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Duluth Curling Club has long history

The former palatial home of the Duluth Curling Club was on London Road, across from the Armory at the east end of what is now the Rose Garden. The building burned down in 1984, but had been vacant since 1976. Photograph Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, S2422b282 photographer McKenzie1 / 2
This photo of 22-month-old Ronald Bradley was taken in 1917. Photograph NEMHC, photographer McKenzie, S2422no40062 / 2

While many people around the world had never heard of the sport of curling before it returned to the Olympics in the 1998 Nagano games, Northlanders have been throwing stones and sweeping like mad for almost 120 years.

In Duluth, according to an 18-page history written by businessman and curling club member Alex Macrae in 1924, the first curling club was established in Duluth in November of 1891 at the urging of former ship captain turned vessel agent F.N. LaSalle.

A site was secured near the corner of Third Avenue East and Superior Street, and a 50-by-115-foot building constructed.

"The construction of the building was of the cheapest kind, sides of lumber and the whole thing covered by a canvas roof," Macrae wrote.

Fourteen pairs of curling stones were ordered from Russell of Toronto, for $14 a pair.

Although the stones arrived by Christmas, the rink still wasn't finished. No matter; the members of the new club were determined to play, and with the help of James Moon -- who claimed to have invented the concave curling stone bottom with the Duke of Breadalbyne -- they set up two rinks.

"The first game of curling ever played in Duluth was then played Christmas forenoon, 1891," wrote Macrae, noting that the members had such a good time they continued playing even after a snowstorm came up. "There was a fairly good gallery of spectators to view this strange game. It must have been gratifying to the two or three who knew the game to see how the novices took hold of it."

The new rink was officially completed on New Year's Day 1892.

Duluth has been a hotbed of curling ever since. In the 118 years since its inception, the Duluth Curling Club has hosted two World Championships, the U.S. Olympic trials and numerous national events. Two DCC members, Harvey Marshall and Frank Befera, were inducted into the U.S. Curling Association Hall of Fame, for service to the sport. Numerous members have participated in and won many state and national championships over the years, and even a few world and Olympic championships. (Go Team USA!)

Still, building the Duluth Curling Club from its infancy in 1891 into the second-largest club in the country -- only St. Paul has more members -- wasn't an easy task.

A rough start

In March 1892, three short months after its construction, a fierce blizzard tore the curling club's canvas roof to shreds and knocked the framework of the rink to pieces, leaving the club $200 in debt for the canvas and without a place to curl. They used the lake once, then summer came and so did a wealthy benefactor by the name of A.R. MacFarlane.

MacFarlane built the club a $7,000 facility near his home at Glen Avon, which opened Jan. 28, 1893. The ice surface held three curling sheets in the center with skating around the sheets, plus a space for "fancy skating." The new building included "commodious and attractive" club rooms, wrote Macrae, who went on to describe several competitions held at the Glen Avon facility over the next three years.

In 1896, because of complaints about the long streetcar ride to Glen Avon, the DCC leased six sheets of ice at the Tait Warehouse, at the foot of Eighth Avenue West. They would remain at that site for two seasons, before "the demands of commerce on the waterfront" forced a move.

In 1899, the club entered into a lease with the Northern Pacific Railway for a site at Third Avenue West and Michigan Street, across the street from the site destroyed by a blizzard in 1892. The new building would be more substantial than that first one, however, with space for five sheets for curling and more for skating. Fairly good club rooms and locker rooms were built; later the club added an observation room at the center of the building.

This would be their most permanent home yet, but after 12 years the club members started talking about buying their own land and building a new club. After all, the lease with the railroad company was year-to-year and problems with coal dust and soot were getting worse every year.

Big plans

The club purchased five acres at the corner of 14th Avenue East and London Road for $33,000 and made plans for a palatial new club.

According to Macrae, who was on the building committee, plans called for a 279-by-190-foot building, two stories high, made with reinforced concrete and steel. On the first floor there would be space for 12 sheets for curling, as well as a lobby and spectators' gallery, locker rooms, a club room, office and dining room and caretakers' living rooms. The second floor would contain a skating surface 190 x 90 feet, locker and dressing rooms and a lunch counter. It was an impressive building, with a frontage of 300 feet on London Road and ran back the full distance to Lake Superior.

According to www.vintageminnesotahockey.com, construction was under way on the club by 1912 -- at the time it was the largest building for ice recreation ever tackled and carried out in the nation -- and it was completed in 1913.

The total cost was $132,000. It was considered by many to be the finest curling club facility in the United States when it was complete.

It took a year to build, but it would be another 33 years -- April 1946 -- before the Duluth Curling Club and Figure Skating Club (as it was known then, according to longtime member Byron Anderson) would pay the building off. Club members marked the occasion by burning the mortgage note, the News Tribune reported.

For the first 40 years, Mother Nature provided the freezing power.

Anderson said in those days, curling season always started on New Year's Day.

"We would start in the morning and play all day," Anderson said. "The season would last until the weather warmed up."

In 1953 an artificial ice plant was installed in the club which benefitted not only the curlers but hockey enthusiasts as well.

"It used to sit at the far east end of the Rose Garden," explained Dick Wicklund, director of curling at the DCC. "The [University of Minnesota Duluth] played their hockey games on the second floor there -- so did all the area high schools. It was one of the only indoor rinks around."

Wicklund called the old curling club Duluth's "original DECC."

He wasn't kidding.

"The Shrine Circus would perform there every summer," Wicklund said. "They would house the animals on the ground floor, but the elephants would have to climb this winding staircase to go and perform on the second floor."

In the summertime, the second-floor hockey rink was used for roller skating, recalled Larry Sharpe, who moved to Duluth in 1951.

"It was real popular at the time," Sharpe said. "There were probably three roller-skating rinks in Duluth at the time, but the one at the DCC was huge. People could actually do dancing there."

On Oct. 26, 1966, the club gave the facility to the city outright in exchange for a 25-year lease of curling facilities at $100 a month. Mayor George D. Johnson said the building would be operated by the Arena-Auditorium Administrative Board, which would schedule winter recreation events. In addition to amateur hockey and curling, the building might be rented for teen dances, small conventions, roller skating and other events, the Duluth Herald reported board president Manley Goldfine as saying.

Bob Watts became a member of the curling club in 1962. At 88, Watts may be the oldest member of the DCC who still curls on occasion, and Wicklund said he's the closest thing to an active club historian they have at the DCC.

Watts was in charge of the last Bonspiel they held at the old curling club, in 1976, the same year the DCC moved to its current home in the Pioneer Hall at the DECC.

"They had 12 sheets of ice and it was awfully cold," Watts said, adding that he has requested to be buried in his curling sweater. "Not like here at the DECC. Here you can probably wear short sleeves."

After the move to Pioneer Hall at the DECC, the old curling club sat empty, in need of repair. It was gutted by fire June 3, 1984.

"Arson is the suspected cause of a spectacular blaze that roared through the old Duluth Curling and Skating Club at 1338 London Road early Sunday, gutting the 84-year-old landmark," wrote Patricia Neubauer of the News Tribune and Herald. Firefighters were called to the scene shortly after 2 a.m., but the two-story building, "as large as a city block," was already engulfed in flames.

What was left of the building was torn down to make way for the Interstate 35 construction.

But the Duluth Curling Club lives on, stronger than ever.

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