Escanaba, where polar bears roam? Winter puts Escanaba down in history

ESCANABA – The north wind howls and the ice groans. The shifting snow erases the woodlands.

For a moment the world is lost in whiteness, like a page of history from another time. The ice glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes many years ago.

Even though thousands of years have caressed the north country, winter still reigns as king. Our own Bays de Noc, a polar bear paw print is etched in ice. Did the huge white polar bears roam this far south?

No, but in the winter of 1911, a polar bear romped the ice of our Bay. Escanaba was the location chosen for “Nomads of the North” a silent movie made by the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago.

Articles of the Escanaba Daily Mirror tell of the excitement of a troupe of 16, actual Eskimos (Inuit) actors, actresses, sled dogs and a large polar bear coming to Escanaba, Michigan. They stayed for about three weeks. One newspaper article reported, “it was a common sight to see the Eskimos sitting on park benches in front of the Ludington Hotel, apparently enjoying the zero weather.”

The crew and actors moved on when the film was finished. One young actress, Nancy Columbia, went on to become an accomplished entertainer. As for the polar bear, the movie ended up as a real tear jerker. The critter is killed in the final hunting scene (and killed in real life). A local cafe advertised roast polar bear on their menu the following week.

Not only did movie makers come to Escanaba to capture some of our winter history, so did “Life” magazine. It started out small in 1936 when a group of ice skaters put on a show on a rink in Ludington Park.

It was called “Ice Varieties of Escanaba.” After moving to the fairgrounds’ exhibition building, the production became known as “The Largest Small Town Ice Show in the World.”

The “Life” magazine photographer froze in time, pictures of Escanaba youths ice skating down the streets of North Escanaba, and photos of the ice review.

Winter recreation in Escanaba has, for many decades, been an exciting thing. Ice fishing out on Little Bay de Noc has been featured in more than one outdoors magazine. At one point in history, Escanaba was dubbed the “Walleye Capital of the World.”

Our winter wonderland of snow and ice has quite a history from sled dogs to snowmobiles; Escanaba is the birth place of some speed skaters, figure skaters and cross country skiers.

Where the winds blow snow off of the Little Bay de Noc, where the ice pops and shoves, an awesome town thrived in the cold for 150 years.

Ludington Park, with its rolling hill down towards the Bay, has been a gathering place for winter fun for generations. Escanaba’s famous toboggan slide was built on the hill near Fifth Avenue in the early 1920s.

The slide attracted so many people that it became too noisy in the neighborhood, so the slide was moved down to the north end of the park in about 1929.

One season before re-opening, the slide was the scene of a fatal accident. Two young men climbed the toboggan slide the night before it opened. (One young fella slid down not knowing that boards still barricaded the bottom).

The slide was dismantled in the 1930s.

A lot of snowflakes have fallen on Escanaba in the past 150 years. Tons of ice has grown on the Bay in the past one hundred years or so. Before this Ice Age of 2013 gives way to the great thawing, have some fun in the snow.

Reminisce with your parents and grandparents about how deep the snows used to be and about how the ice roads bridged Escanaba with Stonington. Pull on your long-johns and woolen socks and enjoy the ice age.

Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.