Friday, January 1, 2010

The Polar Bear Club: A Cold History

Today, thousands or perhaps a few hundred (because of the bitter cold) people will be taking part in Milwaukee's long ritual of The Polar Bear's Club annual New Year's Day tradition of jumping into Lake Michigan. One may ask, "Is Milwaukee the first city in the nation to have started a polar bear club?" The answer is no and in fact the first polar bear club established was The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, founded by Bernarr MacFadden (1868-1955) in 1903.

MacFadden was considered "The Father of Physical Culture" believing that "our bodies are our most glorious possessions, that health-wealth is our greatest asset..that weakness is truly a crime..that every man can be vigorous vital specimen of masculinity; that every woman can be a splendidly strong well poised specimen of femininity." (from The Coney Island Polar Bear Club's website). He believed that swimming in cold water improves people's stamina and also their immune system to fight off diseases. So, from 1903 until the present, club members swam once a week every Sunday from November through April and of course on New Year's Day in the Atlantic Ocean off of Coney Island (once a famous amusement park).

In Milwaukee, the first ever recorded swim (at McKinley Beach) on New Year's Day happened on December 31, 1916 by three men, Gustav Marx, Frank Sutter, and Jim Brazell; the papers called them polar bears, using lower case letters. Not until around the 1920's, The Polar Bear Club of Milwaukee became a formal club with it's first president being Jim Brazell. In the research, it is not sure whether it started at McKinley Beach where the first recorded plunge took place and the year it transferred to Bradford Beach where the swim currently takes place. There is not a lot of historical evidence except pictures from family members who perhaps themselves were part of the club to tell the full history. For much of the twentieth century, it was headed by a Brookfield man named Garth Gaskey and he took his 57th consecutive plunge on January 1, 2009.

As you can see, the polar bear club has a long tradition of swimming in cold water, starting with The Coney Island Polar Bear Club as the oldest one followed by the second oldest, The Milwaukee Polar Bear Club. There are other clubs across the United States, especially along the East Coast, who take the annual New Year's Day plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. Many earlier members believe that swimming in cold water may be good for one's stamina and immune system just like MacFadden argued when he founded the Coney Island Club.

So, it will be interesting to read in the papers the accounts of this year's plunge both at Coney Island and here in Milwaukee, despite the frigid temperatures. If anyone who took the plunge today, please e-mail your experience at or write it in the comments box. For me, it was a lot warmer researching the history of the club in the comfort of my own home than taking part in the swim. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

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