NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2021 FINALIST
One crazy idea that sparked something special, bringing mirth to all.
On Christmas Eve 2020, fire trucks rushed to the Chittle home in the sleepy little town of Manton, Michigan. It wasn’t because of a Christmas tree fire, or because a child climbed too high on a tree, or because of anything you might associate with a Christmas nightmare. Instead, it was a dream come true. The local fire department was there to pitch in on a project that would capture the imaginations of the 1,287 souls who call Manton home, bringing them months of mirth during one of the darkest winters in memory.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the town to shut down, Scott Chittle decided that the community needed a safe place to come together, and something to spark some joy during the dreary winter months. And what is a better outdoor activity to get people outside in the cold than ice skating?
Outdoor activities and a slower pace of life are a mainstay in this rural town about 110 miles North of Grand Rapids. People who live in the larger cities, like Detroit, 180 miles to the southeast, keep cabins for rustic getaways. Folks camp by Lake Billings and a local Amish community was set up nearby in the 1990s.
In order to make his dream a reality, Chittle scoured the Internet for YouTube tutorials on how to build an ice rink. He ordered a large 3,000 square foot tarp online and purchased some lumber to create the walls. It took 12 firetrucks to get enough water to fill the plot.
It took a little time and some neighborly coercing as Chittle went door-to-door to convince people to come see his creation, and soon Chittle’s backyard ice rink became a Manton hotspot. Parents pitched in to help Chittle purchase second-hand skates and hockey sticks for the neighborhood children. Soon enough, the children were skating and shooting, a fire was burning, and hot chocolate was steaming in to-go mugs.
“When things were tough, it was a place,” says neighbor Audrey Hooker. “We kept seeing more things donated. It was fantastic because the whole community just came together. It was amazing how everybody worked together because of Scott.”
Skaters were welcome to come at any time. Even with Chittle’s day job, he aimed to Zamboni the ice rink every night. And each Saturday from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m., dozens of children and their parents gathered at the ice rink for skate parties. String lights twinkled over the ice as the sun set early in the evening. The chilly air smelled of hot dogs on the grill and burning firewood. The children who had been confined to their homes for almost a year laughed and shrieked with joy while skating around the rink with their hockey sticks. Parents gathered around holding warm hot cocoa in their mittened hands, feeling relief that their children had found a purpose again. It became a weekly event that neighbors could look forward to and it offered a place for people to see each other in a socially distanced way. The rink was in full swing until March, when the ice began to thaw.
But the kindness didn’t stop with Chittle. When the community heard how much money he used to make this project happen, everyone helped. A Facebook fundraiser brought in about $1,300, and letters sent to Chittle’s home stuffed with cash brought in an additional $1,500, covering all of the costs with money to spare. Traffic increased dramatically around the ice rink as cars pulled over just to get a glimpse of the kids skating. Many people even took the time to knock on Chittle’s door.
“I have had almost 30 complete strangers knock on my door to just shake my hand and say thank you,” says Chittle. “Most of them handed me money as well. Three of them asked for a hug.”
Companies began sending supplies for next year’s ice rink including outdoor lights from Steel Light Company, a snow sweeping machine and shovels from Western Snow Plow, and a skate sharpening device from Sparxs. Chittle even plans to expand the rink to 5,000 square feet.
Even though Chittle will have to invest in a larger tarp, the smaller one will not go to waste. Ed Salter, who has owned a getaway cabin in Manton for 55 years, has decided to create his own ice rink for the community at his home in Clarkston, just outside of Detroit. He bought the smaller tarp from Chittle.
“This has been a community thing,” explains Chittle. “It’s not just me. I want to show the rest of the world what a little effort, the best intentions, and community can do not only for others but for the souls of all.”
Chittle plans to recreate the ice rink in his backyard for many years to come, with the plans of it being bigger and better each year.
“I think the main thing that I want everybody to know is that memories for kids last a lifetime,” says Hooker. “Scott made that possible on the darkest of days.”
My name is Scott Chittle. I live in the sleepy community of Manton, Michigan. We are located about 1.5 hours north of Grand Rapids.
My little story of building an ice rink for all to enjoy has somehow gained national attention. I will not attempt to do a better job than The Detroit Free Press and Steve Hartman’s On The Road.
I will leave the storytelling to them. The Free Press article that was done online is a wonderful piece. Also, the online version has about 30 great photos.
On a local level, traffic around my home has increased by fivefold during the winter. Cars pulled over to watch the kids skating and or simply cruised slowly to get a glimpse. I have had almost 30 complete strangers knock on my door to just shake my hand and say thank you. Most of them handed me money as well. Three of them asked for a hug. I get hot dogs and skates dropped off at the house. It’s been wonderful.
Dozens of letters from around the United States have been delivered with awesome sentiments and money to help with the cost. I even heard from a woman in Perth, Australia that saw it on her news program. Many companies have pitched in as well. I have received many items to help with next year’s rink. By the way, we are increasing the rink from around 3,000 sq ft to over 5,000 sq ft next year. I have received lights from two lighting companies, a snow sweeping machine and five shoves from another, a skate sharpening machine from another and the list goes on.
I would like to say that my local community found out how much money I had invested and they insisted on helping. They made sure to cover my entire cost with money to spare. This will allow us to go bigger and better as we move forward as well as help with water, electric, and food costs.
This project has been so encouraging to all that are lucky enough to be a part of it. I would just like to add that no matter where one resides, they will “get it” when they hear of our story. I would love the opportunity to show the rest of the world what a little effort, the best intentions, and community can do not only for others but for the souls of all.