Popular Olympian drew big crowds to Twin Cities events.
Ken Bartholomew started speedskating at Minneapolis' Powderhorn Park in 1929. The oval was turned into a smooth skating surface with a scraper pulled by a team of horses.
It was on that surface, over the next quarter-century, that Bartholomew and a bevy of elite Twin Cities racers would draw huge crowds for the 10,000 Lakes and other nationally important events.
"In the '30s, there would be people all the way around the track," Bartholomew said in 1987. "There were bleachers and people standing on the hills. The track was one-sixth of a mile, and people were packed 10 or 15 deep all around."
Bartholomew was the biggest attraction for these events from before World War II into the 1950s -- a legend among all the local skaters who would start building their fame on Powderhorn Lake and on Lake Como in St. Paul.
Bartholomew died Tuesday at age 92. He had been living at Friendship Village in Bloomington.
"Ken could have told you stories from 50 years ago on the morning of the day he passed away and not missed a detail," son-in-law Tim Twite said. "He was pretty sharp until the end. He was always a jokester, always had a line for anything."
Twite said Bartholomew remained physically strong into his 80s. He made his living as a lineman for Northwestern Bell and had a tree-cutting business on the side.
"A decade ago, we wanted to get rid of a tree," Twite said. "Kenny was up there, bouncing around, cutting branches. I asked if I could help. He said, 'Stay down there. I got this.' "
Bartholomew was one of four Twin Cities skaters on the nine-man U.S. Olympic men's speedskating team that went to the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Bobby Fitzgerald, Johnny Werket and Art Seaman were the other locals. Bartholomew, Fitzgerald and Norway's Thomas Bybert shared second place and won silver medals in the 500-meter race.
Those Olympics were a snapshot of Bartholomew's career. He won 14 national championship titles from 1945 through 1960. Later, he would dominate senior events and age-group racing into his 70s.
Gene Sandvig was a decade younger than Bartholomew and a rising star in speedskating. He was 18 in 1950 when he first skated against Bartholomew in major races. The last great crowds at Powderhorn Park were attracted by the Bartholomew-Sandvig rivalry in the 1950s.
"It wasn't easy to beat Kenny," Sandvig said Sunday. "We skated in packs, and we were with different skating clubs. He usually had teammates in the race, so you had to beat a few people to get a chance to beat Kenny."
Bartholomew was born in Leonard, N.D., on Feb. 10, 1920. He was third of five children, including Earl Bartholome, a 1977 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and Carl, who once held the world record for nonstop skating at 54 1/2 hours. Kenny Bartholomew's fame became such as a speedskater that Earl took the "w'' off his last name so as not to be confused with Ken.
The Bartholomew family moved from North Dakota to the Twin Cities in the 1920s. Father Bill became a well-known timer at speedskating events nationally and internationally.
Ken and his wife, Evelyn, raised five daughters -- Janis, Annie, Patty, Barb and Mary -- in south Minneapolis. Evelyn died in 2007. A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 23, at Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3901 1st Av. S., in Minneapolis.
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