Thursday, 11 August 2016

Minnie Cummings, The Minneapolis Skating Gypsy


Born in May of 1879 in Canada, Minnie Cummings was the daughter of first generation British immigrants. Her father relocated her family south to Minneapolis, Minnesota and soon after passed away, leaving Minnie and her young siblings in the undesirable position of having to work to support their widowed mother. Her brother Albert found work as a photo engraver and her sister Alva became a tailor. Minnie decided to take the road less skated.

In a speed skating race at Fort Snelling in St. Paul in 1899, she completed a 'quadruple century' distance on the ice in forty seven minutes and thirty two seconds. The gathered crowd, impressed with her efforts, gave her a brilliant idea. Later that winter, she packed up her few belongings and hit the road with speed skater Johnny Nilsson, giving exhibitions of 'fancy' figure skating on ponds, lakes and in rinks all over the Midwest and sending home every penny she could to her family.

On January 4, 1900, The Republic noted that "John Nilsson, champion speed skater of the world, reached St. Louis yesterday morning. He was accompanied by his wife and Miss Minnie Cummings, the trick and fancy skater who is after Miss Davidson for the lady championship of the world. The party came from Milwaukee. Miss Cummings is engaged to appear at the Ice Palace in this city next week, and John Nilsson will hold the boards the following week." From St. Louis, she travelled to north to New York state and gave exhibitions with Nilsson at Saranac Lake on January 30, 31 and February 1, 1900 as part of The Pontiac Club's winter carnival. The next winter, Cummings was a star attraction in Pembina, North Dakota.

In subsequent years, Minnie travelled north to give exhibitions in Northern Michigan and Canada, performing everywhere from Moose Jaw to the Northwest Territories. In 1904, she gave an incredible twenty three exhibitions in four weeks. She took sick in January 1908 and missed a year of performing but returned to her gruelling schedule in 1909. In January 1910, she was billed as the "opening ice attraction" at the Boston Ice Palace. Two months later, she headed to Calumet, Houghton County, Michigan for a series of exhibitions. The Wednesday, March 9, 1910 issue of "The Calumet News" noted, "Miss Cummings arrived in Houghton yesterday and was on the ice of the rink for sometime yesterday and today. Those who saw the young woman 'working out' at the rink this morning saw some very wonderful things in the way of fancy skating, among which was the cutting of the ice of many flowers, all of which was cleverly executed by her." Her performance at Houghton's Amphidrome was so popular that she remained in the area and performed at the Palestra. Her exhibition was described in "The Calumet News" two days later thusly: "It was about 9 o'clock that the ice was cleared and Miss Cummings [appeared], clad in a pretty little suit of dark cloth trimmed in white and wearing a jaunty hat of white fur and feathers. Miss Cummings was on the ice for nearly an hour and in that time she kept the audience at high pitch of interest with her many beautiful evolutions, cutting all kinds of scrolls and rolls, Dutch and otherwise. The people on either side of the rink were enabled to get a good look at Miss Cummings because, unlike many fancy skaters, she worked over a large area of ice. From here Miss Cummings went to Mohawk today to appear there tonight and tomorrow night she will be at the rink in Calumet. Miss Cummings was at the rink here this morning for a little more of fancy work and before leaving she said that she wished she might stay in Houghton and see more of the fancy skaters develop. She says she has had a very pleasant time while here in the village and that she appreciated the many courtesies shown her by the people of Houghton."


The following winter, Minnie popped up in Lexington, Massachusetts, performing alongside J. Frank Bacon as part of the town's Great Winter Carnival and skating at the Cambridge Skating Club during her visit as well. The February 4, 1911 issue of the Cambridge Chronicle gave perhaps the most detailed chronicle on record of her performance: "When a woman can skate like this Miss Cummings, no man, no matter how fancy his skating might be, cannot be considered, for the time being at the least. She is the whole show... Miss Cummings is the embodiment of grace of movements on the ice. She is the very next thing to flying. She is a lithe young woman, and very tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and as willowy in her movements as a Japanese acrobat. She starts in a long outer roll on one skate and sweeps around about fifty feet or so, turning completely around at the end and taking the next sweeping curve backward on the foot. Then she starts in to cut a figure 8 on one foot, and this means a quick movement of the free foot on the short turn each time - a movement she accomplishes without effort time after time as she repeats the figure, and always most gracefully. Out of the figure she sails backward in a long outward sweep once again, and gives an exhibition of what is really the most beautiful thing in skating - the plain outside edge forward and backward, followed by the inside forward and backward in long sweeping curves. Then she does the cross roll - does it steadily without even a slip or a hitch and with a rhythm that is charming. She has learned the 'Bacon whirl,' but she does whirl it in the same way that Frank Bacon does. The skirt won't permit. But she whirls around a few times as a preliminary to cutting the grapevine; first the single vine, then the double, and then that the most difficult thing, the once-and-a-half, which necessitates a quick, sharp turn at the end that results in disaster with most people who attempt it, but never with Miss Cummings, apparently. She next cuts the pivot vine and the plum vine - single and double - and the combination three, ending with the 'plain avil' backward, and as a finishing touch cutting the 'combination scissors'. Off she darts then to a clear corner and begins that most difficult of figures, the King pivot, on the left foot backward. This ends by crossing the free foot over the other, digging the ice of this foot in the ice and ending in a short whirl... She is known out West as the 'queen of the ice', and that title she will probably retain, but what Frank Bacon called her is more convincing, if less dignified - 'the most wonderful woman skater in the world.'"

One of the final accounts of Minnie I was able to find came from the March 6, 1920 issue of the Ironwood Daily Globe in Michigan: "Miss Minnie Cummings, 'the Ice Queen,' performed at the Irondrome last night. About five hundred spectators witnessed the fancy figure skating of the ice. Miss Cummings is 'the lady champion of the American style' and is said to be the most wonderful woman skater in the world. Her performance consisted of intricate pivots, graceful vine combinations and sensational spins. The spectators were so well pleased that they urged the manager of the rink, Mr. Thebert, to have Miss Cummings put on a second performance, which she did whereby she received more applause than she did the first time." After that, she married and became Minnie Cummings Price. In 1946, Roy W. McDaniel recalled her as "a very fine skater with a beautiful style who readily accepted the modern skating."

In the end, there's really so little we ultimately know about this pioneering professional skater. Like so many skaters of her era, Minnie didn't follow the traditional path. She never competed at a recognized U.S. Championships or World Championships, never shared the stage with someone like Charlotte Oelschlägel and most certainly never rubbed shoulders with the elite who's who of New York's high society. She carved out her own path, travelling from town to town, city to city like a gypsy with her skates, collecting quarters as she wowed audiences with her school figures. And yet, to me, it's stories like hers that are every bit as fascinating - if not moreso - than the skaters who amassed shelves full of trophies and medals.

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