The Fort Johnson Athletic Association produced top speed skaters in the 1940s, including Hank Flesch, Don Talmadge, Gene Gage, George Hare and Ted Ellenwood, Jr.
Born in Dunkirk, N.Y., in 1919, Ellenwood and his family moved to Fort Johnson when he was 5. He started skating at age 10.
He won the Eastern States Speed Skating Championship in Fort Johnson in 1941. He tied for third place at the North American races in Schenectady. He won the 220 and 440 yard races at the National Championships in LaCrosse, Wis., just before entering the U.S. Navy.
A machinist’s mate, Ellenwood served aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Cotton, which took part in numerous actions in the South Pacific. He, his wife Lucia (from Portland, Maine) and their 5-month-old son, Ted III, returned to the local area to settle down by purchasing a gas station in Fort Johnson.
At age 27, Ellenwood died instantly on June 11, 1946 when struck by lightning while golfing on the Antlers Course in Fort Johnson. A friend, Lee DeGroff, was 10 feet away but not injured. The golf course today is called Rolling Hills.
Ellenwood had never qualified for U.S. Olympic speed skating teams because he was better at the American style of skating as opposed to European style used in the Olympics. American skaters raced in a group while European skaters went in pairs and a time clock was used.
George Hare of Fort Johnson excelled at European-style racing and was named a regular on the U.S. Olympic team in 1939. Hare competed in events in the United States as an Olympian but there were no Olympic games in 1940 and 1944 because of the war.
Among Fort Johnson skating coaches for these young men in the late 1930s and early 1940s were Leroy Eckerson and W.C. Snyder.
Amsterdam native Fred Wojcicki and LaVerne Colts ran the Fort Johnson skating rink after the war in the winters of 1949 and 1950. Wojcicki for a time was president of the Northeastern Skating Association.
Fort Johnson native David Noyes, born in 1931, described himself as one of the “run of the mill” skaters in Fort Johnson. Noyes said he picked up a few medals along the way. He kept skating until knee and hip replacement surgeries in 2000.
Another top skater for the Fort Johnson club was Raymond Knapik, who won a gold medal in the 220-yard sprint at the national speed skating championships in Alpena, Mich., in 1948. Knapik, who grew up in Amsterdam, also skated at Hasenfuss Field on Midline Road at the edge of the Amsterdam city limits.
Hasenfuss Field was named for PFC William Hasenfuss, Jr., the first soldier from Amsterdam who died in World War II. Stationed at Hickam air field, he was killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Many of the skaters walked to the Hasenfuss rink from the adjacent Rockton section of Amsterdam.
Gail Buchner Breen, who lived on Finley Street, hurried through homework, dinner and dishes in the 1950s so she could go skating.
“We skated in long chains of kids, frequently ‘snapping the whip’ — which could be terrifying if you were on the end,” Breen said. “The person on the end of the whip frequently landed in a snow bank. I don’t think this was encouraged by the skating rink people.”
The area behind Slezak’s Gas Station at Amsterdam’s Five Corners used to be a skating site. In the West End there was skating at Guy Park Avenue School, now an apartment complex. In Hagaman, people skated on the Chuctanunda Creek
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]