Many years ago – about 1970, to be precise – I moved into a house along North Fourth Street in Columbus’ University District, near the place where the Iuka Ravine ends.
From time to time, my sizable dog and I enjoyed a walk along the street and into places nearby.
My dog was a full-sized St. Bernard and sometimes was approached by other dogs who barked furiously at us. My dog would say nothing, simply looking at his antagonist. The other dog would immediately stop barking and slink away.
I never did understand how he did that, but he was that sort of guy.
In our travels, after a few blocks, we would come to a wide ravine on the east side of Fourth Street. In the ravine was a wide, low-slung structure called Smith’s Roller Rink and Dance Garden. It was abandoned, empty and the last-standing wooden roller-skating rink in Columbus.
We looked into the building through an open door. It was a wide, open and astounding place. I am glad the big dog and I saw it once.
The next time we came down that way, the building was gone, and construction was underway on a series of apartments that remain there today.
Over the years, I wondered who might have called that large roller rink home. Then I found one of them.
In his time and in his way, there was no one in Columbus better on a pair of roller skates than Rollie Birkhimer. Few people remember him today.
First, a little about the sports of a century ago: At the turn of the 20th century, with the exception of baseball, many of the professional sports we follow so closely today were unknown. But in an era before radio, television and the internet, a lot of people spent their free time competing one against another in sports many of us do not consider competitive today. In turn-of-the-century America, one could compete vigorously against other people in bicycle riding and bowling, as well as tennis, golf, baseball – and roller skating.
Skating did not take hold in the United States until well after the Civil War. On country roads and farm yards, there were few places to skate. The growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution changed all of that, and roller-skating rinks began to rise.
It was in that milieu that Birkhimer came of age.
Born in 1892 in Zanesville, Birkhimer was brought by his family to Columbus soon thereafter. His father, Frank, was looking for a safe and stable place to raise his growing family, and he found it in Columbus.
His son, Rollie Raymond, first appears in the local press in 1898 at the age of 6. A local newspaper reported the young man was resting comfortably at home after losing a finger to amputation. It was not revealed which finger was lost or how.
Birkhimer shows up in 1906 trying to match the skills of the famed bicycle gymnast Conn Baker of Columbus. At the age of 14, he and a friend built a large wood-framed ramp and gap to jump on a bicycle. Birkhimer earned a place in the paper for building the edifice, if not for its use.
Birkhimer does not reappear in the local press until 1908. By that time, he was 16, handsome, moderately well-educated and literally one of the fastest men alive on roller skates. Over the next several years, racing in such venues as Smith’s Roller Rink, he defeated most of his opponents and established new records. He became the local champion, the state champion and came close to a national championship in skate racing.
Building on that well-earned reputation, in 1924 he opened a successful roller rink and “dance palace” of his own at 622 Oak St. By 1926, he was managing the dance hall at Indianola Park on North Fourth Street. Later, he had moved on to promoting large events while managing his club. One of his larger events brought the popular Sammy Stewart and his jazz band to the Columbus Auditorium in 1929.
Then the stock market crashed, the bottom fell out and the U.S. entered the Great Depression.
Like many Americans, Birkhimer, who was married with children, needed a place to find a new beginning. He ended up in California, where he died in 1951.
He was remembered briefly in a local paper as the “county champion, the state champion” and a national contender in roller-skate racing.
The place where he won most of those titles and defended them was not at his Oak Street Palace, but at Smith’s Roller Rink and Dance Garden.
It is one of those places my big dog and I wish we might have saved.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.