Palestra’s colorful history recalled

The Palestra is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — The first building in the world specifically for ice hockey was the Palestra, built in Laurium in 1904. It opened in on Dec. 16, 1904 with a professional game between the Portage Lake Hockey Club and Calumet Miners in front of 3,000 spectators. Calumet won 4-3.

The building remained open through the Copper Country’s population decline in the mid- to late-1910s. In 1921, Marquette County sold stocks to raise money and purchased the building, after which it was dismantled and moved to Marquette. It was rebuilt at the north end of Third Street (now the present location of the entrance to the Berry Events Center on the campus of Northern Michigan University.) The Palestra reopened on Dec. 22, 1921 to a crowd of 2,000.

The building itself was made up of steel girders to hold up the roof and the walls inside were made out of tongue and groove hardwood and pine. For most of its existence, the Palestra had a natural ice surface. The rink was flooded and would then freeze in the cold weather. Ice making equipment wasn’t added until the late 1940s.

Norman “Boots” Kukuk, a self-described “Palestra Rink Rat,” wrote many anecdotes about the Palestra and its occupants.

Mr. Lee Garvin, a local attorney and former boxer, used to light his cigars with the $50 and $100 stock certificates from the Palestra (by that point they were worthless). The funny thing was that he never smoked the cigars; he cut them up and chewed them!

Norman “Boots” Kukuk is seen as a Wild Geese hockey player during the 1932-33 season. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

The Palestra had a circle of “sweepers” made up of north Marquette kids who were responsible for sweeping the floors. While they weren’t paid, they did have a pass to get into the building “free” for every event. The head of this group was named Mike.

Mike worked his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming a comedy skater between periods. He never went out of the ice unless he’d had a few gulps of moonshine. His novel act was having an imaginary door slam in his face, giving him a bloody nose. Boots suspected that he carried a small ketchup bottle to create the blood.

When he needed pocket money, Mike could bet that he could cross the 6-inch steel beams over the ice, from one side of the Palestra to the other, on roller skates. He’d bet $2, 5 or 10 (at a time when $2 could buy a pint of moonshine). As Mike aged out of the exploit, the younger sweeps took over the challenge. Eventually the building manager, John “Mac” MacLamare, put a stop to it and threatened to bar access to the building for anyone who continued crossing the beams on roller skates.

Mac battled with pranksters among the hockey players at the Palestra. Two of the most notable were Leo “Pope” DeMars and Mike Pidgeon. Pope could flip a puck over the ice rink lights and no one could see where it went until it landed in front of the goalie. A few times it even went in the net for a score. Pope also liked to flip pucks through the second floor windows of the dance floor. Mac knew it was Pope but could never prove it until finally one day he caught him red handed and charged him $4 to replace the broken window.

Mike Pidgeon was known to have the hardest shot in local hockey and he proved it by putting pucks through the ¾ inch sideboard planking to the crowds’ amazement. Years later Mike told Boots Kukuk, “Boots, I studied the sideboards and they were pretty old. I would find one ready to give out with rot and then put a mark on the bottom, near the ice, with a rubber puck. Then when I had a crowd of spectators, I’d take my shot at the old board and it would break.”

Mac didn’t like the cost of replacing the sideboards and windows broken by Mike and Pope. He made examples of them for a while and they eventually decided to get even. One Saturday evening, after a few shots of moonshine, Pope and Mike stole a bowling ball. They stopped at a bar for another drink, a drug store for cotton and a hardware store for a dynamite wick before heading back to the Palestra.

Mac was in the basement, stoking the coal fired boiler for the night, when someone yelled “bomb”! A 12-pound bowling ball, holes filled with cotton and a fizzing dynamite wick, rolled down the steps into the basement. Mac came bounding up the stairs and ran out of the building. Mike and Pope were hiding nearby and after a few minutes tried to retrieve the “bomb” but the smoke was too thick.

The bowling ball sat on the big steel safe in the front office for weeks so that everyone could see it. The gossip ran its course and finally the ball disappeared. The rumor was that Mac threw it in the dump. Despite all these shenanigans taking place off the ice, the hockey games continued at the Palestra uninterrupted.

To hear more stories of hockey, ice skating and skiing, join us as the Marquette Regional History Center presents: “Skiing Skating & Slapshots: A Winter Sports Slideshow, Instant Replay!” Wednesday, Sept. 8, 7 p.m.

We’re bringing you an instant replay! Join us with your lawn chair as Jack Deo and Jim Koski share reminiscences from local winter sport enthusiasts. Hear stories and see photos about Mt. Mesnard, Kirlin Hill and watch movies from Cliff’s Ridge. See how ice skating was a pastime for everyone and of course there will be plenty about hockey.

This was recorded as a fundraiser for the history center earlier this year. Now we’ll bring it to you live. Tickets are $15. Get yours in advance or at the door. Call 906-226-3571 for details. This fundraiser is supported in part by the Rotary Club of Marquette. Tickets are on sale now.


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