Call me a sentimental old fool – HEY! I heard that! – but just last week, as I was ringing in the New Year, I couldn’t help but think about the men and women of the Manchester Super Brownies.
Allow me to explain.
As the midnight hour approached, there I was, rooting around in the watery depths of an ice-filled cooler, patiently searching for the perfect beverage to hoist at the moment of truth.
Suddenly, I was in pain; Self-inflicted pain.
This made me think of the Super Brownies.
Starting around 1920, this hardy band of local, rugged-but-borderline-demented individuals would willingly risk serious hormonal impairment and usher in the New Year by carving a hole in the ice and engaging in a midnight swim at the legendary Amoskeag Ledge.
Now this would be a perfectly painless endeavor if you were, say, a polar bear or a cocktail onion, but for normal mortals, there are nerve-endings involved and while I would imagine this plunge was painful enough for the womenfolk, I weep when I ponder the devastating short-term impact on the men.
And just who introduced this new kind of dip to Manchester’s New Year’s Eve parties? It was Daniel P. Connor, a local fitness devotee who found his own personal Lourdes at The Ledge. He advocated swimming every day of the year and practiced what he preached, while teaching others the same discipline.
”The one thing I learned early is not to go in without shoes on,” Helen (Flanders) Bozahara once told me. ”You’d get out of the water and your feet would stick to the ice. It was like sticking your tongue to a sled runner.”
The first few years, the New Year swims were low key capers, just a few kids cavorting around a crude hole in the ice by torchlight. However, once their escapades were splashed onto the front page of the newspaper, the Super Brownies blossomed.
By 1923, the New Year swim was coupled with a watery Winter Carnival that carried over into January, and The Ledge – also known as the ”City of Rocks” – shared top billing with the Super Brownies.
Not only would the Super Brownies swim in the sub-arctic conditions, but their daredevil divers pledged to plunge from the cliffs through carefully carved holes in the ice. Naturally, the crowds converged – 10,000 on-lookers by some estimates – and the line between spectator and participant quickly blurred.
”Despite police vigilance,” reported the Manchester Mirror, ”the crowd kept pushing onto the ice. Suddenly, it gave way, and 11 persons were hurled into the water while the rest of the crowd was thrown into a panic.”
So the crowd on hand got its feet wet. More importantly, the Super Brownies whetted the appetites of newsmen everywhere. Thus, the eyes of the world turned to Manchester as camera crews from Paramount, Fox, Movietone and Pathe’ News captured the carnival highlights on film, bringing global acclaim to the aerial acrobats of the Manchester Super Brownies.
Meanwhile, local photographer Eugene Lemay took still shots of the Super Brownies that also circulated around the world, bringing them fame and fan mail.
”After the carnival, we’d get letters all the time,” Leona (Sullivan) Cousins told me some years back. ”It would just have your name and then Manchester Brownies and they’d still be delivered. They came from everywhere, not just New England. I remember I got one from Texas and another one from England one year.”
The Super Brownies’ female contingent was a feisty one in those early years. In addition to Leona, there was Bridie Flanders and her three daughters (Vira, Catherine and the aforementioned Helen) as well as Ann (Collinge) Maslanka and Marian Harlan and Helen Fischer and Ruby Cousins and Irene (Demers) Mannion.
The informal division of labor relegated the men to diving and the women to swimming, but this crew wanted more to do so they did it.
Helen – the old Boston Advertiser dubbed her ”the swimming and diving Venus of the Manchester Brownies” – made a courageous leap through the ice from the 35-foot marker while Leona made a dive from 55, a world record at the time.
”Of course, I blessed myself three or four times first,” she laughed. ”My brother was down in the water yelling at me. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘They’ve already got your picture so let’s go.’ ”
He was right. They did get her picture and it ran in the rotogravure sections of newspapers all over the world.
Not to be outdone, the male faction of the Super Brownies upped the ante. As if the ice dives of Fran Moquin, Keith Cousins, Hal Eastman, Nap Goudreault and Ted Leafe (my own personal grandfather) from the shaky tree-top platform weren’t spectacular enough, Esmond ”Bill” Mannion did them all one better.
What he did in 1929 – in the breathless prose of the day – was ”one of the most hair-raising stunts in the annals of sports.”
Bill dove blindfolded – yes, blindfolded – ”from the shaking branches of the lone pine tree into the furrowed waters of the natural pool 108 feet below.”
Personally, the only way I would even attempt such a dive is blindfolded. At gun-point. But on that day, Bill Mannion was ”an 18-year-old phenomenon of muscles and courage.”
The next year, it was Frank Provost’s turn to shine.
”Someone had chopped down the tree that year – we never did find out who it was – so we had Davidson Construction put up a new platform that made the dive 125 feet,” Frank once explained. In spite of high winds, he made the dive – the only one ever from that height – but today, thanks to the vagaries of civic memory, he’s better known as the grandfather of former Alderman and current State Senator Donna Soucy from District 18.
That 1930 carnival probably marked the apex of the Super Brownie experience. City officials, led by Police Chief Michael Healy, finally closed The Ledge to all public swimming which forced the Brownies to move to Pine Island Pond, and here’s some amazing video from that site:
Without the natural cliffs of The Ledge, the Brownies had to improvise, so they created an 80-foot diving tower composed of two old fire ladders. They also came up with new diving and swimming exhibitions that gave other members a chance to shine, like Roger Demers, Larry Roy, Clifton ”Tuffy” Olson and Madge (Poehlman) Sandmann.
Sadly, the murky waters and the tepid setting at Pine Island Pond were no match for the dramatic luster of The Ledge, and the bureaucratic burden of coordinating Super Brownie events became too much work for an organization that was founded on fun.
While public interest in the group continued to run high, by 1935, the group that shook off chills to deliver thrills simply ceased to be. Still, the Super Brownies may be gone, but they need not be forgotten.
Next December, when it’s time to toast the New Year, be sure to remember the Super Brownies. And when you order your glass of midnight cheer, make sure it’s on the rocks.
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