Oral Histories: Skating and Sledding in the Tarrytowns

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By Krista Madsen

Linda Knapp
Linda Knapp

On a January day that hit 50 degrees outside (there were even signs of crocus leaves pushing through the library lawn), a group of six talked inside about simpler, colder times.

Five women and one man who grew up in different neighborhoods across the villages shared a common delight in the winter months they remembered – when there were less cars to worry about and more snow to frolic in. Kids took to every road, hill, and patch of water possible with sleds and skates.

Wildey Street, Beekman Avenue, Bedford Road, Hemlock Drive, Patriot’s Park, Rockwood Hall (both of them private in the 1940s-60s these folks grew up in) – all were fair game for wintertime fun. Kids took those classic Flyer wooden sleds with metal rails down whichever hill they were closest to, hopefully with someone on the lookout for the occasional car below.

“The hills were good here,” said Marge Maguill, who grew up on Wildey. Theresa Broadway responded, laughing, “They’re not so great now that we have to walk up them.”

Even the giant pile of snow that might accumulate on the Morse school grounds was a prime place to play. Everyone seemed to agree: a six-foot snow pile was pretty common, and you could rely on a white Christmas. There were more storms, but less snow days, as school was only rarely called off.

Skating on the Tarrytown Lakes was a huge event – “probably the most popular the village sponsored,” said Gerry Barbalet, who estimated anywhere from 500 to 700 people were on that ice when it was thick enough. He lived a few streets away and skated his childhood away there as did his three sons – all of whom were on the school hockey teams both villages used to have.

“It was almost in-bred in them,” Barbalet said of his children’s connection with the lake ice. “If there was any ice, I’d skate it,” he said of his own.

One beloved hockey coach was Doc Rasbeck, a Native American from Canada who taught chemistry. Barbalet recalled how he got out of some of the pop quizzes just for being the goalie. He also remembered the odd sight of the Marymount nuns skating, their “habits like a windsail.”

Youth in other neighborhoods took their skates to whatever patch would freeze over – Pennybridge School; Detmer Pond; a pond behind Pocantico Hills school where if you were good and ate fast, you could skate during lunch; to the tennis courts that used to be in Barnhart Park. Fremont Pond in Sleepy Hollow Manor was popular, complete with a roaring bonfire people would enjoy from their perch on a giant log. Linda Knapp fondly recalled one neighbor who smoked a pipe: on certain days he would find a route to skate all the way to the Philipse Manor train station, pipe in mouth.

Then there were the cozy memories of when you came or stayed home: Knapp’s father “made a party of everything” and when she had friends sleep over on a snowy night, he would make snow “ice cream” with vanilla and sugar. They’d watch minimal television in her home but on a snow day she was allowed to watch “The Today Show,” with its first host, Dave Garroway, often with a monkey on his shoulder. You’d heat your cold wet clothes on the radiator or the gas heaters when you came in to enjoy hot chocolate.

There were two operating movie theaters – the Strand and the Tarrytown Music Hall, and the library was hugely popular on a Saturday, then with its long wooden benches with ledges to prop your book on.

Kids grew up hearing stories from their parents of how there were car races across the Hudson during certain historically frigid winters, which certainly strikes the contemporary listener as, well, crazy.

With all this largely unmonitored skating and sledding culture all over town, the inevitable question arises: did anyone get hurt or die?

There was one tragedy Knapp recalled when Ronnie Brown, a boy she babysat, drowned in Fremont Pond. It was thawed, perhaps in February, and the boy had built a raft with a friend. The raft capsized and the kids were submerged. Perhaps because they were bundled in heavy winter clothes, they couldn’t pull themselves out. Someone happened by and rescued the boys, but Ronnie apparently had too much water in his lungs to recover.

There’s a “bitter irony,” said Knapp, built into this tale. The boy’s father happened to be the head of the new Phelps Hospital. The hospital didn’t yet have all the equipment it needed, including the pump that might have saved that boy’s life. After this incident, money was raised to immediately outfit the hospital for similar incidents.

You can listen to all the memories in the full audio recordings at TheHudsonIndependent.com. This month, we’ll be recording memories of when the first Tappan Zee Bridge was getting built. Please join us by RSVPing to krista@sleepyhollowink.com or calling the reference desk at (914) 631-7734. The original TZB session will be held Friday, Feb. 12 at 1 p.m. on the second floor of the Warner Library.

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