Thurston County History: The Olympia Ice Arena

A rare view inside the Olympia Ice Arena. Image from September 12, 1939 issue of the Daily Olympian. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Business was looking up at the end of the Great Depression. Local developers hit upon a new idea: an indoor ice rink in Olympia, located in the American Legion Hall downtown, 219 Legion Way SW.

Built in 1921 by the Alfred William Leach Post #3 of the American Legion, the hall was an unlikely site for an ice rink. While the county residents had enjoyed indoor roller-skating rinks for decades, ice skating had been limited to rare occasions when it got cold enough for lakes to freeze.

Olympia Ice Arena Built

In June 1939 the America Legion announced plans to lease the first floor of their hall, then being used by the National Guard, for an ice rink. Construction began right away. Charles McPhail had picked the site as promising after surveying the state. Co-owners were his siblings Malcolm McPhail and Lillian Johnson.

Joseph Wohleb, the building’s original architect, returned for the project. Five miles of refrigeration piping was used for the rink. Stretching 118 by 72 feet, there was seating for 1,000, including a gallery. As part of the agreement, the MacDonald Building Company also remodeled the upstairs floor as a clubroom for the Legion. The arena also included the “Pine Room” with a lounge, coffee shop/lunch counter and skate shop.

The rink opened with a two-day ice carnival on September 13 and 14, with 18 acts by 45 skaters. The American Legion Band played and the Seattle Figure Skating Club sent performers. This event was sanctioned by the U.S. Figure Skating Association. The Association would sanction other major shows at the arena.

black and white print ad that says 'Ice skating, skate now. Season ends about June 1st. The sport of the entire family. Sessions for all. Monday through Sunday. Monday night- beginners' night.  Thursday morning - 10 to 12 special ladies' session and instruction. Saturday night - 3-hour session, 8 to 100. Olympia Ice Arena. Telephone 6911
Many soldiers visited the Olympia Ice Arena on leave from Fort Lewis. Ad from the Daily Olympian, April 22, 1945. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Ice Skating in Olympia History

Ice skating sessions were held throughout the week from September or October into spring before closing for the summer. Mondays were “beginners’ nights,” with free skate rentals and complimentary tickets for Thursday night. Tuesdays were Grays Harbor nights; Wednesdays were soldiers’ nights; and Fridays were High School nights. Hundreds of soldiers also visited on special army and navy days.

There were other sessions for women and children that offered instruction for those new to the sport. Instructors included Peter Tarsh, a European skater, and Sparkey Bourque, a Pacific Coast champion figure skater who taught actress Joan Crawford how to skate for the film “Ice Follies of 1939” and stared in the 1939 short “Ice Antics.” The arena also held special skating classes for adults and children.

In September 1941 new owners Dr. Michael Kennedy, G.I. Griffith and Charles Stickney bought out the McPhails and Johnson. Kennedy was the father of Peter and Karol. They ultimately backed out of the sale and Hubert Hahn purchased the arena, becoming owner-manager.

Peter and Karol Kennedy, the ‘Kennedy Kids’ prepare for the Lions 1940 Mid-Winter Carnival. Image from January 15, 1940 Daily Olympian. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Historic Ice Rink in Olympia Acted as a Community Center

During World War II the arena became a favorite local spot as gasoline rationing kept people closer to home. It even offered special rates to schools and parties. An Olympia Figure Skating Club formed. They held special skating sessions and invited the public to skating parties that featured on-ice games and exhibition skating by members. One year Santa Claus even came to skate!

The Olympia Lions Club held annual ice carnivals and funfests to raise money for their support for the blind and visually impaired. These “Spring Ice Fantasies” included comedy acts, athletic events and figure skating exhibitions. They were followed by a free skate and a carnival upstairs.

Peter Kennedy and his sister Karol, the “Kennedy Kids,” performed at Lions ice carnivals and other local shows. These champion figure skaters got their start at the Olympia Ice Arena, later winning silver at the 1952 Winter Olympics.

In 1943 the arena was redecorated with skating themed murals on the arena’s walls and skating comic strip characters decorating the foyer. Also in 1943, The American Legion sponsored an ice carnival.

One of the most elaborate events was the 1945 Ice Fantasies sponsored by the Young Men’s Business Club. With 21 acts and 50 players, there were pantomimes and comedy acts, including an Irish washerwoman and a horse. Proceeds went to the Boy Scouts, March of Dimes and a Telephone Fund for wounded servicemen.

Bill Rochelle, goalie for the Larks amateur hockey team. The team was sponsored by the Meadowlark Dairy Company. Image from January 14, 1940 Daily Olympian. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Olympia Area Hockey

Amateur ice hockey teams formed soon after the arena opened, sponsored by local businesses. There were four teams: Meadowlark Dairy’s Larks; Olympia Oil and Wood Products Company Fuelers; H.L. Wolf’s truck and farm machinery distributors Wolverines; and Ice Arena Orphans.

Games were held Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. These teams mostly played each other, but that December they began playing against company teams from Tacoma, Bremerton and Seattle. While many players were local, others were from Tacoma, Seattle or Fort Lewis.  

In January 1942 a junior hockey league was formed. Over 50 boys age 14 and younger joined company sponsored teams: the Larks, Rinkies, Orphans and Five Rocks. Their opening game, a double-header, was a fundraiser for March of Dimes, to fight polio. Peter Kennedy played for the Larks and his father was league president.

Olympia Ice Rink Closed in 1946

The Ice Arena’s original lease was for five years, with an option of five years renewal. But all things must come to an end. With the war over and veterans coming home, the American Legion needed the space. The arena was ordered to vacate March 1, 1946 but delays getting construction supplies pushed that back to May 1. The former arena space was transformed into a ballroom and clubrooms.

While few today remember the Olympia Ice Arena, the area’s interest in ice skating has not disappeared. With other rinks further north, the annual Oly on Ice and the Seattle Kraken NHL team, local love for the ice continues.

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