Why Don’t You Go Ice Skating at Castle Park? Barre gets an ice rink

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine January 2022 in the “Remember When” column with the title “Castle Park, Barre’s short-lived skating rink”

In December 1909, a Montreal-born stone mason-cum-successful Barre contractor and real-estate investor named Edmund Napoleon Normandeau slid in to save the town’s children from the perils of ice skating.

“Don’t go where it is unsafe, where the ice is treacherous and the water deep,” a February 1910 ad pleaded. “Why Don’t You Go Ice Skating at Castle Park Rink? You are SAFE here.”

This wasn’t just hyperbole. Throughout the 19th century into the 20th, newspapers from Minnesota to Maine reported drownings and near-drownings of overly-enthusiastic or unwitting skaters taking to potentially unstable frozen ponds, rivers and lakes, especially early or late in the season.

In December 1868, the Enterprise and Vermonter of Vergennes declared: “BE CAREFUL — The boys are tempting fate, as usual, by their venturesome daring on the ice .… A large number of deaths have already occurred from carelessness of skaters this season.”

While there are also many stories of those who jumped — literally, sometimes — to the rescue of an imperiled skater, all too often the endings were tragic. The very language of these stories implied just how common these heart-wrenching events were: Salem, Massachusetts, declared its “first skating fatality of the season” in December 1909. That same month, the Barre Daily Times reminded the town’s young citizens that “skating on thin ice is the same dangerous practice as it was last year, boys.”

And it was very often boys who fell prey to cracked and weak ice. But skating was also a favorite pastime of young adults and so, too, stories abound of young men and women, college-aged students, in particular, losing their lives.

Number 10 Pond in Calais, circa 1900. Photo courtesy Vermont Historical Society.
Children skating at the Brattleboro Retreat circa 1915. Photo courtesy Vermont Historical Society

In the late-1800s, beyond merely posting warnings in the newspapers, inhabitants and managers of northern towns and cities finally began tackling the problem. In 1862, Montreal opened a grand covered skating rink called the Victoria and its novelty received a lot of attention in Vermont’s newspapers. Soon thereafter, municipal rinks began popping up all over the place. In 1868 alone, Boston, New York, Syracuse and Portland, Maine, all opened the doors to their newly built rinks.

When Derby Line, Vermont, and Malone, New York, also opened their rinks that same year, Burlington felt left behind. Decrying the fact that Malone was a “village … with not half our population,” yet had opened a skating rink “with a grand skating ‘tournament,’” and article detailed. “Now that our city waterworks are completed a good rink is a possibility in this city,” the writer stated. But Vermont’s largest city had to wait another 12 years to fulfill his wish.

However, the young people of Barre had to wait even longer.

After a failed attempt in 1907 by hotelier J.D. Ossola to entice children to skate on his flooded empty lot on North Main Street — former site of his short-lived but fairly successful Castle Park Theatre (another story for another day) — E.N. Normandeau (“Mgr.”) stepped in.

Offering lighted night skating, skate rentals and, on occasion, free admission for the “Ladies,” Mr. Normandeau completed his skating rink “south of the brick house beside the Venetian restaurant” on Dec. 15, 1909. The news even made it to Montpelier’s Daily Journal, which informed its readers that the rink “at the Castle Park theatre on North Main Street” was expected to open to the public that day, “if the weather permits.”

The weather did permit and the rink was popular with Barre’s citizens. Organized hockey games were even played there. In fact (and this is pure speculation), this may have been the real impetus for the rink’s creation, not just the safety of the town’s young guns.

Arthur Boyea was a well-known hockey player, coach and referee at the time. He also happened to be Mr. Normandeau’s brother-in-law. Nicknamed in his skating days as the “Star of the North,” Boyea was remembered as a “skater of talent” and was still giving interviews as late as 1960. It is likely that Mr. Normandeau created the rink at the behest of his ice-loving relative. In fact, it is quite possible he was playing on the Canadian Club of Barre team when they went up against Norwich University on Feb. 18, 1910, one of the games known to have been played at Castle Park Rink.

The last mention of the rink was in March 1910 after only its second season. Soon, one would never know the rink — or the theater before it — had existed; by 1916, three dwellings occupied the lot on the corner of North Main Street and Ossola Place where they had once stood.

After Castle Park Rink melted for the final time, Barre residents who wanted to take to the ice had to make do on the iced-over marshlands that lay between Third and Sixth streets or the flooded tennis courts at Goddard Seminary. Eventually, in 1913, the Buzzell rink was built on Pearl Street. Here Norwich, Goddard and the Canadian Club hockey teams played and families skated until it was demolished sometime around 1920.

While some people today still skate on frozen ponds, rivers and lakes, accidents as frequent as those in previous centuries, are fortunately a frozen memory. Well-maintained indoor and/or outdoor municipal ice rinks can be found in most of Vermont’s towns — Including Barre, a town that can thank a certain French-Canadian contractor and (possibly) his hockey-loving brother-in-law for getting the ball, er, puck, rolling.

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