As the Winter Olympics were winding down in Switzerland in 1928, Cedar Rapids held its first Ice Carnival sponsored by the city’s Playground Commission.
Winter sports lovers thronged to Robbins Lake — a backwater of the Cedar River, north of Ellis Park — to watch or participate in ice skating competitions.
“The lakeside took on a gala appearance as the contestants cavorted about the cleared space for the skating honors of the city,” The Gazette reported in its Feb. 20 edition. Cars lined the road to Ellis Park as the crowd, estimated at about 1,000, watched events from the banks of the lake.
The oldest contestant was William C. Miller, 58, and the youngest was 5-year-old Janet Dennis. Janet’s brothers Larry and Robert competed in the race for boys under 12. The children’s father, attorney Lou Dennis, was a spectator and would go on to become the main booster of ice skating competition in the city.
By 1930, more than 100 skaters competed in the Ice Carnival’s main event. Members of the McGregor family were favored to win, but a young Larry Dennis was ranked as one of the most promising competitors. Figure skating, relays and partner races were on the bill that year.
In 1931, the carnival was postponed and then canceled because of poor ice conditions.
But the ice was perfect on Robbins Lake in January 1932 for 10 racing events and one figure skating competition. Races were conducted under the rules of the U.S. Amateur Skating Union on a 220-yard circular course, with eight laps to a mile.
In October 1933, the city’s Playground Commission began discussions with Lou Dennis, president of the Cedar Rapids Skating Association, for the coming winter’s skating and ice hockey.
It was decided the annual skating competition would be held at either the municipal (Roosevelt) rink or at Robbins Lake on the river, “depending on where the ice is in better condition for speed skating.”
The speed events were divided into eight divisions, and the skater accumulating the most points won the Liggett memorial trophy, named for George Seymour Liggett, a former Cedar Rapids expert skater who died of appendicitis in 1932 at age 20.
The annual winter event acquired a sponsor in 1934, becoming The Gazette’s Silver Skates Races, in conjunction with the Iowa state championship meet. Eighteen pairs of silver, chromium and bronze skates were displayed in The Gazette’s window to be awarded the winners, who also would receive state championship medals.
Dennis was selected as the event’s manager. An avid outdoorsman and sports enthusiast, Dennis, who’d play baseball in college, particularly encouraged sports with “carry-over values,” such as skating and tennis, participating himself until he retired at age 87.
The first Silver Skates meet was held Jan. 6, 1935. The ice measured a wet 12 inches at 2 p.m., but that didn’t stop Robert “Chub” Dennis from acing the course and taking home the first pair of silver skates.
‘for the love of it’
After that, the Silver Skates competitions were usually held in January, though a meet was held at the end of December in 1935 as well. When the points were tallied, familiar names were announced: Janet Dennis, George Shimek and Larry Dennis. Motion pictures were taken of the event by the Iowa News Flashes company and shown at the Paramount Theatre in early January.
The meets were not held during World War II, given that the metal was needed elsewhere.
Gazette Editor Verne Marshall in January 1937 credited Dennis for his work, saying Dennis, “just for the love of it, has helped so many young skaters to become experts on the ice.”
What did he do to unwind? According to his wife, Florence, “He took violin lessons as a boy and used to play classical music for an hour or so when he wanted to relax.”
Dennis died on April 28, 1968, at the age of 90.
lou dennis rink
The next year, following the Silver Skates meet on Jan. 12, 1969, the skating area in Manhattan/Robbins Lake Park was named the Lou Dennis Rink. A bronze plaque bearing Dennis’ name was fixed over the fireplace in the rink’s warming house. The Cedar Rapids Skating Club also had a Dennis trophy.
In 1974, the Iowa Skating Association installed mercury vapor lights at the rink, in time for the Jan. 4 Gazette Silver Skates.
Snow and cold weather were forecast for the 1982 Silver Skates at the Lou Dennis Rink on Jan. 23-24, the first time in 48 years the meet had expanded to two days, drawing more than 100 skaters, the biggest turnout in 10 years.
Interest appeared to be waning in the outdoor competition by 2000, when the city opened an indoor ice arena. The last Silver Skates competition was held in 2003.
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