Winter fun, 1868

Updated Feb. 11, 2022, with information about Milwaukee’s “original Ice Bear,” Henry Kroeger (see comments, below).

The 24th Winter Olympic Games are now under way in Beijing, with a dizzying profusion of modern sliding and gliding winter sports. Of course, outdoor winter games and sports pre-date the modern Olympics by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Among the oldest and most popular of these is ice skating.

Homer, Winslow, “Winter” — A Skating Scene, from Harper’s Weekly, January 25, 1868. Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Ray Austrian Collection, gift of Beatrice L. Austrian, Caryl A. Austrian and James A. Austrian. Public domain, CC0. Click to open larger image in new window

Mary Clark and her daughters: skating?

When Winslow Homer drew this scene in 1868, Jonathan Clark’s widow, Mary (Turck) Clark and her children had been living together in Milwaukee for about six or seven years. By 1868, two of the Clark children were no longer in Mary’s house. Eldest child Caroline Clark married William W. Woodward in 1861 and was living on their farm in the nearby town of Granville, Milwaukee County. And Mary and Jonathan Clark’s only son, Henry M. Clark, died in 1866.

When Homer’s woodblock print appeared in the January 25, 1868, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Mary Clark was 46 years old, and her household included all six unmarried Clark daughters: Libbie (almost 23 years old), Persie (20), Theresa (18), Laura (15), Josie (14) and Jennie (10). Did Mary Clark and her girls go skating in Milwaukee in the 1860s? I have no evidence pro or con in my files, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Skating in Milwaukee

Beginning in the early 1840s, Milwaukee newspapers published occasional short news items and longer reports related to skating: weather and ice conditions, accidents, and—starting in the 1860s—skating club activities. In 1868, along with the usual skating on local frozen ponds and rivers, Milwaukee opened a dedicated skating rink, complete with organized events:

“Skating Rink Masquerade” advert, Daily Milwaukee News, Sat 04 Jan 1868 p 5. Click to open larger image in new window.

This is probably the same rink described in a news item published in the Daily Milwaukee News on Wednesday, January 1, 1868:

Kroeger, the original “Ice Bear” of Milwaukee, desires us to give publicity to the fact that he will open to-day a new skating park in the second ward, on Cedar street, in the rear of Solomon’s warehouse, large enough to hold four thousand persons. Visitors will be admitted, and can pay what they please. He has a permit from the common council, and will keep the park open as long as the ice lasts.

I’m sorry to say I know nothing more about Milwaukee’s original “Ice Bear,” Mr. Kroeger. But it’s clear that people were skating in southeast Wisconsin from early settler days, and it would not be unusual for lively young women such as the Clarks to have some outdoor winter fun gliding on the ice. And if they did, they may well have looked much like the skaters in today’s image.

Coming up…

Not much blogging lately here at Clark House Historian. Sorry about that. But I have been finding a lot of interesting documents and illustrations, reading through sources, taking notes, and sketching out draft essays. I’m still here, and we have a lot of Clark House history in the pipeline

Stay tuned. I’ll be back soon.

2 thoughts on “Winter fun, 1868

    • Glad you asked! I did a little online research and found out a few things about the “original Ice Bear.”

      You have guessed correctly. Johann Wilhelm Heinrich “Henry” Kroeger was a well-known figure in early Milwaukee. He made his fortune as one of the city’s earliest and most prosperous ice merchants, cutting ice from the local rivers and lakes by the ton in the winter and storing it in insulated warehouses for sale in the summer.

      At various other times Kroeger was also a saloon-keeper and restauranteur. His businesses were often promoted by signs featuring an “ice bear,” presumably from the German “Eisbär, what we would call a polar bear. (I don’t think Kroeger brewed his own beer; one news item I saw reported that the Ice Bear’s restaurant would continue to feature the lager from Mr. Blatz’s brewery.)

      His 1880 federal census tells us he was born in Prussia about 1818 and lists his occupation as “skating rink.” A decently-sourced family tree at (paysite) gives his exact birthdate as 17 Aug. 1819. According to the same source, Henry married three times, and fathered a total of nine children.

      The various news items that I’ve bumped into suggest that his businesses were often—but not always—successful. But through the decades, he remained a larger-than-life character and was much loved in the community. The Ice Bear died in Milwaukee on 22 July 1887. A brief death notice in the Weekly Wisconsin, on 30 July 1887, states that he had resided in Milwaukee since 1842.

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