STARR SKATES – “USED THE WORLD OVER” (January 25/02)

When she was a young girl in the Grafton area in the early 1900s, Agnes (Coleman) Bishop probably used her Starr skates on the moonlight skating parties that were common in her day. She must have prized the skates. They were kept in excellent condition and were still in the original box they came in when she passed them on to her daughter, Ruth Downey.

Agnes Bishop’s skates were typical of the sports footwear the old Starr Manufacturing Company had been making in Dartmouth since at least 1864 (one source gives the date as 1865). Early skates were strapped on but in 1864 John Forbes, a shop foreman at Starrs, devised “spring skates” that were clamped onto the soles and heels of boots. Later models screwed onto footwear, one model of this type, the Starr Mercurys, was the kind Agnes Bishop used.

Long Pond in Windsor is known as the birthplace of hockey. Near long Pond is Kings College. John Starr attended Kings College in the 1840s and perhaps watching hurley being played on the ice at Long Pond gave him the inspiration to manufacture skates. What little history exists on Starr says that he became Canada’s first skate manufacturer in 1864. Other records indicate that Starr’s shop foreman, John Forbes, took out a patent for what were called Acme Skates. The Acme model may have been the first skate Starr manufactured. An advertising brochure published by Starr in 1893 refers to this model as being the “genuine Acme.”

That Starr made other models besides the Acme can be seen from an advertising brochure produced in 1893. Listed in the brochure is the Acme in various models, starting at less than dollar a pair. The top of the line Acme models were nickel or silver plated. The very best Acmes were plated in a combination of gold and silver and sold for $5.50 a pair. Starr also produced a special line of hockey skates – “made specially for hockey playing and acknowledged to be the best skate in the market for the purpose” – that sold for $2.60 and $3.40 a pair. The brochure boasted that these skates had been “generally adopted by the leading hockey players in Montreal.”

Starr was also producing racing skates and a line called “skeleton skates” that were made “to be attached permanently to the boot by means of screws.” Another line, the “Star Skate,” was a cut below the Acme models in quality and sold for 65 cents a pair. Starr called it the “cheapest skate on the market,” meaning low in price and not in quality.

On their packing material Starr boasted that their skates were “used the world over.” According to their brochure, the skates had been displayed at world fairs and exhibitions, winning recognition for quality. First prize medals and diplomas were won by Starr at Philadelphia in 1876, Paris in 1878, London in 1886 and Chicago in 1893.

Recently Ruth and Wayne Downey let me examine the pair of Starr skates Agnes Bishop had once used. While the Starrs were primitive compared to the skates available today, they were finely crafted and nickel plated. Looking at them, I couldn’t help thinking that skates like these were used when the first professional players took to the ice in Montreal and when hockey was first played on historic Long Pond.

Agnes Bishop’s Starr skates were recently donated by the Downeys to Howard Dill’s hockey memorabilia museum near Long Pond. Of the skates, Howard Dill says it’s “almost unbelievable to see a pair still in the box they came in.”

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