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FARGO-MOORHEAD — When you live in one of the coldest states in the nation, you better learn how to embrace winter. That is the idea behind the recent Frostival festival in Fargo-Moorhead, which wrapped up its events with a food truck festival over the weekend.
But it was also the case for Fargo-Moorhead's first residents who embraced ice fishing, tobogganing and ski jumping. Figure skating was also part of the fun, but those who liked to glide on blades on the ice did so informally on ponds, rivers and neighborhood rinks. That changed in the 1930s, in part because of a dedicated group of skate fans who decided they should find a way to promote all things ice-related.
The result? A groundbreaking “winter” club and a new state of the art ice arena that originally didn’t make it through World War II, but even so, still stands today — kind of. Just ask anyone who likes to swim near downtown Fargo.
The Fargo Winter Club
The Fargo Winter Club formally started in 1938 to “promote public interest in ice sports and athletics, including curling, figure skating and skating of all kinds.” Its first president was Dr. George Foster, an ear, nose and throat physician who grew up in Fargo but became "enamored" with figure skating while in medical school at Northwestern University outside Chicago.
Foster and his wife Irene were the heads of Fargo’s unofficial “first family of skating.” The Forum recently did a story on how the family was close friends and even partners with members of the U.S. National Team killed in a tragic 1961 plane crash.
The club started out modestly enough with just 15 members, but membership grew to 175 people by 1956.
Early growth in the club might be credited to the creation of a new indoor ice arena in town. The club worked with the Works Progress Administration following The Great Depression to build the Fargo arena in 1938. It wasn't much more than a quonset hut, but it allowed skaters to escape the frigid winds outdoors to skate for the first time indoors. By some accounts, it was one of the largest buildings by floor space in the nation.
The arena was located at 616 First Avenue South near where the Island Park Swimming Pool is now.
By 1940, the Winter Club held its first competition, and in the years to follow, the club would participate in events in conjunction with Fargo’s annual Jack Frost Carnival during the 1940s.
However, the original Fargo Arena wouldn't be around for all of it. The original building was damaged in the 1943 flood, so most of it was dismantled and reassembled into an airplane hangar at Hector Airport.
A new, smaller arena was constructed in the same area. Some referred to it as the Island Park arena.
By the mid-1940s, the club’s name officially changed to the Fargo-Moorhead Winter Club to recognize the contributions and members from the Minnesota side of the river.
Chuck Foster, George and Irene’s son, who went on to become a top-level official with U.S.Figure Skating, says he got his start in ice shows put on by the club.
“I don’t know what year it was, but I think my mom pulled me out on the ice in a sled when I was really little,” he said.
He said the shows were always fun, with his mom getting involved in everything from costumes to organizing. He said they’d even do previews on the city’s outdoor rinks to encourage people to come indoors see the real show.
Chuck and his sisters, Sidney and Linda, all skated in the shows. Other skaters in those shows and club competitions included brothers Jack and Jerry Woodstrom, Joan Watkins, Terryl Johnson, Dick Vraa and Paul Allen. Adults, as well as children, performed in serious, musical numbers and comedy acts too. (Many club skaters even went on to compete and win or place in regional, national and even international skating competitions.)
Foster says they also brought in famous guest skaters, including Steffi Westerfield in 1958. Three years later, Westerfield finished second in nationals and was among those killed in the 1961 plane crash on the way to the World Championships. In fact, the Fargo-Moorhead skaters took to the ice that year for the show, just four days after the crash.
What became of the club and the arena?
By the 1960s, The Fargo-Moorhead Winter Club, one of the oldest figure skating clubs in the country, paved the way for The Red River Valley Figure Skating Club, which now has more than 130 members and works with the U.S. Figure Skating Association for testing and competitions. The club works with local park districts, which continue to produce ice shows in both Fargo and Moorhead. RRVFSC has also produced local Olympians including Mark Ladwig of Moorhead, who competed in the pairs figure skating at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Other members of the club have become cast members of traveling "Disney on Ice" productions.
What remained of the Fargo Arena was gone by 1978 when Island Park constructed its new pool closer to the arena's original location. (The original Island Park pool was near the grandstand, further into the interior of the park where the tennis courts are now.)
However, as something of a tribute to the past (and maybe as a windbreak, too) the original art deco concrete front of the Fargo Arena remains in place. It still stands as a backdrop to the diving board area of the pool.
So people soaking up the summer sun in July can look over their shoulder, give a nod to the past and those people who insisted summer wasn't the only time to have fun.
Thanks to John Hallberg with NDSU Archives, Mark Peihl with the Clay County Archives, Carolyn Boutain with Fargo Parks and Judy Frisch and Jean Paseka with the Red River Valley Figure Skating Club for assistance with research for this story.
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