Lots of people have hobbies with which to while away the spare hours. Some dabble in photography or fly-tying and others collect stamps, coins or even old skates.

It might seem strange that a man who makes his living as a painting contractor should spend his free hours looking around for antique skates, but for Eugene M. Merritt, 74, of Milford, Conn., it’s a unique and entertaining pastime.

The idea started in 1935 when a Milford policeman friend presented Merritt with a pair of old skates. A former antique dealer and collector at heart, Merritt saw the possibilities and immediately began an extensive search for other skates to form the nucleus of his collection. Today, 15 years later, he has gathered more than 100 sets of blades from this country, Sweden and Germany, has won hobby awards and has exhibited the display throughout Connecticut and parts of New York.

Most of the skates in the collection are made either of wood, bronze, cast iron or steel. A few specimens date back to the late 17th century. Merritt explained that early models were made of wood but some of the more expensive 100-year-old sets have runners of the finest surgical steel. One of the collection’s older pairs was made by a Connecticut man who is reported to have skated on them down the lower part of the Housatonic River to the sea.

“Ice skates date back to the 14th century,” said Merritt, “and the oldest known pair of skates on earth are made out of horse-bone and are on exhibit at the London Museum.”

The skate collector pointed out the reason why old-time skates often had curved tips was to keep women’s hoop skirts from catching and causing embarrassing and uncomfortable spills.

A few other sample oddities in the collection include skates with wooden runners, a pair of two-wheel roller skates, a pair with three-inch-wide runners for use in heavy snow, a set nearly a yard long built for speed, and a pair with a sort of scissor attachment to help the skater get uphill. Most of the skates have no shoes but are so constructed as to easily clamp onto heavy snow boots.

Merritt’s skate collection is now on exhibit in the small modern gallery at the Berkshire Museum. It will be on view during January.

This Story in History is selected from the archives by Jeannie Maschino, The Berkshire Eagle.

Community News Editor / Librarian

Jeannie Maschino is community news editor and librarian for The Berkshire Eagle. She has worked for the newspaper in various capacities since 1982 and joined the newsroom in 1989. She can be reached at jmaschino@berkshireeagle.com.