For N.H.'s Last Roller Rink, End of an Era Looms
The last remaining roller rink in all of Vermont or New Hampshire sits near the bottom of a hill in the Upper Valley town of Enfield, N.H. It’s on a rural stretch of Route 4, the main road running through town.
It’s hard to believe the place is still in business. Sometimes there’s just couple of cars sitting in the parking lot, even on a weekend evening or afternoon.
But when the owner announced recently he planned to close, emotions ran high. People didn’t want to see it go. That’s because in its prime, the rink was more than just another gathering place, another place to skate. And, as longtime Upper Valley residents will tell you, nothing quite like it exists today.
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A man named Al DeHavens built the rink in 1977. According to his daughter, Debbie, Al grew up an orphan in New York City. As an adult, he moved to New Hampshire and got a job with a telephone company.
But he was very aware, she said, of how rural life was in the Upper Valley, how isolating. It seemed to him that kids didn’t have a place to go to hang out and have fun.
Somehow, he struck on the idea of starting a roller rink. At first, he bought a place in a different town, in West Canaan, Debbie said. It was old and cramped with a rough wood floor, but he put an addition on it, got people to come over, and played, among other things, calliope -- old-timey circus music.
“I think it was something that he brought with him from the city,” Debbie laughed. “I always wondered if he was involved in vaudeville or the circus or what, but he sure did like that calliope music.”
Remember, this is the 70s in rural New Hampshire, and Al’s idea to get people out was roller skating on an uneven wooden floor to circus music. It might sound off-beat, but it took off, Debbie said.
“So many people wanted to skate that the nights we were open, there were too many people out on the skate floor at one time,” she said.
The rink was so popular, Al built a new facility in Enfield, a neighboring town. A man named Ray Dauphinais said he and his family helped Al roll on the first epoxy floor to save on costs. There was some resistance to having a roller rink come to Enfield in the beginning, he said, worries about it bringing the wrong crowd.
“There were a few people who were just out against it,” he said. “The neighbor I believe she actually even called him Hitler one time, because he wasn’t going to back down from his stand.”
They called the Enfield rink Al’s Casino. Opening day, Debbie can still remember, there was a huge crowd. They had the disco ball spinning, black lights and blinking red lights across the roof beams. “It was very impressive to see -- not only the floor be christened by my father, but also just the whole visual,” she said. “I was very proud, very proud of him.”
And that’s how it started, the golden age of Enfield’s roller skating scene.
People of all ages came, traveling from towns up and down the Connecticut River Valley, sometimes from hours away.
It wasn’t just something to do in a place with not much else going on, it was the spot to be for miles and miles around.
“Bumper to bumper people,” Dauphinais remembered. “Everyone was there just having a great time, getting into the music.”
“It was always so packed,” said Todd Berube, a longtime Upper Valley resident. “The line would be all the way to the end of the building and then some.”
“I mean, I’ve got six or seven hundred people on my Facebook page, and the majority of them I met at roller skating,” said Shelley Reeder, who grew up going to the rink. “It was freedom. It was amazing – it just was.”
And it wasn’t just a place for fun, but romance too. There’s plenty of couples that trace their origins to the rink’s floor, including Dan Parker, who’s celebrating his 37th anniversary with his wife this year. He now lives in North Carolina.
“You’d have a 70 year-old grandmother out there roller skating, and a teenage couple holding hands at the same time,” he said. “Then you’d have the fearless four and five year-old kids learning to skate… all having fun under the same roof.”
The rink had themed nights over the course of the week, Debbie said. Wednesday was disco night, and weekends were rock and roll. Kids would come in droves.
At one point, Al pulled Debbie aside and told her he had a private booking coming in that he wanted help with. She couldn’t tell anyone who it was though, he said, not even her son.
It turned out it was the band Aerosmith, one of Debbie’s favorites at the time. A couple members of the group spent their childhood summers nearby on Lake Sunapee. Now, near the height of their fame, they wanted to spend a private evening roller skating at the rink.
Debbie couldn’t believe it. She got to work making mix tapes for them to skate to -- a couple different options, some with their own songs and some without. When they arrived, she went out on the rink to skate with them, but she immediately fell right on her butt.
“The band came and picked me up, which I thought was just so ironic,” she said. “But we had a wonderful night. They flipped and flopped around, but for the most part they did pretty good. They had a great time, and we had a great time watching them. That’s a memory that I’ll always cherish.”
But by the mid-to-late 80’s, she said, her dad was ready to retire. He was tired of the snow and ice, the constant shoveling and plowing. He sold the roller rink to a man named Peter Martin, who still owns it, along with his wife, today.
They've overseen the rink's fading years.
“We tried to continue building it up,” he said, “but then the world turned differently and you ended up with soccer moms and kids brought everywhere to do everything, but roller skate.”
He attributes the decline to a lot of things: more people staying home, watching movies or TV, or playing on their computers or phones.
There used to be well over a hundred people on a Friday or Saturday night, he said. Now, they’re looking at an average of 30 to 40 out on the floor. He just can’t continue to lose money on the business, he said. He tried to sell, but it didn’t happen.
Over the past year, he landed on a new idea for the rink: pet boarding.
“If you’re looking at that main floor, it’s almost 12,000 square feet,” he said. “When you have that ability, you can start to say – hey wait a minute – I can make sections for small dogs, medium dogs, big dogs!”
He was even thinking about keeping the sound system going for the animals.
More recently, though, he’s been reconsidering, throwing around other ideas. Maybe, he’s thinking, with so many people nostalgic about the rink closing, he could create a viable annual membership model.
It’s possible this could work, but it’s hard to imagine. Times have changed. For now, thousands of skates sit largely in storage on the old shelves. The disco ball still spins, but it’s nothing like the glory years out on that floor.
So, the magic of the roller rink? It’ll likely live on as it has, in people’s memories for years to come.