from the venues built for the 1932 Winter Olympics.
“After the Olympics, we had the arena, we had the ski jumps, we had the bobrun,” she said. “And all of us children were so lucky to be able to use all of those facilities because they were all owned by the town. It was called the North Elba Park District. We had hockey games with the young kids. My little boys started when they were 4 years old playing hockey. And then they had the speedskating teams, and we had all those things going on from the time I was old enough to walk until even right up until today. Having the facilities was a big asset.”
The 1932 games helped promote Lake Placid, which led to economic growth during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
“It gave people work in 1932 building the facilities,” Reid said. “And so a lot of people moved in to build the facilities and stayed here.”
The Olympic venues were also available to host events for residents and visitors, conventions, professional hockey camps, international sporting events and athlete training.
On one hand, the legacy of the 1932 Winter Olympics was economic stability, especially during the Great Depression. And the benefit was immediate.
“That particular arena was really our main economic driver from 1932 to the 1970s, as far as being a magnet for figure skating training, for large events,” said Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, based in Lake Placid. “That’s sort of an icon coming out of the 1932 Olympics.”
In the summer of 1932, officials from the North Elba Park District, which owned and operated the arena, decided to fire up the ice-making machinery again and create an ice sheet “as an innovation in summer sports attractions in Lake Placid.”
The Lake Placid News reported on July 15, 1932, that 225 skaters enjoyed the ice sheet during the past weekend and Lake Placid speedskater Jack Shea — who won two gold medals during the 1932 Olympics — showed off some of his skating skills.
“Several figure skaters were seen about the ice sheet, roller skaters on the other half of the arena floor vieing [sic] in grace and skill with those on gleaming blades,” the News reported. “Boxers training for the Lake Placid Athletic Club bouts on July 28 were also seen in action at times during the skating.”
Legendary figure skating coach Gustave Lussi, who at the time was a full-time resident of Ottawa and summer resident of Lake Placid, also began coaching figure skaters at the arena that summer. He would go on to coach some of the best figure skaters in the world, including U.S. Olympic medalists Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill and Canadian Olympic medalist Donald Jackson.
“So popular did the innovation prove that extended plans are underway for the utilization of the ice surface at different times during the summer,” the News reported.
The arena hosted a midsummer ice carnival from July 30 to Aug. 6, 1932, ending with an ice pageant and fancy skating carnival. Some of the top figure skaters from the U.S. and Canada performed, as did members of the Adirondack Figure Skating Club under the direction of Lussi. The cost was $1.65 for box seats, $1.10 for other seats and 55 cents for people who wanted to stand.
When she was old enough, Reid skated at the arena as a member of the Skating Club of Lake Placid. On Dec. 30, 1944, when she was 11, she skated during the Winter Carnival coronation. Two actors from the new musical skating movie “Lake Placid Serenade” — Roy Rogers and Vera Hruba Ralston — were crowned the carnival king and queen.
“There were eight of us, and we were dressed up like reindeer, and we pulled the sleigh around the arena,” Reid said. “And then as I grew older … one of the big bands was here, and they dressed us up in Victorian dress, with the big hoops. … And my head piece was like two upside down ice cream cones, with a veil on it. And as I would go by, these people would laugh at me, and I was very insulted that they didn’t like my hat.”
Winter sports development
Lake Placid began developing as a cold-weather tourism destination in the winter of 1904-05. That’s when the Lake Placid Club, which opened in 1895 for summer visitors, invited some guests to spend time here during the winter months. The experiment proved so successful that it became a tradition at the Club, and more facilities had to be built for the winter crowds.
By the late 1910s, the Lake Placid Skating Association was hosting speedskating events on Mirror Lake, and the village’s first internationally sanctioned event — the International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships — was held in February 1920.
That same year, the Lake Placid Club formed the Sno Birds organization to promote a variety of winter sports activities and develop winter sports venues, including ski jumping at the Club’s Intervales property — the current location of the Olympic Jumping Complex.
In the spring of 1928, the Lake Placid Outing and Athletic Association reorganized and became the Lake Placid Athletic Club. It promoted summer and winter sports in the village.
That same spring, the North Elba Park District was formed. Today it operates venues such as the North Elba Show Grounds and the Lake Placid Toboggan Chute. In 1928, the town board set up this special taxing district to pay for parks, playgrounds and other sports facilities — including golf links, airports, toboggan slides and ski jumps — “to generally benefit the public health, welfare, safety and convenience of the residents of said district.”
“People don’t recognize the significance of the park district going back to the late 1920s,” McKenna said. “That really became the engine for our winter sports really right through until ORDA came to be in 1982. But the North Elba Park District was the reason we were able to do the 1932 Olympics.”
The town of North Elba eventually owned much of the land where the Olympic venues were built, including the bobsled run, speedskating oval (co-owned with the school), arena and ski jumps.
On the map
The 1932 Winter Olympics are important to Lake Placid’s history, in part, because it brought the Winter Olympics to the United States for the first time, according to Lake Placid Olympic Museum Director Alison Haas. The summer Olympics had been held in 1904 in St. Louis and were on tap to be held in Los Angeles in 1932. On April 10, 1929, Lake Placid was unanimously chosen to host the III Olympic Winter Games, outbidding six other locations in the U.S., plus Montreal, Canada, and Oslo, Norway.
“It was just further proof how Lake Placid could be at the forefront of being a location for both training and holding international events,” Haas said.
The Lake Placid Olympic Museum is currently being rebuilt as part of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority’s multi-million-dollar investment in the region’s Olympic facilities. Improvements have already been made at Mount Van Hoevenberg, the ski jumps, the speedskating oval and the 1932 and 1980 Olympic arenas. It’s all part of the village’s Olympic legacy, which began in 1932.
“I just want our community and our visitors that are coming to Lake Placid to have an understanding of this legacy,” Haas said. “There was all this construction that needed to happen for 1932, and so this is 90 years of continuing that legacy to continue having international events. If we hadn’t made the upgrades to the ski jumps, we wouldn’t have been able to hold the (USA Nordic) Olympic trials this past December. So we want to stay relevant, just as relevant as we were in 1932 and 1980 and still today.”
A major part of Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy is athlete development, which began in the late 1910s with speedskating. Lake Placid speedskater Charles Jewtraw became the first person in the world to earn a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, which he did at the inaugural games in 1924 at Chamonix, France.
The Adirondack region has sent at least one athlete to every Winter Olympics, including those being held this February in Beijing, China.
Lake Placid is also home to two Olympic teams — USA Luge and USA Bobsled/Skeleton — and athletes from USA Nordic and U.S. Biathlon train here regularly.
And the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee operates a training center in Lake Placid, hosting athletes for summer and winter sports.
“We’ve been able to maintain an international sports brand for over 100 years,” McKenna said. “Clearly it was totally enhanced by the 1932 games.”
This Olympic legacy was foretold in the April 19, 1929, issue of the Lake Placid News. The publisher at the time was George Lattimer, who wrote the Official Report for the 1932 Olympic Winter Games. In one of the newspaper’s editorials that week, the author could clearly see Lake Placid’s future after it was awarded the Olympics on April 10.
The day before, New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill to begin the process of constructing the Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway. Both projects were touted in the Lake Placid News editorial.
“This should be a great inspiration for future accomplishments. For Lake Placid will never be content now to rest on her oars. Such a condition would be unthinkable. Right around the corner there are tasks waiting for us. There are many situations right in the village itself that could well be remedied or improved.
“In the long run the biggest return that will come to Lake Placid and her sister cities and villages of the Adirondacks from the securement of the Olympics and the building of the Whiteface highway will be the proof positive that they both supply of what can be done when people want a thing done and then set out to work intelligently to get it done.
“This resort has just left the mark in the race for things so much larger and better than we can now visualize that as the years unfold we and those who come after us can look back and note that the starter’s gun was fired in the winter of 1928-29.”