31 March 2021
By Sarah Risser
On the last day of Women’s History Month, Sarah Risser writes about the Y.W.C.A.’s Banner Rowing Club for Women in Minneapolis.
In August of 1899, the oarsmen of the Minneapolis Lurlines took their last pull around Bde Maka Ska, tore down their boathouse and sold their fleet to the Minikahda Club, a brand new 9-hole golf club situated across the lake with its own boathouse for sailing and other aquatic sports. The Lurlines had been struggling to stay competitive and retain a coach throughout the 1890s, and in St. Paul, the state of rowing was only slightly better. The oarsmen of the Minnesota Boat Club continued to launch their shells on the Mississippi River but in a debilitated state, with a sharply reduced roster and equipment in disrepair. Both the Minneapolis Lurlines and the Minnesota Boat Club had enjoyed being storied athletic and social institutions, but, by the turn of the century, competitive rowing in the Twin Cities was at its lowest ebb since its founding in 1870. It would be three decades before a replacement competitive rowing club was established in Minneapolis.
As competitive men’s rowing began to falter during the mid-1890s, women took a keen interest in the sport. In 1897, the Minneapolis Y.W.C.A. established the Banner Rowing Club for Women and it quickly became the association’s most popular outing organization, sparking a crescendo of enthusiasm for rowing among women and perpetuating interest in the sport.
The Banner Rowing Club was originally located at Cedar Lake before moving to the more accessible Bde Maka Ska. Increased numbers forced a final move to Lake Harriet where more boats were available. By the summer of 1903, Banner Rowing Club’s women routinely filled 20 boats with between 75 to 100 women attending weekly Wednesday night practices. Four women would occupy each boat. Two more-experienced oarswomen would pair with two beginners. Captain Ella Walrath and Coach Mary Cooke intended their rowing sessions to be about enjoying friendship as much as blade work and allowed the women to organize themselves, always encouraging friend groups to stay together.
Walrath and Cooke were committed to coaching the technique of a competitive oarsperson and taught the women to dip their blade at right angles to the water and pull through the stroke with their blade just covered. The women learned to hold their blade two inches above the water on the recovery. After mastering these basics, the women would then be taught the nuances of the Yarra Yarra stroke.
The Yarra Yarra stroke was originally introduced to the United States by Andrew O’Dea, who hailed from the Yarra Yarra Rowing Club in Melbourne, Australia. O’Dea came to the United States in retinue with boxer Frank “Paddy” Slavin, and when Slavin encountered financial difficulties, O’Dea took his first coaching job with the Minneapolis Lurlines. O’Dea’s stroke held a low rating with a long slow sweep and a very deliberate recovery. O’Dea spent the summer of 1894 with the Lurlines before accepting an offer to coach at Wisconsin, where he increased the rating of his signature stroke to more closely resemble that of Cornell’s.
Lurline members Platt Walker Jr – who had captained the Lurlines in 1896 – and W P Christian taught the Yarra Yarra stroke to Banner Rowing Club’s Walrath and Cooke, in turn, when the women’s club was located at Bde Maka Ska. The women became so adept at moving their boats that the Minneapolis Journal declared “it was quite safe in challenging comparisons with any boat club the city ever had” (Minneapolis Journal, June 20, 1903).
On special occasions the women wore a white flannel blouse with the letters Y.W.C.A. embroidered in blue. This was complemented with a dark blue tie embroidered with anchors. In a particularly brilliant display on July 27, 1905, the Banner Rowing Club rowed around Lake Harriet in formation with Japanese lanterns secured to the bow and stern ends of their boats, casting a magical display of light on the water. The boats were decked with goldenrod and vines, club pennants were proudly displayed.
The Y.W.C.A.’s Banner Rowing Club was equal parts strength, skill, beauty, and friendship – qualities all boat clubs would do well to embrace.
Happy Women’s History Month!