The Winter of ’32

by Jane Alford Hildenbrandt | February 2020, History

How Lake Placid’s first Olympics brightened my childhood

y father, Ruel Alford,
was the son of Harvey and Effie Alford. In the early 20th century, his family owned a great deal of property in Lake Placid and the surrounding areas. Grandfather Alford started out as a guide and caretaker for his clients’ summer retreats. He also bought plots of his own, logging some of the land and building several lakeside lodges that he rented to wealthy people in the summertime.

When electricity and telephones started coming into use, workers from utility companies brought these new innovations into the Adirondacks. Because of the mountainous and rocky terrain, it was a lengthy and often Herculean task. The workmen needed places to stay and eat, so my grandparents turned their large home into a boardinghouse. Grandmother Alford was a superb cook and housekeeper, and the boardinghouse was a huge success. When it became too cramped, my grandparents opened the Alford Inn on Lake Placid’s Main Street. (The building now houses Adirondack Decorative Arts and Crafts.)

My father was told that he would be disinherited if he married my mother, Elizabeth Bombard, because she was a Catholic. This did not deter the young lovers. They were married in Au Sable Forks with members of my mother’s family in attendance.

After my brother, Harvey, was born, the couple was permitted to live and work at my grandparents’ Averyville farm, though they were still not accepted as family. When winter came, my father went to work for Grandfather Alford, logging and cutting ice blocks. This left my mother alone much of the time with a baby to care for on a remote farm. There was no car—just a horse and buggy—which made it very difficult for her to get around.

When I was born, in November of 1923, they decided to move back into the village of Lake Placid. During the summer months, my father worked as caretaker of a lodge on Lake Placid. He also started drinking and staying out late at night. Then one night he did not come home. I was a few months old and Harvey was two.

But within a couple of years, my father returned. He told my mother how sorry he was and that his parents would buy him a home and put him back to work. They moved into a small, ramshackle house on McKinley Street.

My father and mother were still treated coolly by his parents, though one November, when I was about six years old, we were asked to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. My grandmother’s dinners were formal affairs—with linen tablecloth and napkins, china, goblets and sterling silverware, and served in five courses. My mother trained Harvey and me for several days on table manners. We were told that we must eat everything put in front of us and to be polite and say how good everything was.

On Thanksgiving, all went well until the soup was served. It was oyster stew, a real delicacy in those days, and something we had never had before. I remembered what my mother had told me, and although I did not like the stew, I hurried up and ate it all. When my grandmother saw that I had eaten it so quickly, thinking I liked it, she ladled more into my dish. This was the last straw for me. I burst into tears and ran from the table.

The new Olympic Arena went up across from my grandparents’ home on Main Street. That was also where the practice ski jump for the 1932 Winter Games was built. We often brought our sleds and would slide down a slightly less steep hill nearby. 

My mother’s brother, Frank Bombard, was an excellent ski jumper and had been training for the Olympics when he fell during one of the practice sessions and broke his leg. He was not able to compete, but he did become a ski instructor for guests at local hotels for many years.

My brother Harvey started a ski run with a small jump behind our house. Some of the other boys in the neighborhood would join him, and we’d have our own ski event. Uncle Frank always gave Harvey his old skis, harnesses and boots; the rest of us used rubber bands cut from tires to attach our skis.

The town of Lake Placid received a windfall from the federal government to dress up the village for the upcoming Olympic Games. Along with the new arena, an outdoor stadium was built on the school campus, and much sprucing up was done on the streets throughout the town. In this time of depression, the money provided work for people in the village and there was a feeling of hope.

The powers-that-be decided to use some of this windfall to pave many of the roads in the village that were still dirt. McKinley Street, where we lived, was one of them. In order to widen the road, they bought frontage from homeowners, including my family. They also put a stone wall all along the front of our property and stone steps up to our porch entry. The work was completed just before the Olympics were to start.

In February of 1932, the long-awaited Games arrived. I was almost nine years old. Ice walls had been built on both sides of Main Street from the town hall, just below the school, up past the arena to the business section of town. In about every block along the wall was an ice house where coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts were provided, free of charge, all day long. Behind the ice walls were multi-colored lights that were lit when it started to get dark, and it seemed like a fairyland to Harvey and me. We’d walk up and down through town just about every day to take in all the excitement—and, of course, we always took advantage of the free hot chocolate and doughnuts.

A contest was held for the high-school students to build ice statues in various locations, and prizes were given for the best ones. On Mirror Lake there was a large ice rink surrounded by a circle of huge Christmas trees strung with colored lights, and a huge stone staircase was built from Main Street down to the edge of the lake. A mile or so below the village on Cascade Road, a giant ski jump had been built, and farther on they built the bobsled run. All the hotels and motels in the village—and in the surrounding communities—were filled to capacity. Many residents opened their homes to visitors.

Several times, I saw figure skater Sonja Henie practicing for the competition in the stadium in front of the school. She won the gold medal that year, and a few years later she became a famous movie star. 

Children who had skates and could skate fairly well were asked to participate in an ice show the evening before the Games ended. We were supposed to be penguins. The material and pattern for our costumes were provided, but we had to sew them ourselves. My mother somehow found the time to make mine. We skated in a row around the rink in several different formations. The skaters on the ends had to be the best ones because they had to skate faster and farther on the turns. I was so short that I was in the middle. 

It was an exciting time for all of us. Two Lake Placid boys were on a bobsled team that won gold. Jim Shea from Lake Placid also won a gold medal in speed skating. His family owned Shea’s Grocery & Fruit Market on Main Street. Art Devlin, who was in my graduating class of 1941, was too young to compete in 1932, though he went on to become a champion ski jumper.

Everything went back to normal after the Olympics ended. The stadium that had been built on the school campus was immediately torn down. Lake Placid, which hadn’t felt too many of the effects of the 1929 crash because of all the work created by the Games, finally started to feel the pinch.

My grandparents had gifted the Al­ford Inn to their daughter, Climena Alford Wikoff, as a wedding present. It was lost following the crash, but they still had their Mirror Lake boardinghouse, Mir-a-Lac. Considerable improvements had been made to accommodate the tourists expected with the Olympics and the name was changed to the Mirror Lake Inn. Climena took over ownership after my grandparents retired.   

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