By John Fulton
If you grew up in Vicksburg, you know many folks who made at least a few trips to the Long Lake Roller Rink. After 65 years of continuous operation serving southwest Michigan by the Carpenter family, Long Lake Roller Rink is closing June 1.
The property had been a restaurant and public beach known as Summer Home Park before Robert and Alta Carpenter opened it as a roller rink in 1952. Robert, known as Bertie, had returned from military service in WW II. Alta, known as Al, had been working at the local North Lake Roller Rink. Bertie and Al met at her work place before he shipped out. He taught her how to skate.
In the 1960s, they had an old school bus. Bertie would drive to Portage schools and pick up kids, bringing them to Long Lake to skate. They stayed for a couple of hours and Bertie took them back. The Carpenters probably didn’t anticipate the 65 years and thousands and thousands of lives that would be touched by them through this hometown rink in 1952.
In 1958 the Carpenters added the main rink and the property became the only area rollar skating facility with two rinks. This made it the largest in the area, but still small for the country, according to Dani Carpenter-Littel, their daughter. On busy holiday weekends over 1,000 people would come to skate. Still today, 300-plus come to skate on weekends. The heydays of skating were 1952-1968. The 90’s saw a resurgence she said.
The Carpenters’ two daughters that took over running the rink. Colleen Carpenter started working in the family business in 1983. Dani joined Colleen in 1991 working as a team, although the sisters had worked at the rink growing up there.
Colleen ran the floor, programming and the pro shop. Dani ran admissions, booking and public relations. “We grew up living under the roller rink. I was answering the phone at age three and we got on the school bus in front of the rink. We just accepted this as normal,”, Dani remembers.
Dani said, “I will miss the kids the most. The kids that skated with us are really good kids. They care about each other, they’re welcoming, and they help each other out. We could tell when there were problems at home by the behavior of the kids.”
“A roller rink is a lot like a church,” she added. “Attendance is generational and you might drive an hour to visit another rink, but you come back to your home rink. There is a lot more spiritual that went on at this roller rink than people realize. You can know a lot about a rink based on the music they play. We never played music that contained violence, sexual content or was demeaning to any group.”
The Carpenter sisters as kids did not belong to a church because every church came to the rink. They heard regular sermons and homilies all while in their skates at the rink. Dani said, “We learned that Christ reaches out to all of us in different ways.”
One young boy, Virgil, stands out in her memory. Both Virgil ‘s parents were in jail and his life was challenging in many ways. He showed up at the rink and was angry and frustrated that he could not skate. Dani reached out to him in conversation and Virgil noticed her prayer beads hanging nearby.
Virgil slid the beads on his wrist and said, “They almost fit.” Dani asked, “’Would you like to keep them?’ I told Virgil he could have them if he went back out and practiced the skating Miss Colleen had taught him. He went and did a darn good job.”
Dani doesn’t know what became of Virgil, but she hopes and prays that carrying those beads changed his life.
Dani said “I am at peace with the closing, but a low might come. I need some time to decompress. I hope our guests will find other places to skate.” When asked for her parting comment, Dani said, “Just keep skating with your kids. Skating is one of the few sports families can do together. It is healthy, wholesome and fun.”