At the end of every year the Arlington Historical Museum has an exhibit that offers a glimpse into how our forebears experienced the holidays, how they cooked, where they shopped, or the toys they gave their kids. The museum is closed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but we still want to offer an exhibit that looks back. This time we offer a look at how people had fun in the winter. We have some unique artifacts and photos to share. We also share the hope that a more normal 2021 is on its way.
Arlington residents have probably been sledding since children found they could go fast down a snowy hill, especially on a a piece of wood.
Arlington has a lot of hills. In 1948, in response to pleas from residents, Arlington County set aside 26 sections of streets throughout Arlington for sledding after it snowed. The list of safe sites was published by the Arlington Sun on December 30, 1948 in preparation for anticipated snowstorms. That’s one per square mile of the county.
In a 2015 article by Ethan Rothstein, ArlNow offered a new list of favorite sledding spots. Click on THIS LINK to let us know where your favorite spot is today.
Reevesland’s Sledding Hill
Reeves Hill, now referred to as Reevesland, has been one of the best winter sledding spots in Arlington.
William H. Torreyson purchased the land in 1863, built a house, and farmed there. In 1898, it became the home of Torreyson’s daughter, Lucy, and her husband, George Reeves. The last owner was their son, Nelson Reeves. Born in the farmhouse in 1900, he spent his life there. The family raised dairy cows and crops until 1955, making it the last farm operating in Arlington. Upon Nelson’s death in 2000, most of the land was subdivided and sold. Only two acres containing the farmhouse, a milking shed, and the sledding hill remain.
In an article Nelson Reeves wrote for the Arlington Historical Magazine in 1975, “Recollections of Arlington’s Last Dairy Farmer” he remembered tough winters. He didn’t have any childhood recollections of playing on the hill, but instead, remembered working alongside his grandfather and father, delivering milk in a horse drawn wagon along cold winter roads, and being so cold on some of those milk runs that he wondered if they would make it back home or freeze on the road!
Reeves recalled a particularly heavy snowstorm—the same one in January 1922 that collapsed the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater. At that time, the county did not clear any road west of Glebe Road. Five men and two teams of horses spent all day Sunday breaking track from the farm down to Glebe Road so they could get through the next day with milk. Those tough winters in his younger days might be why in later years, when he ran the farm, he invited neighborhood children to use the hill for sledding in the winter.
Davos Sledge or Sled
This is a Davos sledge (or sled). It was donated to AHS by Donald and Martha Orth in 1980. The brand name, “DAVOS,” is on the middle wooden slat. The sled brand name comes from Davos, Norway which in 1883 held the first annual toboggan race and this style of sled raced in it.
The Davos sled has been very common in Europe. It was often made of ash because it is very durable. The design has not changed much since production began in Norway in the 1880s. So it makes this one hard to date.
Underneath is the name of a likely previous owner: Mike Henderson. Mike probably sat on it, leaning to either side to steer and braking with his feet. Adults used them for fun, too, but at three feet long and 14 inches across, parents probably deferred to their smaller fry to use it, at least at first.
The sled above as been identified as a “Canadian Flyer” and was made about 1919. It belonged to Bobby Colclough. It was donated to AHS in 1983 by Virginia Colclough. This one is about a foot wide and about three feet long including the runners. Riders steered this sled by leaning in the direction they wanted to go.
Thanks to the Alves family and their You Tube video, you can experience 20 seconds of sledding fun at Lubber Run Park. They recorded this in 2009 after the snowstorm in early March.
No winter fun would be complete without building a snowman. Here Kenneth Hodges is sitting on what looks like a very big snowman bottom. He lived in Lyon Park with his mother and grandmother from 1939 to 1942. He attended the Tiny Tot School on Pershing and later Cherrydale Elementary. His mother worked as a typist and secretary at the War Department at Ft. Myer. (Photo donated to AHS by Kenneth Hodges in 2010.)
Today we can skate at the Kettler, now Medstar, Capitals Iceplex in Ballston or at Pentagon Row. But in the not so distant past we had other places to skate in the area:
When the pond at Pola Negri’s cozy bungalow at 3608 N. Military Road froze over, it became a winter wonderland where the movie star and her guests went ice skating in the 1930s. Now the house is part of Potomac Overlook Park. (Photo courtesy Arlington Magazine)
The Twin Bridges Marriott had its own skating rink shown in this c. 1960 hotel postcard.
The Potomac River also occasionally froze over enough to tempt skaters, which is every parent’s nightmare. The Washington Post captured the scene below in January 1977.
The skates in the AHS collection and pictured below are made of wood with leather straps and metal blades. Bert van Voorbergen, curator of the virtual Ice Skates Museum in the Netherlands assesses that based on the style of other similar patented skates, these were likely made between 1850 and 1870. They attached to the bottom of your boot and stayed in place with a nail through the heel and leather straps over the toes. The Netherlands Ice Skating Museum called them club skates which was a forerunner to figure skates.
Ice skates have been around for more than 4,000 years and were first known to have existed in Finland. Early skates had a bone blade but modern skating emerged with a steel blade with sharpened edges invented in the Netherlands. Skates have stayed largely the same in design since then and only the way they were attached to boots changed. Britain imported skating in the 1600s and the past time went from highbrow recreation to every man having fun doing it. The first known organized skating club was in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1700s and it eventually developed into a competitive sport.
Modern figure skating was founded around the time the skates in our collection were made. An American named Jackson Haines who was a ballet dancer combined skating and ballet dance moves. He invented the “sit-spin” and figured out how to permanently affix blades to boots.
Arlington residents could purchase their skates at hardware stores and in some department stores. In Arlington there was Yeatman’s. In this newspaper advertisement from December 3, 1943 in the Arlington Sun, ice skates for adults started at $4.95.
We hope you enjoyed this trip back through time to play in the snow. AHS looks forward to 2021 when we can reopen our museums safely and invite you to see Arlington history through exhibits from Native Americans to 9/11.
AHS would like to thank volunteer Clare McElhaney for her research on this virtual exhibit.