COKATO, MN Lakeside Roller Rink, located on the shores of Cokato Lake in a converted chicken barn, is where many of Cokato and the surrounding area’s youth grew up and lived their glory days between 1973 to 1986.
Those youth spent hours together every weekend, improving their skating skills, learning new tricks, and creating lasting friendships.
“I miss that place; even thought it was in a long, narrow building, I still miss it,” said roller skating regular Doug Kotila, who is planning a reunion for those who spent their teenage years and early 20s there.
He noted that, along with being there every weekend, regulars often “crashed whatever party” they could during the week, when the rink only opened for special occasions.
The reunion for those who grew up at Lakeside Roller Rink will take place Saturday, July 25 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the picnic shelter at Collinwood Regional Park.
The reunion is a potluck, and those attending are asked to bring a dish to share, a chair in which to sit, and memories and photos from their days at the rink.
Planning the reunion are Kotila and some of his other close friends from the rink, including Diane (Zeidler) Mielke and Brent Jones.
The best thing about the rink for Kotila was meeting Jones, who is still his best friend.
“I remember the first time skating there like it was yesterday,” Kotila said. “I’ve made a lot of friends there, and still am friends with most (of them).”
Kotila still has his skates, and he and Jones sometimes go to Burnsville for adult night to skate, which usually attracts 25-30 people, he said.
For Mielke, the rink meant freedom hanging out with friends and getting away from the farm.
“We’d hurry up and get the milking done, wash up, and off we’d go,” Mielke said.
The rink attracted youth for a 25-mile radius, with teens and young adults coming from cities such as Litchfield, Kimball, Delano, Winsted, Silver Lake, Lester Prairie, New Germany, Waverly, Annandale, and Hutchinson.
Reva Hanson commented on Facebook families who had cabins on Cokato Lake would “haul the kids over (to Lakeside) by the pickup load, and sometimes even by boat, there were so many of them going. They loved that place.”
Mike Haugen, who operates a DJ business for weddings and other events, told Lakeside’s final managers Howard and Brita Ylitalo that he gained his love of DJing because he was allowed to run the sound booth at the rink.
Falling in love at the roller skating rink
Some of Mielke’s fond memories include dating Kotila and Randy Mauer, another regular at the rink.
On Facebook, Mauer commented that he met his wife at the rink.
That seems to be a theme for those growing up in or around Cokato after World War II up through the early 1980s, when roller skating rinks were at their peek.
Although Lakeside Roller Rink did not open its doors until 1973, another rink Cokato Rollerdrome was open in Cokato until the late 1950s.
There are many obituaries that mention the love of roller skating as a youth, and also meeting spouses, at the roller rink.
And it is a love story that closed Lakeside Roller Rink, according to the Ylitalos.
When the Ylitalos took over management, they also “inherited” Kelly Olson, who voluntarily helped with the rink while Harold and Lorraine Thompson owned it.
On the final night, the very last couples’ skate was to Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration.” Only Olson and Tim Gustafson, who had just started coming to the rink that year, were still in the building.
The two young people, who were “fabulous skaters” and had become good friends, skated the last couples’ skate together. They went on to marry and have seven children, according to Brita.
Lorraine noted that all of the Erickson brothers met their wives at Lakeside.
One summer. Lorraine and her husband, Harold, were invited to seven weddings for couples that had met skating at Lakeside.
Skating to the music
For the youth growing up skating at Lakeside, a song will bring back memories of those days.
For instance, “You’re the Inspiration” brings back memories for Rhea (Klammer) Langemo.
In May 2014, Langemo posted on Facebook, “Why is it that whenever ‘You’re the Inspiration’ comes on the radio, I am instantly 12 years old again, at the Cokato roller rink, hoping someone will ask me to couples skate. Today, it was at The Marketplace, and I would swear the lights got darker and the colored spots came on.”
Comments on her post noted another song that brought back memories. When “Down on the Corner” came on at the roller rink, people would form a conga line.
Other songs included in the comments were “Centerfield,” “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
“(There was) always a lot of people skating to some great music,” Kotila said.
Amy (Ylitalo) Vrudy, the oldest of the Ylitalo children, said she is surprised by how she even knows the words to all of the songs that used to be played at the rink when she hears them today.
Throughout the years, those from Cokato and the surrounding areas really honed their skating skills, and many competitions took place.
Lorraine remembers a group of boys that would come from Winsted every week. “They got so good, they could do the waltz and everything,” she said.
She also remembers the Stanton sisters from Winsted, who came every week. Jody still sends Lorraine a card from Aberdeen, SD each Christmas, and says she had the most fun of her life at the rink.
Mielke noted that when she first started going to the rink, there was a lot of falling down. But soon, she got better and was able to start doing tricks.
“Those are my best memories of my high school years,” Mielke said of going to Lakeside.
Some of the tricks performed by local youngsters were the splits, spins, kick turns, side kicks, and twirls.
“Just hanging on to one another to see who gets dizzy first,” Mielke commented.
Brenda (Inselman) Leifermann remembers going to Lakeside for many years and participating in competitions with Jon Saksa.
When competing, girls wore little short skirts and a blouse, and boys wore slacks and shirt of matching colors, Leifermann said.
Nels Ylitalo noted that skating at Lakeside was “no holds barred” when his parents owned it, and people were allowed to do any kind of tricks they wished when skating there.
Other rinks only allowed tricks to take place during “free skates.”
“The stuff they were only allowed to do during free skates, we did all the time,” Nels said, noting his brother, Dale, pushed him around the rink on a skate board all the time.
Every once in a while, the Ylitalo boys and friends would go to a skating rink in the Twin Cities and sweep all the free skate competitions, which did not make the regulars at those rinks very happy, Nels noted.
There were also formal skating parties that took place at the rink, which is one of owner Lorraine’s favorite memories.
“All the girls came in such beautiful long dresses,” she said.
There were many special events or skating sessions that took place throughout the years that Lakeside was open. For instance, the Thompsons had a Saturday morning mothers’ skate for moms and young children.
When Fran and Neil Emerson owned Lakeside, a Lakeside Royalty competition was sponsored at the rink with an article promoting it in the May, 13, 1976 edition of the Enterprise Dispatch.
Five couples competed for a trophy and free year of skating as Lakeside Royalty. It is not known who won the designation.
Although they would start out renting skates, most of the regulars eventually bought their own pair.
Kotila worked for his dad to save up money for his first pair when he was 13 years old. Mielke babysat to buy her first pair when she was 14.
History of Lakeside Roller Rink
The Thompsons opened Lakeside Roller Rink in 1973 in a chicken barn they built several years earlier.
For seven years, Lorraine picked 14,000 eggs per day from the 12,000 hens housed in that barn, she said.
After closing down the egg-laying operation, the Thompsons wanted to do something with the building.
Lorraine remembered the fun she had going to her hometown roller rink in Marshall growing up, and suggested converting the barn into a roller rink.
Although the building was plenty long, Harold thought it may be too narrow. However, the couple met with a floor specialist working at a rink being built in Apple Valley, and decided to convert the building.
A new floor was installed, along with new walls, bathrooms, and colored lights. According to an article in the Jan. 4, 1973 edition of the Enterprise Dispatch, it cost $10,000 for the new floor.
The length of the rink was 175 feet, and had a capacity to hold 200 people. An average of 130 people attended the rink nightly during its opening sessions, according to the article.
Assisting the Thompsons in the operation of the rink were their younger children Trudi and Ronnie, according to the article.
Leifermann also remembers that Thompsons older daughter, Brenda Nylin and her husband, Paul, were often at the rink helping out. However, Harold and Lorraine were always there.
“There was always somebody there to keep the kids in line,” Leifermann said, noting that made parents comfortable leaving their children there to skate.
Lorraine said Harold always kept a close eye on the parking lot to make sure there were no loiterers, and the Thompsons did not allow smoking or drinking.
After operating Lakeside for nearly three years, the Thompsons passed the keys on to Neil and Fran Emerson in August 1975.
Neil and Fran came from Prior Lake with their sons Ricky, 8, and Mike, 10; another baby was also on the way.
Both Fran and Neil have since passed away. Fran’s obituary states, “The happiest time in Fran’s life was while raising her children. She was a stay-at-home mom until 1975, when Neil and Fran purchased Lakeside Roller Rink in Cokato. The entire family worked together to run the rink. While Fran enjoyed managing it, she also became an excellent skater.”
The Emersons sold the rink in 1981 to John and Michael Hass, who grew up in rural Montrose.
Fran commented in an article in the Jan. 8, 1981 edition of the Enterprise Dispatch that she would have to start a wives’ skating club to keep her skating skills sharp.
John, 18, lived near the rink and would have primary responsibility of it. Michael, 27, continued living and working in Maple Plain and Long Lake.
In September 1981, the Thompsons again took ownership of the rink, and a year later Lloyd and Sandi Rogers of Danfur and their four children took over the operation.
In September 1983, the Ylitalos assumed management, with the Thompsons again owning it.
The Thompsons approached the Ylitalos about leasing the rink with the option to buy, because they no longer had the energy for it, and thought the Ylitalos might, Brita said.
For three years, the Ylitalos and their four children Amy, Nels, Dale, Jack, and Angela, who was just a baby spent their weekends at Lakeside providing entertainment for area youth.
Although the Ylitalos had three “merry years” operating Lakeside, liability insurance became unaffordable around that time, which ultimately closed down the rink.
One night a girl got hurt while skating, landing on her neck. After being taken by ambulance to the hospital, Brita received a call saying it looked like the girl’s neck may be broken.
The Ylitalos stopped everything at the rink and prayed. A while later, another phone call from the hospital relieved the Ylitalos worst fears the girl’s neck was not broken.
However, without liability insurance, the Ylitalos no longer felt comfortable operating the roller skating rink.