(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” - Feb 2012, closes. Dec 1, 2011, No. 86)
At the beginning of the new year of 1887, on January 3rd, members of the Fort Wayne Curling Club gathered on the ice-crusted lake at the estate of businessman John H. Bass’ beautiful “Brookside” home to compete for a “point medal.” Contestants that day included James K. Mann, Thomas Kavanaugh, John Kidd, Fred A. Hull, R. Craik, W. Miller, and James Gillie. John Kidd won that curling match by one point over an impressive performance by Thomas Kavanaugh.
Years later in 1891, a “bonspiel” or curling exhibition was staged on that same lake which is part of the present-day campus of the University of Saint Francis. In her book, John Henry Bass and his Brookside, Grace Leslie Dickerson wrote about her Grandfather Bass and his fondness for Galloway and Black Angus cattle imported from Scotland. With the prized animals came Scottish herdsmen, “bringing with them their bagpipes and Collie dogs. Several of these men stayed on at Bass Farm, and in the winter they enjoyed playing their native game of curling on the ice of Bass Lake.”
Sixty-two years later on Sunday, January 18, 1953, the Journal Gazette announced that memories of that exposition would be recalled at the Memorial Coliseum in an upcoming highlight during the Komets-Grand Rapids hockey game on the next Tuesday evening January 20th. According to the newspaper, curling was a popular activity in the Fort Wayne area in the early part of the nineteenth century with regular matches played at Brookside and at the old Caledonia Curling Rink located at State Street and Spy Run Avenue. Now, expositions like the one to be played before the upcoming hockey game had once again created a lot of interest among winter sports fans.
So the sport of curling, which dates back several centuries, has some fairly deep roots here in Northeastern Indiana. Most of us are familiar with this on-ice sport while watching the Winter Olympic matches with a contestant ever so carefully sliding a large teakettle-like object on an icy surface and whose teammates eagerly sweep away at the ice helping influence the stone object as it comes to rest at a distant down-course target.
It’s an old Scottish game played as a match between two teams of four players each who slide a total of eight “stones” down the lane into the “house” with its coveted bulls-eye target. The idea is to see which team can get their stones closest to the center spot of the circle. But not just any old stone was used. These are highly polished granite complete with a gleaming brass handle and weigh over forty pounds. Knocking away the opponents’ stones to clear the way for a teammate shooting later makes for an exciting chess-like strategy with shuffleboard-like contest-on-steroids event.
Under the current leadership of Craig Fischer, president, together with co-founders Greg Eigner, Jerri Mead and Dan McCoy of the “Fort Wayne Curling Club,” a revitalization of this exhilarating team game is being reconstituted. An active organization, the Fort Wayne Curling Club has been hosting a renewal of the ancient sport with its annual Fort Wayne Summerspiel. It has been held at the Lutheran Health SportsCenter played on an ice surface that is about one-hundred-forty feet long and fourteen feet wide. Circular stones measuring approximately twelve inches in diameter and weighing about forty-two pounds are once again seen sliding carefully across an icy playing surface. At each end of the course is the "house" a circle twelve feet in diameter with a target called the “button.” Sliding a stone across the ice so it stops inside the circle closest to the center is the object that competing teams of four players seek. Each team has a captain called a “skip” who directs the teammates’ actions to knock an opponent’s stone out of position or to set up a guard stone to obstruct an opponent’s efforts. The other team members position themselves along the course with brooms to sweep. This action reduces the friction between the traveling stone and the ice, allowing the stone to travel farther and/or curl less. A stone must be touching any part of the circle to be considered for scoring, which is accomplished by counting the number of stones of like color extending out from the button until encountering the closest opposing team’s stone. Teams come to compete in the Fort Wayne Summerspiel from all over the U.S. and Canada, some with Olympic experience.
Curling is a sport that takes a short time to learn and a lifetime to master. The curling club has monthly “Learn to Curl” sessions and after a single session participants are making shots and having a grand time and qualify to join one of the club’s two leagues. (For more information, log on to www. fortwaynecurling.com.)
Curling continues to be celebrated here in Fort Wayne. The 125th anniversary of the 1887 exposition played on Bass Lake at the University of Saint Francis, weather permitting, is to be recreated this January to commemorate that team of old skipped by Kavanaugh and Kidd who defeated the team headed by Gillie and McKay by a score of thirty-five to eighteen. Curling is Back!
###Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi © is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio106.3 fm. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.