By June of 1941 Steve had found a corner on North Avenue and River Road for rent. There wasn't much around then, Amlings Flowerland down the street, Art and Ann Fritz's pony rides, the Cook County fair grounds across the way. Thompson's Stebles, and Holderhoff's Chicken farm to the east. Although the area wasn't heavily populated all, all these businesses seemed to be prospering so why not give it a try.
It didn't take any convincing to get Verlin to agree, she had continued to roller skate. Madison Gardens, White City, The Roller Bowl. "Madison always closes down during the summer, why not give people a place to skate in the summer?" she said "Maybe we could even get Happy to play the organ". (Happy Johnson was the Madison Organist). Grandpa and Granny Culpepper again gave them whatever money they had saved. Steve's parents refused, it wasn't the responsible thing to do. They were back in business by the end of June, again as the Silver Rollerway, now in Chicago. Business was good but not without it's problems. The war brought fuel rationing. Businesses were not allowed to operate in the evenings to conserve fuel. Steve came up with a solution, he brought his own generator. The tent blew away, they continued as the "Silver Rollerway Open Air Roller Rink" until they could buy a new tent. The next setback came when the new tent burned down leaving them only with their now rope burned portable skating floor and their organ which Steve had managed to get out before the flames engulfed the tent. Yet another setback, they came to work to discover their floor had been stolen. Years later Steve was at a roller rink with rope burns and knew this was his stolen floor.
Time to build a building. The war years had been good for their pocket book. Steve claimed his strict rules of conduct made it a success, Verlin said her policy of never charging servicemen was the reason, whichever, they had saved enough money to buy the land, they could get a loan for the building, why not take one more chance.
In 1945 they built a steel Metzger building and opened their new roller rink as the North Avenue Rollerway. The next years were good ones, Tom had returned from service and Carol was growing up, life was great. The hours were long, for in addition to the rink, they opened a miniature golf course, a frozen custard stand, a shooting gallery Steve had purchased from a carnival that passed through and an archery range. Even Tom had turned entrepreneurial, he opened a spill the milk game. It was truly a family business, Steve continued to play the organ when HappyJohnson couldn't make it in. Verlin sold the tickets, Grandpa and Granny pitched in on the golf course and archery range. Tom guarded the floor, except during the waltz, that was reserved to skate with his mother.
In 1951 the rink burned down. North was left but the twisted beams of the steel building. The family was devastated, the insurance proceeds were minimal, the business profits had gone to pay off the building and make necessary repairs, they were back to where they started. Art and Ann Fritz, the rink's neighbor and owners of Kiddieland, came over to see their good friends Steve and Verlin, let us help, we will give you the money to rebuild and be partners. Verlin wanted to accept their generosity, but Steve did not, he told Verlin, "I've got one partner now, YOU, and we can't get along". Steve had tasted success and was never going to have a boss or partner to answer to again. This wasn't exactly true, for as often as he told me the "no partners story" he also said "I may be the brains of this business but she's (Verlin) the boss". So you see, for the next forty years he had both a partner and a boss.
They convinced a bank to lend them the money to rebuild and in 1951 they built a new building, masonry with wooden trusses this time. Just as before, Verlin worked alongside of Steve building their new rink. They built trusses, pulled wire, put in the plumbing, and painted together. They had done it all before back in Gary, and this time they could afford help. They hired a carpenter to assist them. "Curly Cue Johnson" Tom used to call him, just look at the trim around the rink and you'll know how he got that nickname.
When completed it was was a beautiful building. 100 x 160 feet giving them the right to stretch the trugh a little and boast the biggest and most modern roller rink in the country. Business came back strong, Tom came home from school to join them full time again. Madison Garden had announced it was going to close, things were looking very good. Now that Carol was a young lady and tom was here to run the business, Steve and Verlin were able to take some time off. They began their annual trips to Florida, as time passed, vacations of weeks turned to months then to the entire winter, they had worked hard and Tom was capable to taking care of the business, why not enjoy life.
There was one thing nagging at Verlin. Shortly after rebuilding and basting of the largest rink in the country someone had built a bigger and better one, just miles from them on the northwest side of Chicago. We've got to expand she stated, "why" asked Steve, "because we have to be the biggest" she answered. That certainly was one reason but there was another.
During the past few years, Verlin had gotten the bug of competitive roller skating. She had started a dance, figure and speed club, she attended meets and the national championships. What she really wanted was to host the national championships in her rink, the biggest and most modern roller rink in the country, and of course have her son and daughter win that championship. Verlin was the epitome of a skating mother. Remember, Steve was the brains, but she was the boss, and the expansion plans were on. Steve staked out the new addition, Verlin pulled up the stakes and moved them farther away. Steve moved them back. They finally agreed on an addition of 80 feet to the north and 40 feet to the east. Verlin let Steve think she was compromising but the new dimension were just about where Verling move the stakes to in the first place.
The addition was completed in 1955 and the following year they did indeed host the national championships, something they did again in 1964 and 1967, and were again able to boast the largest roller rink in the country.
Once again business bounced back the skaters that had left for the new, better rink returned. Tom continued as the manager, Carol took over the teaching of dance lessons and became one of the premier teaching pros in the country, as coach to hundreds of national champions, Carol was sought out by skaters across the country asking for help. Our patrons no longer came from just the neighborhoods around the rink, because of Carol's skill as a teacher they attracted skaters from Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Now that the rink was doing well, Steve and Verlin decided to rebuild the miniature golf course and shooting gallery. In 1961 the work began, remember they were do-it-yourselfers. Steve laid out the plans, Verlin told how it should be done, and they once again built it together.
When we think about it, it has certainly been a success story. Two young people working hard to make their dream come true. I have often thought about it and tried to put my finger on the one or two things that made their dream a success. One of then certainly was hard work and the other I believe to be their dream to provide people with a family environment where they could bring their children and enjoy themselves as a family.
The entire family has certainly worked hard at the business, many times people would say, "You have a gold mine here" and Tom or Steve would respond, "Yea but you sure have to dig to get it out". The credit for the family atmosphere goes to Verlin, she always made a newcomer feel welcome (she never saw a stranger) and before they left she was pairing the kids up with a a partner and arranging lessons for them. Verlin was the matriarch of the Dance Club, she toted kids to meets, set the rules and taught mothers how to sew costumes.
One of my favorite stories is of Verlin hauling a car full of kids to a skating competition. First, for those of you who were not lucky enough to know Verlin, she loved to sing and hum to the music, so here she was driving along singing and swaying to the car radio when a policeman pulled her over for weaving down the road. She was greeted with the usual, "can I see your license, ma'am?". She obliged only to be told that her license had expired, she rummaged through her purse and produced another one, nope, also expired she was told. Exasperated, she looked at the cop and said, "I'm sorry I can't see a darn thing without my glasses" and then let out that laugh of hers. The policeman joined her in her laugh and sent her on her way.
These were just a few of my early memories. I hope these stories remind all of you of some long forgotten memories of your own. If you would like, share them with me, I could never have too many memories of North Avenue Rollerway and the people who skated there. I feel honored to have been a part of this business which was a "home away from home" for people during the last 57 years.
Thanks to all of you, past and present skaters.
We now come to the end of both our story and the roller rink. We hope that your memories are as fond as ours and wish all of you success and happiness.
Get News and Coupon
privacy by safescribe