Tie One On

by Jeff Briley, Assistant Director, Oklahoma Museum of History

Winter in Oklahoma may be well described by the Lou Reed lyric, “ You can’t depend on the worst always happening.” My son learned that cruel lesson this year in Oklahoma: Despite the setting of all children’s books, the arrival of Christmas does not necessarily equate to snow. The sled he dragged around the house for a week remains an undelivered promise of fun.

In central Oklahoma many of the implements of winter recreation repose in dusty corners in anticipation of the aberrant storm or await lashing to a roof rack for a drive elsewhere. The collections of the Museum include three objects with three things in common: 1. They are only useful in the winter. 2. Each one attests to a moment in a technological timeline. 3. Each must be attached to footwear.

I began this line of thought by walking into Museum Registrar’s office. The work table is adorned with the latest donations as museum staff document, number, and process the collections. Among artifacts donated by Susan Carpenter Pettit was a stencil kit used for marking oil storage tanks for the Prairie Pipeline Company around the time they became part of Sinclair Oil Company. What arrested my eye reclined next to the kit—a pair of B&B ice skates.

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Ice skates, Barney & Berry, circa 1912
Artifact # 2009.009

During the Civil War Everett Barney was superintendent of small arms manufacture for a military contract, but at some point his mind wandered to ice-skating. This happens in Massachusetts. Barney disliked the cumbersome way that skates had to be strapped on to shoes, so he devised an all-metal skate that clamped on in one easy motion. By the end of the war Barney had set up a factory and ultimately produced up to 600,000 pair per year. Barney & Berry ice skates helped fuel recreational skating enthusiasm into the twentieth century. Susan Pettit recalls that in the 1930s, when winter iced over the ponds near Sasakwa, Oklahoma, her father would clamp on his skates and pull young Susan around in a washtub.

Ice skates have been in use for a very long time. One of the surprising discoveries in the archaeology of Viking age York, England, was the excavation of a workshop for the manufacture of ice skates.
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Snowshoes, Chippewa, circa 1905
Artifact # 05567

As a transportation device, snowshoes have an even longer history. Although their use in Asia began perhaps 4,000 years ago, we tend to more closely recognize snowshoes devised by American Indians and later worn by northern hunter/trappers. The idea of snowshoeing for fun seems at least as old as the Montreal Snowshoe Club, founded in 1840. Distinguished gentleman created this organization so that they could to get together, tromp around on Saturday mornings, breathe healthful air, and discuss Canada’s future.

In 1950s Oklahoma our exposure to snowshoes tended to be limited to reading Boy’s Life magazine or watching the thrilling adventures of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on television. In 1911 H.R. Putnam donated the Museum’s single pair of snowshoes, labeled as Chippewa, from his years of living in the northern U.S. Mr. Putnam would hardly recognize today’s recreational snowshoe, made from super-lightweight graphite, aluminum alloys, nylon, and polyester instead of wood and rawhide. In all but the most rare occasion, snowshoeing remains a sport Oklahomans go elsewhere to pursue.

Today, the average winter outdoor catalog includes some sort of cleats that attach to a boot for traction on ice and snow. True mountaineering demands a secure foothold on ice, and the preferred device, a crampon, looks more like villainous apparel from a work of post-apocalyptic fiction. Strapped to the bottom of a climbing boot, a crampon is generally composed of ten steel spikes pointing down for traction and two pointing forward to stab and hold onto a vertical section of ice. The crampons in the collection of the Oklahoma Museum of History were donated years after I wore them for some general winter mountaineering in northern Wales and are of the classic simple steel variety. The latest crampons have become highly technical modernist gear to go along with the specialization of ice climbing as a sport. Today, no winter-glazed waterfall or spillway outflow is safe from climbers looking for a workout close to home.
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Crampons, F. Ralling Hammerwerk, Austria, 1975
Artifact # 2001.209.007

Winter sports remain a matter of personal taste. When the temperature drops and snow makes an appearance many Oklahomans cling to indoors and think of warmer locales. For others, the same circumstances are an invitation for fun and activity. Some years, Oklahoma winter weather accommodates us all.
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