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Rock Springs rink near Delmont remains open on limited basis

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 7:01 p.m.

Rock Springs Roller Rink, an 80-year-old entertainment facility one mile east of Delmont, is ready for business. Almost.

Phenomenal and unprecedented cultural changes have taken place since 1957. Rock Springs is not included.

Just about everyone in Murrysville, Export, Delmont and Salem has participated in the silly ceremonies that were the vortex of local entertainment there for decades. They have Hoked and Poked. They have spun around the rink faster than any human being before. At least it seemed that way at age12.

"I used to go there when I was a kid," owner Susan Kelley said. "There are no plans to close."

Kelley said Rock Springs is currently used for birthday parties and private events. She is kept busy with her full-time job and intends to operate for general admission "when the time is right." Since the 1950s, an alternate use for the 70-by-90-foot space has been collecting local votes. The Trees Mills area of Salem represents 750 votes in the Federal Primary Election, each one collected on the wooden rink.

When at Rock Springs, one is first arrested by the smell of maple.

"When I bought the building, it was badly deteriorated," said Earl Leese, owner and operator from 1957 to 1986. "But it had a perfect, level hardwood floor." He said Rock Springs was built about 1930 for the sole purpose of skating. Leese did a great deal of construction on the building, expanding each side and reconstructing the ground floor. Most of the interior is authentic.

"I made sure it didn't collapse before I had a foundation on it," Leese said. His repairs were steadfast; the building has needed only slight renovations since. Leese is evidently a talented builder; he lives nearby in a stone and brick house he built in 1963 for his family.

"He did a lot of work there," Kelley said. "He's a smart, hard worker."

Regarding the history of the building, Leese said Rock Springs was there long enough to need repairs in 1957.

"I'm the guy that put it back together when I got it," said Leese of his efforts. He bought it from Stanley Gamblin, who said the facility was built by a man by the last name of Griffin in the late 1920s.

"I can't count how many millions of times I went around that floor," Leese said.

Driving on that section of Old Route 22 is surprisingly rural. The road runs through downtown Delmont, past Agway and an old fire house. As the former East Pittsburgh Street continues, a large Lutheran church appears on the left side and Shields Farm stretches to the right. Shields Farm is host to the annual Apple 'N Arts Festival, coming up Oct. 4-5. People walk slowly down this section of the road, some with bags full from Fatur's grocery store. The town sprawls out into an expanse of country. Within a minute farms become visible on both sides, then all sides.

Rock Springs sits at the bottom of a valley only one mile away from relative civilization. Of the surrounding area, Kelley said, "It's changed a lot. The rink itself hasn't really changed."

The skaters have grown up. On came the tie dye, then polyester, then half bought a Harley Davidson and half went to the Gap. But they all skated at Rock Springs. Everyone is the same when trying to use the restroom on roller skates.

Rock Springs sits on a 3 1/2-acre plot of land, where there used to be log cabins for rent. At one time people could choose to vacation at the scenic spot. A rambling creek, Beezer Run, winds on the left of the building.

In front, a bridge is being rebuilt over Old Route 22. The road is completely closed. Old 22 would usually intersect with new Route 22 about a mile down this road. It's an inconvenience, but a death notice for a business owner.

"Since I haven't been operating, it hasn't been a problem," Kelley said.

Alex Walter, a patron of Rock Springs from 1978 to 1982, said in his youth there was only one option for Friday night entertainment. Everyone was there, dressed in their best Calvin Klein, Jordache or Guess jeans. He said Rock Springs was filled with kids on Friday nights, most from Franklin Regional or Greensburg Salem schools.

"I was there every Friday night from seventh to 10th grade," Walter said.

During that time Walter would unfailingly encounter Earl Leese behind the counter. Leese would collect admission, inspect each pair of skates, and send wobbling kids to the floor.

"I skated the entire time," Walter said. "We would learn to go backward and sideways, and try to go faster than the other boys." In its simplicity Rock Springs was an adventure. An adventure that could work in conjunction with a 9 o'clock bedtime.

Everyone learned to skate eventually. Some better than others.

Skate queen Chris Villella would sling her skates over her shoulder as she walked into Rock Springs. Walter agreed that she was the best skater around. Villella was embarrassed at this. She is a lifelong resident of Murrysville who skated at Rock Springs in the 1960s. Eventually she participated in partnered skating, learning the waltz and the two-step.

"The first Girl Scout badge I earned was the skating badge," Villella laughed. "I earned it in the third grade." Rock Springs supported a number of organizations including both genders of Scouts.

Villella said Leese's four children would help out at the rink. She said Karen, the youngest, was on skates at the age of 2 and would "put everyone to shame." She said Earl Leese was incredible on skates. As the maitre'd, he would make appearances during business hours.

"He would come out and skate," Villella said. "You always hoped he would ask you to skate. He just glided -- he was amazing."

Leese said he charged 35 cents to skate in the 1950s. By 2005, the price was $4 and an additional $1 or $2 for skate rental. Kelley took her own approach to decorating, gluing board games to the ceiling and colorfully painting the railings. All that has really changed, however, is the color. Rock Springs still has a quirky old-time feel, and that's what the patrons love about it.

"It's ready to go," Kelley said. "All the equipment is still there."

A Rock Springs reunion -- and a roast of Earl Leese -- took place on May 11, 2003. Walter made an unforgettable entrance.

"Before the reunion even started I was standing out on the floor, then all of a sudden I was down," Walter laughed as he thought about it. He said he was a good skater in junior high, "but I was never the most coordinated."

More than a hundred people came to see Leese and Kelley at the reunion, two different owners of the same exceptional and utterly unique facility. Everyone had a fond memory to relay.

Villella said she "dragged her daughter Sarah" to Rock Springs for the event. She was asked to waltz by one of Leese's sons. She could still skate as if she had never left. Her daughter had never seen her skate. She said it was "a whole different part of Mom she just didn't know."

Rock Springs is a cultural icon for a very small population. All the locals know the customized jacket mounted on the wall belongs to former employee Ray Malone.

The heavy door, green and stubborn as the end of summer, gets propped open. The carpet-covered counter is the same, heavy with trophies and blocking hundreds of skates. One can still breathe that antique smell.

Two owners have cared for the building during different decades. Each speaks of the facility with respect and an audible smile.

"It kept me going pretty good for 30 years," Leese said.

Villella, the best roller skater of all time, ever, in the entire world (if you're from around here) said Rock Springs brought the best out of people. Skating was a common goal, an innocent pastime to fill local weekends with controlled misbehavior.

"You should have seen these kids," she said. "It was beautiful."

It's like nothing ever changed at Rock Springs.

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