OLYMPIC LEGACY: ‘Mecca’ of winter sports

Clubs, athletes began Lake Placid’s winter sports development more than 100 years ago

This photo shows speedskating action on Mirror Lake during the International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships in February 1920. It was the first internationally sanctioned sporting event in Lake Placid. The Lake Placid Club buildings can be seen across the lake. Local athletes such as Charles Jewtraw competed in these races. (Photo provided — Lake Placid Olympic Museum)

(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 — Lake Placid Olympic Museum Director Alison Haas walked between two shelving units packed with nondescript boxes of all shapes and sizes. Most were labeled only with numbers — ones you might find in a museum’s archives — 2019.012, 2019.013, 2019.014.

She took a small box off the shelf and opened it, thumbing through newspaper articles and periodicals about the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932.

“Interesting Facts about the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bob-run,” was a chapter heading that stood out. Published before the Olympics were scheduled for Feb. 4 to 13, it touted the bobsled run as “the first one of international specifications ever built on the North American continent.”

Seen here in January 2020, Lake Placid Olympic Museum Director Alison Haas looks at artifacts that help tell the story of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Haas continued the tour of the storage space, picking out artifacts that help tell the story of the village’s two Olympic games. The date was Jan. 23, 2020, three weeks before Lake Placid began celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Today — with the state Olympic Regional Development Authority currently rebuilding the museum — Haas is reflecting on the 90th anniversary of the 1932 games.

“I think that the 1930s with the Great Depression just really demonstrates how hard it was and how much dedication went into those games from a local perspective,” she said. “It’s just bringing the games back to basics before everything became so commercial. In our collection, flags were hand painted, socks were hand knit. It just feels like more of a true love of sport.”

Haas grew up in St. Lawrence County, graduating from Potsdam High School in 1996. She’s too young to remember Lake Placid’s Winter Olympics; she was less than 2 years old during the 1980 games. But that doesn’t mean her life hasn’t been impacted by this village’s Olympic legacy. It has, in a big way.

“I grew up as a figure skater, so I would come to Lake Placid in the summer to figure skate from time to time,” she said. “And what rink was that? That was the 1932 Olympic Arena.”

Summer skating at the arena began in 1932 with the Adirondack Figure Skating Club. The club was reorganized in December 1935 and renamed the Lake Placid Figure Skating Club, according to the Dec. 20, 1935 issue of the Lake Placid News. It’s a tradition that continues today with the same organization, now called the Skating Club of Lake Placid.

Lake Placid speedskaters pose in 1919. From left are Charles Jewtraw, James Hennessey and Ray Bryant. (Provided photo — Lake Placid Olympic Museum)

“That skating program had such a legacy,” Haas said. “Now, here I am as a child in the 1980s coming here to skate in this arena.”

In the early 1990s, Haas earned a gold medal at the Empire State Winter Games in Lake Placid as part of the Rainbow Connection synchronized skating group from the Potsdam Figure Skating Club.

After graduating from St. Lawrence University with a degree in art history, working at an auction house in Boston for a year-and-a-half, and studying the history of design at Kingston University’s graduate school near London, England, Haas was ready for a change. She realized she wasn’t a city girl, so she moved to a familiar small town in the Adirondacks — Lake Placid — in the early 2000s.

At first, Haas worked at hotels such as the Holiday Inn and Lake Placid Lodge before the Lake Placid Olympic Museum hired her as a ticket seller in 2004. She became the museum’s director in February 2012.

The legacy of the 1932 Winter Olympics includes the creation of jobs at ORDA — formed in 1981 to manage the Olympic venues after the 1980 games — jobs like Haas’s at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum. She now lives in Wilmington with her husband Drew and 8-year-old daughter. He works at Haselton Lumber in Wilmington.

A monument dedicated to the memory of Lake Placid speedskater Charles Jewtraw, who won a gold medal at the 1924 Winter Olympics, is seen here in Jewtraw Park on Station Street, located on the shore of Mill Pond. Jewtraw used to practice and compete here at the Newman rink. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

As of Wednesday, Jan. 26, ORDA had 1,329 workers on payroll, according to ORDA spokesperson Elise Ruocco. That includes all the venues it operates: Olympic Center arenas (65 full time, 34 part time/seasonal), Olympic Jumping Complex (35 FT, 12 PT), Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg (42 FT, 56 PT), and the ski centers at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington (46 FT, 288 PT), Gore Mountain in North Creek (45 FT, 398 PT) and Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills (35 FT, 273 PT).

The state has invested millions of dollars modernizing the Olympic venues in Lake Placid and Wilmington over the past several years. In the economic development portion of her 2022-23 budget proposal, Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to give ORDA another $105 million. That includes $92.5 million for an “upgrade and modernization plan” to improve Olympic facilities and ski resorts, mainly to prepare for the 2023 Winter World University Winter Games.

“These events will attract thousands of visitors and contribute to Lake Placid’s reputation as a world class destination,” the budget’s briefing book states.

Winter sports begin

Formed in 1895, the Lake Placid Club invited guests to spend the winter of 1904-05 at one small clubhouse. The Club included an ever-growing complex of buildings on the shore of Mirror Lake. The winter stay was a novel idea, and Club owners weren’t sure it would be a success.

“A few hardy souls tried the Adirondack snow and found it good,” stated the Official Report of the III Olympic Winter Games. “They even found it enjoyable and hastened to tell their friends of their discovery.”

It was the beginning of something big in Lake Placid — a turning point — the proverbial snowball sent down a mountain that kept getting bigger the more it raced to the bottom. That snowball is still moving and growing to this day.

“More came the next year — still more the year after,” the Olympic report continued. “And so the annual winter hegira to the snow-covered peaks and forest trails of the Adirondacks began.”

As Lake Placid grew as a resort, so did its winter sports development, thanks in large part to the organized efforts of the Lake Placid Club.

“People had almost literally to be taught how to enjoy winter, and they had to be given facilities with which to make that enjoyment complete,” the report states.

The Club flooded tennis courts for a skating rink, built toboggan chutes and ski jumps, and held informal outings and formal competitions. After 10 years, however, promoting winter sports in Lake Placid was more than a Club activity; it involved the entire community.

On the front page of its Jan. 23, 1914 issue, the Lake Placid News wrapped up a decade of winter tourism development with an editorial-style piece titled, “Winter in Lake Placid.”

“Time was and not so long ago when winter meant either going into the lumber woods to work, or sitting round the kitchen stove to shiver and wait for spring,” the LPN stated. “To see city folks up north in the winter was to assume tuberculosis as the only possible explanation. All this but a few years ago.”

The story spoke about the Lake Placid Club’s experiment in the winter of 1904-05, winter sports in places around the world such as St. Moritz in Switzerland, and the endless possibilities for Lake Placid as a winter tourism destination.

“Placid in winter was yesterday a nightmare. Placid in winter today is an awakening. Placid in winter tomorrow is a vision.”

Village leaders were touting winter tourism more than ever that year. In its Mid-Winter Festival extra edition on Feb. 5, 1914, the Lake Placid News wrapped up the front-page stories with a bold headline: “PLACID MECCA OF THRONGS AS FESTIVAL REACHES CLIMAX.” The News reported on the variety of activities, such as hockey games, speedskating races, the Board of Trade ball at the opera house, the skating masquerade on Mirror Lake, and the villagewide decorating contest.

Local interest in winter sports led to the creation in early 1914 of the Lake Placid Skating Association, a member of the International Skating Union that began hosting speedskating races on Mirror Lake. Races were also held at the Club’s rink. Lake Placid hosted the Eastern Outdoor Skating Championships in February 1919 and the village’s first internationally sanctioned event a year later.

Henry Uihlein II

In March 2015, Haas reported that the Lake Placid Olympic Museum had “recently rediscovered a scrapbook dating from the 1910s to the 1920s, and we were fascinated by what it revealed.”

The scrapbook was created by Henry Uihlein II (1896-1997), whose collegiate career was cut short in 1916 by tuberculosis. He took the cure in Lake Placid, spending 10 months of the year at the Lake Placid Club and two summer months in Wisconsin with his grandparents, according to his obituary. During Uihlein’s early days in Lake Placid, he became a proponent of speedskating and was elected president of the Lake Placid Skating Association in 1919. Later in life, he became a philanthropist and director of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company (a family business).

Speaking of the scrapbook, Haas said in 2015, “This treasure reveals a new story of how Lake Placid became a mecca for winter sports.” More notably, it revealed that Lake Placid Club founder Melvil Dewey’s son Godfrey shouldn’t be the only one responsible for winter sports development in Lake Placid.

“History always gives credit to Godfrey Dewey, president of the 1932 Olympic Winter Games,” Haas said, “but Henry should no longer be overlooked and is equally important to our story.”

The album includes black-and-white photographs, newspaper clippings and speedskating mementos.

“When our staff first looked through the scrapbook, we were amazed to learn that largely through Henry Uihlein’s efforts, Lake Placid gained world-wide recognition when Uihlein brought the village’s first international event in 1920 when they hosted the International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships,” Haas said.

In a story detailing the history of the Lake Placid Skating Association, the Lake Placid News on Feb. 14, 1919, said officers of the organization recognized that they “must attain a backing and a strength, both financial and through enthusiasm, whereby it would be enabled to hold here in Lake Placid events which would be considered of importance by people outside of this community and of such a character as to attract the best skaters from all parts of the United States and Canada.”

The commitment by Uihlein and other winter sports boosters led to the village hosting the 1920, 1921 and 1924 International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships and a variety of other regional and national championships.

Athlete development

In order to build up Lake Placid’s reputation as a winter sports mecca, there was a concerted effort to groom athletes. The facilities were here. Competitions were being held. It was a natural progression. The thought: Groom enough successful local athletes and attention will be drawn to Lake Placid. It started with the Lake Placid Skating Association.

“As early as the winter of 1916-1917, it was recognized by the officers of the association that they would never be able to branch out and obtain any sort of recognition or standing in the greater associations, viz. the Eastern Skating Association and the International Skating Association, unless and until they developed skaters here worth of being sent to the big meets of the other associations throughout the country,” stated the Lake Placid News on Feb. 14, 1919.

The strategy worked.

Most of Lake Placid’s young residents took part in winter sports for the sheer fun of it, yet some were more ambitious. Eventually, the village was home to superstar athletes such as speedskaters Jack Shea, winner of two gold medals at the 1932 Winter Olympics, and his idol Charles Jewtraw, who won the very first gold medal at an Olympic Winter Games in 1924 at Chamonix, France.

In January 1916, a 15-year-old Jewtraw competed in skating races at the Newman Masquerade, at the rink on the Mill Pond ice (Jan. 21, 1916, Lake Placid News).

That section of town was called Newman at the time. A monument at the Station Street park that bears his name marks the Olympian’s beginnings: “It was on the Mill Pond that ‘Chick’ made his start to world fame.”

Jewtraw won the half-mile and mile races on the Newman rink. The following month, Jewtraw won a two-mile race on Mirror Lake (Feb. 11, 1916, LPN). Three years later, he won the Eastern Outdoor Skating Championships on Mirror Lake.

“… winning every heat and every race added fresh laurels to the growing reputation of his home town,” reported the Feb. 21, 1919 LPN.

Jewtraw was the national speedskating champion in 1921, state champion in 1922, international champion in 1923 and was named to the U.S. speedskating team in 1924 for the first Olympic Winter Games, where he won the 500-meter race.

In many ways, Jewtraw and the Lake Placid Skating Association paved the way for generations of athletes from the Adirondack North Country Region, whether they were future Olympic speedskaters like Jack Shea or future figure-skating museum directors like Alison Haas.

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