By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” I can remember the giant icicles hanging, almost to the ground, from our house at 245 Crest Drive. Chunks of black cinder mixed with the snow along the edge of the street. Was it a morning in 1956? After a deep snowfall, the traffic noises were stilled—even the jingling syncopation of the chain-clad milk truck was quieted. In the general silence, the only sound was the crunch of my boot on the crystal snow.
But before I got too comfortable in my reverie, a snowball would buzz by my ear. There was Geoff Herguth from next-door, freckled and smiling, egging me on to combat. Our driveways lay side-by-side, so shoveling them produced a high mound of snow at the curb that could be tunneled through. The little snow fort served as a position from which we could ambush innocent and unsuspecting passersby.
My father helped his four children to pile up a sledding run on the hillside behind our house, but for more serious sledding there was the sloped lawn across from the Herguths. My sister Liz Ann remembers the sensation created in the late 1950s by the introduction of the space-aged, aluminum “Flying Saucer.”
I forget when we took our first skating trip to the Tarrytown Lakes, but by 1959 the Steiner kids were doing it regularly when the ice was thick enough. There was something unique about skating at The Lakes as a kid; I think it had something to do with being together with so many friends, neighbors, and new faces. It was odd to see all those young people brought together for one purpose–to have fun. It was a community event and a community recreation, where all were free from even the slightest reminder of the duties and cares we left at our homes or in town. Instead we had glorious nature all around us. The lake was beautiful in the sunlight, or mysterious in the dark, with the signature sounds of steel on ice, the raising of young voices, or the clomping of skate blades on the wooden floor of the warming hut.
Liz Ann remembers, “There were lots of opportunities to socialize, or show off new skates—with or without fancy pompoms. At one time they had hot chocolate at the hut.” She recalls a well-organized safety patrol that controlled the “infamous” whips or chains of skaters that swept over the ice. The skating area was so big that there was usually plenty of room for pick-up hockey matches and the figure skaters doing their figure eights. “If it was light enough,” she said, “mom or dad would walk us down to the lakes and then come back for us in the car.”
One afternoon we arrived at home and Liz Ann switched on Dick Clark’s daily TV show, “American Bandstand,” showcasing some of the hit songs we had been listening to as we skated at The Lakes. Over the years between 1959 and 1962 many “immortal” songs were broadcast from the pole-mounted speakers on the shore: “The Chipmunk Song,” “Mack the Knife,” “The Duke of Earl,” “Danke Schon,” “Peppermint Twist,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Walk Don’t Run,” “Who Put the Bop?” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “I’m Sorry.”
We would go back to The Lakes in the evening, where I would see friends from Washington Irving Junior High School. My late younger brother, Steve, remembered that, “the skating was illuminated to a point and then trailed off into utter darkness. Older groups and dating teenagers hung out in the shadows, and there were the forbidden areas of the ice where small streams and springs entered the lake. The ice conditions were bumpy and natural (no Zamboni).”
My sister, Lorraine, wrote, “Yes, The Lakes were a highlight of the wintertime, and it was always freezing out there. The shack where you could warm up was not all that warm, but we went in anyway to thaw our frozen toes. Of course, it is where you could see all your friends. My friend across town skated at Pennybridge (Lagana Field), where they froze the tennis courts.”
In early 1960s, we moved to Walden Road in Wilson Park. Lorraine says, “I remember sledding on the field at the bottom of Walden Road and Beach Lane. I see someone has built a house there now. Later, we went to the Rockefeller land beyond Wilson Park [the old Our Lady of Victory property] to sled down steep hills.” In the mid-60s, I myself would go tobogganing with high school friends on the fairways of Sleepy Hollow Country Club. No one seemed to mind…
The Lakes were first illuminated for skating in December of 1922, although folks were no doubt skating there from the time the lakes were first established, in the late nineteenth century. A few statistics: in 1981, there were thirty days of skating at the Lakes with eleven inches of ice; in 1977, there were fifty-five days of skating on sixteen inches of ice. The warming hut was built some time in the mid to late 1950s, and it was in recent years renovated as a local Eagle Scout project. Apparently, a minimum of four inches of ice is needed to open The Lakes to skaters. In 2005, the lakes were open for eight days; in 2004, there were twelve days of skating, and in 2003, twenty-one days.
There were other places for local folks to skate, like Fremont Pond where the older kids would make a fire on the ice for warming up, also Andrews Lane, Lagana Field, and even the Hudson River. The History of the Tarrytowns (Canning & Buxton) tells us that at least one early-twentieth-century skater, George Boock, would race with trains that passed along the Hudson River shoreline. In the first half of the century, the villages of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown had their share of talented figure skaters, like Silas Tappan and Wesley Jackson. Two early graduates of Washington Irving High School became champion speed skaters—Elsie Muller and Ruth Richards of Tarrytown Heights were exceptional athletes. Muller captured eleven national titles and competed on the U. S. Olympic Team.
Winter fun could have its dangers. There were bobsled races on Valley Street, and during a championship competition, in 1914, the bobsled Blitzen collided with an American Express sleigh in front of McGirl’s Hotel injuring seven bobsledders. Norma Herguth recalled being injured as a little girl. While she was “coasting” with her sled on a Philipse Manor street, she was hit by one of Husted’s coal trucks. In the early twentieth century there were coasting fatalities on both Farrington Avenue and Valley Street. One winter Norma and some friends tried walking across the Hudson River ice to Nyack, making it half way with near fatal results. In the winter of 1907, there were many accounts of Hudson River crossings on the ice, by foot, on skates, by sleigh, by Packard (four to five minutes each way), and by bicycle! This kind of crossing continued into the late twentieth century, until either there just wasn’t enough ice, or people got wise that it might be a tad risky.
To villagers of the twenty-first century, the idea of sledding on the street may seem a bit strange, but it was long a local practice—from Jenny Prince Black’s rides down Sunnyside Lane in the late 1800s, to Sara Mascia’s death-defying runs down Rose Hill in the late 1900s. Either our road crews got too efficient or our kids got more careful, but these days street “coasting” seems to have disappeared. The front lawn of Sleepy Hollow High School was a popular slope, but the recent improvements to the high school have taken it off the list. Shawn Pierpoint, a Sleepy Hollow High School graduate of a few years back, remembers walking with his snowboard to Rockwood Hall when he lived on North Washington Street. Rockwood Hall is also where my daughter, Lucie, went to sled, and that long slope with its magnificent river view still attracts cross-country skiers and “coasters” of all sorts.
Where are the sleigh bells of yesteryear? Those of us with good imaginations can still hear them. For the rest of us, the only sleigh bells we hear are the recorded ones that are heard in advertisements before the holidays—by the time the real winter begins in earnest—the sleigh bells are gone.
©2008-2016 Henry John Steiner