Casting stones is usually considered a bad thing to do, but not at 476 Selby Avenue in the heart of Saint Paul: the Saint Paul Curling Club. Here, courtesy and respect are the order of the day when stones are thrown (pushed, actually) in the game of curling. Perhaps that sporting attitude is in part why the curling tournaments are called ‘bonspiels’– good play.
A brochure the Curling Club created for the 1993 national championships held there says in part:
Curlers play to win but never to humble their opponents.
A true curler would prefer to lose rather than to win unfairly.
… the spirit of the game demands good sportsmanship, kindly feeling and honorable conduct.
Fair play and conviviality are a badge of pride in the sport worldwide as well as in the Saint Paul club, and have been throughout the club’s considerable history. Jim Dexter, former longtime club manager and ice maker (from 1980 until just recently; he died in 2019), recalls a world competition in Milwaukee when a curler angrily strode off the ice after a match and refused to shake hands with the other team. The unsportsmanlike conduct riled the crowd so much that they booed until the player returned and congratulated the winners. Few if any other sports put such an honorable attitude at their forefront.
The building on Selby dates from 1912, but the Saint Paul Curling Club’s first incarnation happened several decades earlier, when it was incorporated in 1885. The first match officially reported in Saint Paul was played on Christmas Day in 1885 on the Mississippi River near Raspberry Island. Earlier, according to Jane McClure in “Bonspiels, Skips, Rinks, Brooms and Heavy Ice: The Saint Paul Curling Club and Its Colorful Century-Old History,” published accounts mentioned “old timers” curling on the Mississippi River in the 1870s.
The game as we know it* originated in Scotland, though it may have earlier European origins. A newsletter from the Saint Paul Curling Club, circa 1950, says Scots immigrants brought curling to North America in the early 1800s, and it had been “the bonnie game” of Scotland for over 300 years. John Kerr wrote in 1890 in The History of Curling and Fifty Years of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club that the game had an even longer history: “… while it is a game of great antiquity, and can be traced back nearly 400 years, it was only about the middle of the last century that it began to take on the dignity of a truly national game.”
So the game had solid Scottish roots when it came to the new world. Even before it hit Saint Paul, according to McClure, “Transplanted Scots are said to have inaugurated curling in Minnesota on the Maple River near Mapleton during the winter of 1856-57…. For many years, curlers in the area held an annual bonspiel on poet Robert Burns’ birthday.”
Saint Paul’s first clubhouse was built in 1891 on Raspberry Island near where the first official game was played, almost directly under the Wabasha Bridge. It was built on pillars to protect it against spring floods, and a long staircase connected it to the bridge. In those days, Bill Farbelow relates in “Pig’s Eye Report” (no date, likely another club publication), curlers had to bring their own stones– a standard stone weighs 42 pounds — and the trips up and down the stairway’s 100+ steps were a trial.
Curling’s popularity grew in the 1880s and 1890s, in no small part because of its association with the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, a connection that spurred the formation of several curling clubs. Dozens of winter sporting and social clubs formed in the 1880s, many starting with the 1886 Winter Carnival, which featured a bonspiel with eight sheets of ice in Central Park, just southeast of the current State Capitol.
The Saint Paul Curling Club still participates in the Winter Carnival. This year, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival Mixed Bonspiel is scheduled for January 24 to January 26, says current general manager Scott Clasen.
The Northwest Curling Association was formed in 1892 with clubs from Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Illinois, and held its first bonspiel in Saint Paul in 1893. That bonspiel was a big event for the sport of curling in Saint Paul; it was a four-day event with five sheets of natural ice in the clubhouse and 25 on the river. But the weather was so warm, at one point the curlers had to stop sweeping because they were drenching spectators with water spraying from their brooms.
With curling well established as a favorite local sport, clubs like the Saint Paul Curling Club and the Nushkas were thriving; the Saint Paul group had up to 250 members at the turn of the century, McClure says, and even many neighborhoods had their own small rinks. The arrival of Robert Dunbar, “the world’s greatest curler… the Lion of the North,” added to the sport’s prominence, as did a visit from the touring Royal Caledonian Curling Club, “the Mother Club in Scotland.”
In spite of the public’s fondness for the sport, the Saint Paul Curling Club folded in 1904 because of financial difficulties, and the old clubhouse on Raspberry Island was razed. The next year the Capitol City Curling Club was formed; it played at a facility on Smith Avenue between Ramsey and Sherman Streets, where United and Children’s Hospitals are now. Author Jack London once stopped by there to throw a few stones.
The current clubhouse had its origins when one local group, the Aberdeen Curling Club, purchased the property on Selby Avenue. The club never really got going, and sold the property in turn to the Saint Paul Curling Club, which had re-formed from several smaller clubs, including Capitol City, Farbelow says. The clubhouse was built in 1912.
The Saint Paul Curling Club held its first major bonspiel in 1913, and Louis Hill (railroad magnate James J. Hill’s son) presented the trophy to the winner among 400 competitors. Farbelow says it was the largest Northwestern Curling Association Bonspiel ever, with 90+ teams on 12 sheets. The club poured water on the parking lot to add six more sheets to those already in the clubhouse.
World War I, the Great Depression and World War II had a negative effect on curling. Despite those challenging times, the club added refrigeration on two sheets in 1939 and slowly to other sheets in the ensuing years. Before refrigeration, the club had huge windows which it opened in the winter to freeze the ice; those windows were boarded up after all the sheets were refrigerated, and gave the building a somewhat forbidding look for quite a few years.
Though women had played for many years on Canadian teams, it was only in the 1950s that they began to compete in Saint Paul. The Bonnie Spielers were formed in 1951-1952, and junior curling began during that same decade. By 2004, the club had more than 220 female members, Englund says. The Winter Olympics in 1998, when curling was first included as an official sport, and 2002 boosted popularity of the sport considerably.
For more than 30 years, members of the club have undertaken to renovate the old building, volunteering their labor and skills. In 1982, 120 curlers showed up to help tear down the building that housed sheets 7 and 8. Now classy wood lockers grace the area where that building stood, each emblazoned with the outline of a curling stone. Every summer a new project is undertaken.
The club now boasts 1,130 members and the largest number of sheets in the country outside Duluth and Eveleth. It will host the annual Jack McCann Men’s Over 40 Bonspiel December 13-15 in 2019, and other events are listed at stpaulcurlingclub.org.
During the bonspiels, the club is filled with curlers and curling fans. The wide brooms sweep the sheets between games, and the club manager sprinkles the ice with a sure hand to give it the pebbling it needs; upstairs observers eat, drink, watch the games and share stories. As each game ends and the curlers shake hands, it is clear the spirit of curling lives on, the courtesy and sportsmanship still foremost in the game. The words in a club brochure, circa 1950, still ring true: “Fun with brooms, the uninitiated might call it, but to the brotherhood of curlers, over 200,000 strong, here and in Canada, it is the grand game of canny skill, the most comradely of all team sports.”
*The object of the sport is to slide the granite stones, or rocks, from one end of a sheet of ice to the other. Teams try to leave as many of their rocks as possible closest to the center of the target, or house. Players sweep the ice in front of the sliding rock to alter its speed and direction.
January 2008, revised November 2019