Friday, February 12, 2010

Old Mill Skating Rink, Part I

Back in the day, the first floor of this building housed, among other things, a bowling alley. That top floor, reached by going around back, was Heaven on Earth The Skating Rink.

My best high school memories outside the Islander involved the Old Mill Rink.

Favorite grandmother Bernice and her sister Viola (who could make anyone laugh without even trying) told stories about that rink. Their sister Nellie had stories, but I never heard them since she lived so far away. That's where Bill comes in.

Bill, in his 90s, is married to Nellie. He has a very vivid memory and an even better ability to tell a tale.

Below is Part I of Mr. Bill Braxton's description of the Old Mill Skating Rink in the late 1930s to early 1940s. Parts II and III will follow in the days ahead.

Gloucester, Virginia

You had to have been there.

There is an old building on the left side of the road from Gloucester to Mathews (SR 14) about three miles from the Gloucester Court House. This building has a distinctive round roof , is located near the mill pond, and is today a type of country store. Anyone looking at the building today would be hard pressed to believe that this building was once the center of the universe for teenagers of Botetourt and Achilles High Schools and probably also for Mathews from April 1939 to shortly after the beginning of World War Two. At that time the building was the home of the Old Mill Skating Rink.

In 1939 I was a soldier in the Army Air Corps at Langley Field, Virginia, near Hampton and Newport News. I learned to roller skate when I was about ten years old and visited the roller skating rink in Newport News a few times over the years. I bought my first car in 1938 and was then able to visit some of the area around the Peninsula; however, the chances for a soldier to meet any young girls in the area were few and far between. I had been at Langley for almost three years and had only one girl friend. and even that was broken off when her family did not want her going with a soldier. One day in April 1939 a friend of mine at Langley asked me to go with him to Mathews to see his girl friend. He knew I liked to roller skate, and mentioned that there was a new skating rink up there, and we could go skating on Saturday night. His girl friend was Elsie Green who lived in Mathews. Elsie had a sister Shirley, and the four of us went to the Gloucester rink on Saturday, May 6, 1939.

As soon as we entered the rink, I could hardly believe my eyes. There seemed to be girls, girls, girls, far more than I had seen in my three previous years at Langley, and there appeared to be only a few boys. I had not even put on my rental skates when a cute little girl came up to me and asked me to skate with her. Her name was Annie Brown. She lived in a place called Guinea that I had never heard of which she told me was near Gloucester Point. Annie introduced me to several girls who all seemed delighted to have a boy to skate with. I had a wonderful time, and my friend and I spent the night at the Green home in Mathews. I might mention that Shirley Green became a good friend of mine who furnished me rationed gasoline coupons after the start of World War II.

When I first went skating at the Old Mill, the rink was very small, probably about 100 feet long by 50 feet wide with a pole supporting the roof right on one end of the floor. Skaters had to skate around the pole when circling the rink. I became a regular visitor at the rink on Friday and Saturday nights, and skated there at least twenty times during 1939. The rink was always crowded.

A Mr. Noble owned the rink with Mr.Marvin Hogge managing it with his son Marvin Hogge, Jr., assisting in taking attendance and managing the rental skates. It was obvious from the first that there was a need to expand the rink and remove the pole from the skating floor. Work was started on an expansion, and the expanded rink was opened on July 7, 1939.

Paul Nelson was hired to play the organ for skating, and the Old Mill became one of the few skating rinks around the country with live music. The organ was placed in a small booth above the floor at one end of the rink. There was a small snack bar in one corner of the rink, and benches along one side of the rink for spectators. In addition, there was a small screened in porch on the front side of the rink, and a skate room near the entrance.

Mr. Noble also brought in a skating professional named George Roebling as a skating instructor to teach figure skating and various dance routines for skating couples. Figure eights and other figures were painted on the skating floor for skaters to practice the various figures which were required in national skating contests.

Mr. Nelson obtained sheet music for popular songs as soon as they were published. These songs were made very popular by the big bands at the time such as Oh Johny, Blueberry Hill, I’ll Never Smile Again, et al, and soon skaters from as far as Washington and New York were visiting the Old Mill. In addition to music for skating, Mr. Nelson also gave Sunday concerts at the rink which were well attended. There was no skating on Sunday.

I might mention something about the dress of the students and others visiting the skating rink. In contrast to today, there were no slacks and shorts for girls. On Friday and Saturday nights especially, the girls wore their “Sunday best,” or at least their best school clothes. There was no dress code for the rink, and everyone was well-behaved. If a boy seemed to have been drinking, he was promptly banned from the rink. George Roebling and Jr. Hogge skated along with the other skaters and prevented any rowdy behavior which might have endangered other skaters.

More to come tomorrow.


Ann Marie said...

can't. read. right. now. back. later.

Meg McCormick said...

This is priceless stuff! I hope you are able to get as many stories as possible from him because what a lovely glimpse into the past, especially the past where you live. Thank you for sharing this.

Daryl said...

What a wonderful storyteller .. more please

Mathews Mark said...

This was Pookies hang out also, back in the late 40's early 50's. I ask Her to give me a story,She said everyone she hung out with at the skating rink was dead! She did say she would think of one after She gets Her hair done.(friday is hair do day).Back in the 70's it was a real slug feast there three counties battling over women. MM

abb said...

How wonderful you're writing this down. We lose so much of our heritage from generation to generation.

Noe Noe Girl...A Queen of all Trades. said...

I am loving this!

Mental P Mama said...

Wow....I can picture the whole scene....I miss you guys:(

Trisha said...

What a great start to the story! HE seems to be a born story teller. This is such a priceless piece of history.

Ann Marie said...

My memories of this wonderful place include...

the Waterman missing the turn or something to that affect and crashing into the janitors closet.

Learning how to skate backwards so you could SLOW skate with boys who didn't know how to do that.

Shooting the duck until your foot cramped

the blisters... so many blisters

and if anyone is interested you can probably find 45332343459873 old miller pony bottles in the woods directly behind the joint (i don't know how they got there)

Mathews Mark said...

Pookies story: back in the late 40's early 50's my grandmother (Granny) would take all the Gywnn's Island girls to the skatin rink every Saturday.She refused to take any of the boys because as Granny would say: that just ain't right. Of course the girls (14 and 15 years old were boy crazy and could not wait for Saturday to come around. Pookie claims to have been a top notch skater.(did they have wooden wheels back then?) Pookie and her girl friends would get out in the middle and hold hands as she said(.. you could do that back then with out being called a name.) They would skate around try to impress the boys. If that did not work they would fall down and wait for the boys to come help. Pookie said : One time she and her best friend were out there (the hottest pair on the floor) and did the fake fall trick, but did it in the wrong spot the next thing She knows they are down with about 20 people on top of them! She said it took 20 minutes to get them up, but that was the best 20 minutes at the rink because the cute's boy fell right on top of her!//////////////// This was real painful for me to tell this story MY MOM CHASIN BOYS??? let me at them!!!! LOL MM

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Ann Marie - I think that was the boys' bathroom. I know, because I came around that corner too fast many times. Boys' bathroom. Can't picture the waterman on skates, but I'll take your word for it.

Mathews Mark-My mother skated there too, and as a matter of fact I think the wheels were wood. Pookie on wheels, now that's an image, although I'll bet she was a great skater. The falling down routine is a good one. It does, in fact, work.

To everyone else - thanks. Bill is an absolutely amazing man and we're so fortunate to have him in the family. He's approaching his 95th birthday (doesn't look a day over 69), recently published a book, still drives from Florida up and down the East Coast, used to fly planes, speaks several languages-you name it, he can do it or has done it.

IT'S FRIDAY and I'm not in New York City, but still IT'S FRIDAY and I didn't have to commute to work today. Or tomorrow. Or Sunday. Or Monday, thanks to the federal holiday. Hallelujah.

Breezeway said...

OH I miss that place!!! So many wonderful memories! When they opened the other rink at Hayes, it paled in comparison. Do you remember the great bump in the floor on the sink of the rink where the pinball games were? You could catch air on that bump if you hit it just right. "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" was the BEST skating song. My kids think it's hysterical that we took roller skating lessons, but I can do the Hokie Pokie and limbo with the best of them =) We always got sooo excited when someone got to have a birthday party there, those were THE parties! Thanks so much for making me smile with that post!

Unknown said...

I love that story! Live music? I used to skate too and I'm wondering if there will be any skating at Blog Fest.

Bring on parts II and III!

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to hear more of the old stories. Come to think of it, I guess even OUR stories are starting to be considered "old" by our kids LOL.
Oh boy do I remember that bump by the pin ball games. Remember the foosball table?! And the SONGS...oh my...some of them I have never heard since. Remember "I lost my heart to a star ship trooper" LOL or "I gotta boogie" and don't forget Clarence Carter "strokin".
I used to stay after hours and skate or watch some of them play roller hockey.
Didn't we go there instead of getting wrapping paper one night CBW? GOOOOOOOD Memories LOL Can't wait to hear more!

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Well, Ms. Seabreeze, I'm not sure about the wrapping paper, but there's no doubt we made side trips to the skating rink instead of doing most anything. In that brown Pinto of yours. If I recall correctly, you liked one of the guys working there, and I liked his brother. Both of them were excellent skaters. Disco skaters, to boot. The brother used to write me letters, and I think I still have some of them.

I really wish they'd open up again. I'd be there in a minute.

Congratulations to Ms. Seabreeze who gets married on Sunday!

big hair envy said...

I remember skating there, AND I remember the bump in the floor!!! Wasn't there a disco ball?? They finally opened up a skating rink in Funky Town, and I went to that rink from then on.

LOVE this story, and can't wait for the next chapter;)

Pueblo girl said...

Fantastic stuff - Im going to read it again more slowly. Say thanks to Mr. Bill Braxton from all of us here (I think, looking at the comments, I can safely say that).

Occasional Kate said...

I'm really too young for it, but I DO remember skating there only once, a long time ago when I was quite young. Mom took us kids and I remember my brother fell at one point. Not nearly as good a story as Bill's. :-)

I also recall going to the rink in Hayes once for a classmate's bday party. Some poor girl fell and had a banana clip in her hair (told you it was a while ago!) and poor thing hurt her head pretty bad when she fell.

Master storyteller I am not. LOL

knotty said...

I spent many Friday nights at the Old Mill Skating Rink when I was growing up in Gloucester in the 80s.

Scott Berger said...

A much later followup:

My mom, who used to roller dance in that rink, has been living there in her memories lately (she has Alzheimers). For the three days I was just visiting with her in the hospital, it was a non-stop topic.

Its neat to know I also skated on the same floor as my momma (Nellie Streagle Berger Braxton)

Eddie said...

Eddie Reynolds I spent many memorable nights at the rink with all my boys, thanks to the Kirschbaums.