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Flying over the ice in full glee

Edward Williams Clay, Skaters on the Delaware River at Philadelphia, 1831 / National Museum of American History

Above: Edward Williams Clay, Skaters on the Delaware River at Philadelphia, 1831 / National Museum of American History

“Amidst the dreariness of wintry winds and chilling frosts that have stripped the rugged oak of its foliage,” begins memoirist Elizabeth Montgomery, on the topic of early 19th century Wilmington, DE winters, “that have disrobed all inanimate nature, forced the feathered tribes to wing their way to more congenial climes, and the fishes from their wonted channel, driven the insect world into their cells, stilled this resistless torrent and fitted it up for a sporting-place for youth; even at this cheerless season they, the youth, are to be found in the full tide of enjoyment.

“Many can recall hours pleasantly spent at the old barley mill, sliding and skating; groups of young persons and schools assemble here to enjoy the healthy exercise. Those of riper years, too, have had their hours of recreation. In days gone by, A.H. Rowan and two Scotchmen, John Fleming, long a worthy townsman and proprietor of the mill, with his friend William Key, have played a Scotch game called golfing [she means the old Scottish game of curling, not golf as we know it]. 

“They drew a circle on the ice, and had a stone round but rather flat on one side, in size and shape much like an old-fashioned roll of tobacco; in this a handle was placed, by which it was pushed over the ice, something like pitching quoits. 

“A dangerous sport practiced here in those days by a younger class was riding on a whirligig. A post was secured in the ice, with a hole in the top, through which a long pole was passed; a sled was attached to each end by a rope; on these the riders were seated, four or six men holding the middle of the pole, forced it round with such rapidity that a dense mist enveloped the whole circle. 

“It is amusing to spectators who come here to witness the feats displayed in skating. Some with great dexterity cut ciphers and write letters, others have little girls holding on to their coats as they skate, or in sleds fastened to their waists, flying over the ice in full glee; many are skilled in the art of sliding a great distance, others are popping down at every attempt, yet not discouraged, so absorbed in pleasure they are regardless of the intense cold.

“Joyous as these sports may be, on some occasions they are mingled with sorrow. Thirty winters have gone since, on a fine morning, a few school girls came here at noon to slide; and, as there was water over the edge of the dam, they prudently declined to venture. A fearless one sprang on, the ice broke, and in a moment she was gone.”

Detail from 'Scene on the Delaware River at Philadelphia during the severe winter of 1856' / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Detail from ‘Scene on the Delaware River at Philadelphia during the severe winter of 1856’ / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Elizabeth Montgomery (1778-1863), daughter of Hugh Montgomery of Revolutionary War fame, compiled the above and many other vignettes of her hometown into ‘Reminiscences of Wilmington,’ first published at the request of her friends in 1851. The edition had a successful run, and her book was republished in 1872.

Montgomery, who was prominent in Wilmington society in the first half of the 19th century, spent several years teaching (she ran a sewing and drawing school for girls). She went on to become a founding member of the Female Bible Society. 

And she breathed new life into the Old Swedes Church. The Episcopalian house of worship, active since 1698, closed its doors after the 1830 Christmas service. Its congregation began worshiping at the new Trinity Chapel in uptown Wilmington. Old Swedes remained neglected until Montgomery organized a fund drive to restore it. A bequest from Henrietta Allmond provided the means to get the church back into functioning order. Starting in 1842 services were again held in Old Swedes, and continue to be today. Elizabeth Montgomery is buried in a place of honor at Old Swedes’ cemetery.

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