Rink defied experts and still stands

Skating: Using a design thought impossible, Joseph "Bumps" Orr built the Bel Air Roller Rink, which has been a landmark for more than 50 years.

March 30, 2003|By Todd Holden | Todd Holden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ask any longtime resident for directions around Bel Air and you'll often hear the famous Bel Air Roller Rink on U.S. 1 used as a reference point.

Built in 1952, the structure delights engineers, contractors and architects. When the experts said a single span with 100-foot trusses and without center support poles couldn't be built, Joseph "Bumps" Orr said it could, and he did it.

Orr, who ran a little grocery store in Highland, five miles south of Delta, Pa., spent nights figuring out how to build a large skating rink with no poles to interfere with the skaters. With his determination and the financial backing of Charley Durham, the two men sought out Delta contractors Marshall Scarborough and his son.

A few months later, the 100-foot wooden "bowstring" trusses were lowered into place with a small crane.

Scarborough considered himself a carpenter. He spent years building wooden trusses at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal. While learning the craft he met an engineer who helped him with books and strategy. Soon the Scarboroughs were on their own and gathering more information from timber engineers in Washington.

Each of the trusses contains 2,501 feet of lumber. At the time of construction, the limit for wood trusses was 120 feet. The greatest advantage of wood in 1951 was that it was cheaper than steel.

The Scarboroughs could make one truss a day with their crew. They used a long, level platform and laid out the pattern. The bowstring across the top was formed by a series of 2-by-4s bent, glued and bolted in the "vise-stabilized pattern," according to an article in a local paper at the time.

The rest of the truss was laid in place, and all attaching holes were bored and marked. Between joints, at every bolt, a ring 4 inches in circumference was countersunk, giving the joint as much strength as a solid plank, the article said.

"The key to the truss," according to Scarborough, "was the runner on the lower side of the frame being built with a very slight arc. This will never settle into a straight position, making it a powerful truss."

The rink opened and withstood the blizzard of 1959, with its ice, heavy snows and power outages. And it remains open, albeit on a more limited scale than in its heyday.

Soon after the rink's opening in 1952, Orr, his wife, Catherine, and Durham raised hundreds of dollars for the Heart Fund through benefits at the skating rink from 1952 to 1968. Orr sold his interest to Durham in 1968. Orr and Durham died in the mid-1990s. The rink's current owner, Eloise Hagy, could not be reached for this article.

Bumps Orr's stepdaughter, Carol DeRan, helps oversee three skating rinks in Raleigh, N.C. Although she has no say in the Bel Air Roller Rink, she has many memories of the place.

DeRan recalls the Buddy Deane sock hops held at the rink during the 1950s and some of the rock 'n' roll stars who came with Deane.

"We had to empty out the rink at 10:30 in the evening, and then the sock hop fans paid $2 each to get in to hear the music. We split the take with Buddy, who watched the gate personally," DeRan said. An evening of dancing teen-agers yielded good returns for the Orrs.

With crowds of 1,000, standing room only and music blasting, cars parked on both sides of U.S. 1, in fields and anywhere else they could. The hops were the most popular events in the county, DeRan said.

A visit to the rink recently revealed road crews working on the extended bypass through the late Sabret Richardson's old home place, which adjoins the former Orr property.

Word had it long ago that Richardson stopped the road construction at the roller rink, and it stayed that way for many years. Richardson was a farmer who felt strongly that "no state government was going take my place away or run a road through it." And not until now, and tens of thousands more people, did it happen.

And so the Bel Air landmark endures, freshly painted, withstanding hurricanes, ice storms and blizzards. And folks like Carol DeRan will forever hold memories of skating to organ music on a shiny floor.

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