Hell on Wheels: When Roller-Skating Took Western Towns by Storm | HistoryNet MENU

Hell on Wheels: When Roller-Skating Took Western Towns by Storm

By J.R. Sanders
2/28/2017 • Wild West Magazine

It wasn’t just cattle that were rollin’, rollin’, rollin’.

In September 1884 a Miles City, Montana Territory, newspaper printed a humorous account of drover Toll Caldwell’s encounter with “them little wagons”:

I got one with a double cinch and another one to match it, and as soon as I straddled the layout, I could feel them begin to bow their backs and was wishin’ I had a buck rein, because I was expectin’ ’em to stiffen their knees and go to buckin’ every minute, but they didn’t. I walked ’em over to the other end of the corral to gentle ’em a little, and directly they started off at an easy canter and were comin’ around back right through the herd; and there was a dude there with stiff hat that was trying to cut out a Polled Angus heifer with a blue dress, and I founded and roped both my hind legs with a hoop skirt, and it had me stretched out ready for branding quicker’n a spring calf can bawl with his mouth open and his lungs stretched. But I got up and got on again, and you oughter seen me exercise them vehicles. Of course they wasn’t bridle-wise, and of course they bucked when I tried to hurry ’em, and they’d rear up and fall back when I tried to stop ’em too quick, but I’ll leave it to the boss herder of the whole roundup if I didn’t gallop ’em around there for three or four hours and had ’em roll over and over with me, and then they didn’t get me off.

This lingo-laden chronicle of Caldwell’s struggle followed the headline A Cowboy on Skates. Whoa, now. Everyone knows how old-time cowboys skylarked on a Saturday night—they drank, gambled and whored, then rode out of town at a war-whooping gallop, pistols ablaze. Sure, tamer sorts settled for a bath, a shave, a clean shirt and a dance or two at the church social. But roller-skating? That was for mid-20th century Baby Boomers—squeaky-clean girls in poodle skirts and all-American boys with crew cuts. Beaver Cleaver and Sandra Dee roller-skated. Cowboys? Never!

So you might think. Fact is that in the mid-1880s a full-blown roller-skating mania swept the country, including the West. Though clunky, wooden-wheeled skates had been around for years, the 1884 patent of ball-bearing wheels brought the pastime to a new level. Miles City to Galveston, roller rinks sprouted like toadstools. It was good business. Many rinks were built from scratch, but a local dance hall might serve, provided it had a smooth hardwood floor and plenty of space for free-ranging.

Roller-skating was instantly popular with young ladies of all social strata, who relished gliding through waltzes and quadrilles with wheels on their feet. Parents and politicians looked askance, worried the fad fostered undue familiarity between the sexes. Doctors were divided— considering it either healthful diversion or downright dangerous. Some clergymen condemned it as a sure pathway to Hell. With all that going for it, how could any red-blooded cowboy resist?

In its heyday that quintessential cow town and acknowledged Gomorrah of the Plains, Dodge City, Kan., had a roller rink. Owned by Dr. Thomas McCarty, it doubled as an opera house and, on occasion, a church. Kansans weren’t alone in their passion for the sport; El Paso had a rink, likewise Cheyenne and Omaha. Montana Territory was ahead of the trend with the Helena Skating Pavilion, built in early 1883, which boasted a 65-by-100-foot maple floor “almost as smooth and hard as glass” and three-tiered wraparound galleries for spectators. A year later the pavilion hosted an “apple race,” with skaters scrambling to be first to collect 21 apples from the rink floor and drop them in a bucket.

One account of 1885 life in Medora, Dakota Territory, noted, “A roller-skating rink, whose equipment was more to be feared by a cowboy than the hurricane-deck of a cow pony, was doing big business among the cattlemen.” In Cheyenne a drunken cowboy who couldn’t master his skates tried instead to ride his horse onto the rink floor. An attendant seized the animal’s bridle and gave horse and rider the heave-ho, informing the besotted buckaroo that if he returned, “the coroner would have a professional call.”

Skates stymied more than the hapless cowpoke. Texas lawman Stephen Boyard found them tougher than a gang of desperadoes. The October 29, 1884, Daily Laredo Times reported, “Marshal Boyard now takes his meals from the mantle shelf, and when asked the reason why, he gazes sadly at a pair of roller skates, asks you to occupy the official chair and braces himself against the telephone, but he says not a word.” Deputy Sheriff Fred Singer, a former Dodge City marshal, entered a skating competition at McCarty’s rink a week before Christmas, during which, reported the Dodge City Times, he “cut some funny evolutions, ‘lighting’ frequently on all fours.” Other lawmen fared better. In Las Cruces, New Mexico Territory, Doña Ana County Sheriff Eugene Van Patten’s “roller mania” was such that he patronized the local rink most nights, looking “as if he were having more fun than a boy at a circus.” Van Patten enjoyed skating so much that in fall 1885 he built a competing roller rink.

Tombstone newspapers advertised the Bauer & Baron roller rink, and in January 1886 the Daily Epitaph mentioned a costumed carnival there that Cochise County Sheriff Bob Hatch attended dressed like Geronimo. The Melrose Minstrels, performing on a brisk March evening, moved their show from Schieffelin Hall to the warmer rink. And any mention of Tombstone inevitably leads to Wyatt Earp.

Though it’s hard to envision a starchy sort like Wyatt haunting a roller rink, it’s the kind of thing free-spirited Josie Marcus and fun-loving Morgan Earp would have taken to. Would Wyatt have refused his best gal and his favorite brother, especially if ice cream was in the deal? Though there’s no record of Earp skating parties or of Wyatt bumping elbows with Clantons and McLaurys on the varnished roller rink floor, it’s an intriguing possibility. Imagine if the Earps and Holliday had settled their disagreements with a skating competition instead of a gun duel (“Apples, anyone?”). Everyone knows about the gunfight near the O.K. Corral. Who’d remember—or want to—the Skate-off at Bauer & Baron’s?

Western rink owners made their money, but then the skating craze died, as all fads do. Roller-skating wasn’t trendy again for 70 years, until the great-grandkids of those early enthusiasts took it up anew. In the 1950s, when Hopalong Cassidy galloped from silver screen to tiny black-and-white tube, some merchandising whiz tried linking cowboys and roller-skating. The “Hoppy” skate was a hit with coonskin cap–wearing, Mattel six-shooter–slinging kiddies everywhere. The detachable spurs, if wildly impractical, were ultracool—not that Hoppy himself ever donned a pair.

Western films and TV shows of the day, meanwhile, overlooked the 1880s skating boom in their story lines. Whether it seemed anachronistic or just milque-toasty to depict cowboys on wheels, no Western would go that route until 1980. In some of its best footage Michael Cimino’s box-office bomb Heaven’s Gate depicted ranchers and townies on the Wyoming frontier enjoying a raucous roller-skating dance at its eponymous rink.

Nowadays “skating” usually means either riding a wheeled mini-surfboard or whizzing along the beachside on newfangled in-line jobs. A few old-style rinks remain, but they’re rapidly going the way of buggy whips, drive-in theaters and print newspapers. Anyway, cowboys aren’t likely ever to take up roller-skating again. No sport involving rented footwear can ever be truly cool, and 21st-century cowboys are all about cool. Those who relish the image of the two in tandem may have to content themselves with singing the theme song from the classic 1950s Western TV series Rawhide: “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’…”

 

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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