Albert Lea loves to skate

Published 9:40 am Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tentative plans have been announced for the opening of the ice skating rinks in four city parks on Friday.

A spokeswoman for the Albert Lea Parks and Recreation Department said ice skating rinks have been set up in Academy, Lakeview, Hawthorne and Hayek parks this year. Skating is free at any time for these rinks. The warming house hours at each park will be 4 to 8 p.m. daily.

Also available for ice skaters are the two indoor rinks at the City Arena. Present open skating hours are 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 1 to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday; and 6:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday until the first of the year. A new schedule for open skating hours will be announced near Jan. 1.

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Admission for use of the indoor rinks at the City Arena is $2, which includes skate rental.

Ice skating has a long and chilly history in Albert Lea. Up to the early 1960s, the city’s ice skaters used outdoor rinks, with the most popular ones being on Fuller’s Bay in Fountain Lake and in Morin Park. Fuller’s Bay, incidentally, was just off the east end of Mariners Lane and the Park Avenue Peninsula.

A group contending with wintertime weather conditions and sometimes rough ice in an earlier era was the Albert Lea Rangers hockey team. This team of adult amateurs was part of the Southern Minnesota Hockey League, a non-professional league started in the 1920s and reportedly the first of its type in the nation.

Also contending with the variety of winter weather conditions on the outdoor rinks were figure skaters and those who relied on this form of seasonal recreation.

Then, around 1962 or 1963, the hockey team leadership made an arrangement with the Freeborn County Agricultural Society (the fair board) to convert the Arena building at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds into an indoor ice skating rink.

For several years all that had to be done was flood the dirt floor of the arena with water, open the doors, and let the outdoor weather create the needed ice covering. Thus, the hockey team, the Albert Lea Figure Skating Club, and recreational ice skaters of all ages finally had a somewhat sheltered and still chilly place to use despite the outdoor weather conditions.

In 1965, the hockey players and other local ice skating enthusiasts raised funds to purchase the pipes and previously used refrigeration equipment needed to make artificial ice. As a direct result, a hockey team for Albert Lea High School was formed to add to the number of people using the fairgrounds facilities during the winter months.

Finally, about 1976, the arena building reverted back to full fair usage and the ice covering on the what’s still a dirt floor was no longer an interesting challenge. The city’s ice skaters had shifted their activities to the City Arena.

The city took over the former Lea College Fieldhouse west of Albert Lea in 1974. An addition was made to the west side of the building to provide for a larger ice skating rink, and new piping and refrigeration units were installed. In later years, a second separate ice skating rink was added.