Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: April 1994 Volume 32 Number 2, Pages 59–66

Curling in Paoli: The Philadelphia Curling Club

Len and Mary Gottliebsen

Page 59

Curling is an old sport.

Some contend, based on figures in several paintings by the Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel in the 16th century, that it started in the Netherlands, but it is now more generally believed that, like golf, it had its origins in Scotland. Considerable research on its beginnings was done towards the end of the last century by the Rev. John Kerr, who wrote a History of Curling, published in Edinburgh in 1890. Assisting him was David Masson, a professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University, who commented, as reported in Robert Welsh's more recent International Guide to Curling, published in 1985,

"Wherever there was ice, there must have been, since man existed, games on ice, and the question is whether the particular game of Curling can be proved to have been in use anywhere out of Scotland without clear derivation from Scotland. If it ever existed anywhere else, it ought to be found in that place now; for, the ice still remaining, the extinction of the game, if once in use, may be voted impossible. Curlers, therefore, ought to drive at this question: Is there any Curling now, or anything like Curling, anywhere in the world out of Scotland, except by obvious and probable derivation from Scotland?"

To this "pertinent question" Welsh answers "firmly and confidently, 'No, there is not'".

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Welsh then further observes,

"Substantial supporting evidence for the claim that curling originated in Scotland is provided by the wide variety of old stones which, over hundreds of years, have been salvaged from lochs and ponds and unearthed in old buildings and diggings throughout the country. The Rev. John Kerr brought the full weight of his argument to bear. 'It is absurd,' he wrote, 'to suppose that, if the game were Flemish and carried with Flemmings wherever they settled, it would only be in Scotland that the primitive stones [used in curling] would be found.'

"The question, even more pertinent than Professor Masson's, is: If curling was once played in the Low Countries, or any other country, why are there no relics of stones in any other country than Scotland?

"The reasonable answer is that Brueghel's game on the ice was played with frozen clods of earth which disintegrated when the thaw came -- as the claims for overseas origin now disintegrate before our eyes. For a game played on ice with clods of earth cannot reasonably be called curling."

A description of the game's possible origins is found in a Captain Crawford's Sixty Years of Curling:

"We believe," he wrote, "that the game originated among the rural workers and the tillers of the land in those moorland districts where undrained lochs and tarns were numerous centuries ago. Let us suppose a hard frost sets in: the rural labourer finds his plough frozen in the furrow; the earth is hard as iron; everything is bound in [the] close embrace of the Frost King; the rural workers meet, together in their enforced idleness; the exhilarating weather acts like a stimulant on their spirits and the country folk are full of fun; the loch and the stream are frozen; they venture on the ice for the purpose of sliding; one mirthful fellow seizes a boulder; he puts it on the ice and he and his fellows are astonished at the distance it is carried on the smooth surface of the frozen waters; he challenges his companions to a test of strength and they begin to select suitable stones from the beds of rivers and from the dry stone dykes, and play one against the other by hurling the stones along in rude fashion. Ultimately, they fix a mark at which the stone is to be thrown and in the process of time the game becomes developed into an exhilarating pastime. The rude stone selected, from its natural adaptation for playing, soon becomes moulded into more fitting form; it is chipped to shape; its under-surface is polished; a rude handle or grip is inserted; and the enjoyment afforded in bright winter days by meeting together in this friendly rivalry brings out the whole rural population to enjoy the fun. The farmer and the ploughman keep themselves in good humour during the forced idleness of winter; the village workers find their labours impeded by the frost as well as the ploughman. The smith is unemployed because all farm and rural labour is suspended and he joins the fun and frolic of the game.

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The joiner and the artisan of the district catch the infection and play sides against one another. The laird and the parish priest enter into the enjoyment and encourage the innocent and exhilarating pastime which has many salutary social influences and keeps the hands of the people out of mischief. If the frost continues for long periods, as it often does in the upland districts of Scotland, one hamlet challenges another to a game of Curling, as was their wont in olden days to challenge each other in games of shinny, football and the like. Thus the game grew into district and national importance and the implements of the sport rude and primitive at first -- have been developed into handsome and fitting accessories of the exhilarating recreation.11

As was noted in a 17th century verse, "It clears the brain, stirs up the native heat, and gives a gallant appetite for meat."

The earliest stone found in Scotland dates back to 1511; it is known as the Stirling Stone, and has the date incised on one side. These early stones weighed from 5 to 25 pounds each, and were thrown toward the target on the ice from the palm.

The earliest historical reference to curling dates from 1541, when a notary in Paisley, Renfrewshire, recorded in his protocol book a challenge between a monk in the Paisley Abbey and a representative of the abbot. (The record, incidentally, is in Latin.)

By 1551 handles were added to the stones, and a century later stones with handles were common. One weighed as much as 117 pounds, though most of them were in the 40- to 70-pound range.

The period from 1500 to 1700 is sometimes known as a "little ice age", with lots of frozen ponds and lakes, and curling became quite popular, a sport played by all walks of life. (It was in 1638 that Bishop Graham "committed a heinous crime and curled on the Sabbath"!)

Circular stones came into use after 1800. They were found to be advantageous as they could go around guards to get to the target. The rounding of the stone made it possible to give it a spin or twist when the stone is released, giving it a curved path and hence the name "Curling".

In 1888 the Grand Caledonian Curling Club was founded in Edinburgh, to bring curlers throughout the world into one "brotherhood of the rink". Four years later it became the Royal Caledonian Curling Club.

Welsh notes,

"Easily the most spectacular Royal Club event -- if it comes off -- is the Grand Match between the North and South of Scotland on outside ice. The 'Nation's Bonspiel' is a magnificent sight with six hundred rinks of Scots curlers fighting it out in friendly rivalry on a major Scottish loch. The Match, the biggest bonspiel in the world, receives the privilege of precedence in the Constitution of the Royal Club: 'All matches should give place to the Grand Match1.

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"But 7 in[ches] (175 mm) of good black ice are needed for the Match and too often the planning undertaken by the dedicated members of the Grand Match Committee is in vain. Each year, the Match is planned, down to the last detail, by fifty keen curlers. It is a labour of love. Four venues are possible -- Loch Leven in Kinross, the Lake of Montieth near Sterling, Lindores Loch near Newburgh in Fife and Stormont Loch in Blairgowrie -- and the one that offers the best conditions under hard frost is chosen. ...

"The organization is in the nature of a military operation, in which a highly-proficient corps of men, led by James Hamilton, prepare for the final command of General Jack Frost. The 'Match-on' signal, relayed by B.B.C. the night before the big day, is the climax to months of preparation. Only those involved in the preliminary work can fully appreciate the build-up necessary for the greatest bonspiel in the world. .. .

"A cannon is fired to start the Match and 2,400 curlers from all parts of Scotland engage in a three-hour battle on [300] rinks feverishly marked out by the Ice Committee on the previous two days."

(Unfortunately, due to a lack of cooperation from General Jack Frost, the Grand Match has been held only three times since the Second World War.)

The first record of curling in North America was in 1759, in Quebec. There troops of the 78th Frazer Highlanders engaged in a match, using melted cannon balls for stones, on the frozen St. Lawrence River. In 1852 the Canadian Branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club was formed.

In the United States the first recorded curlers were a group of shipwrecked Scottish sailors, who formed the Orchard Lake, Michigan Curling Club in 1832. In 1867 thirty-eight representatives from eight clubs in the United States met in New York City: rather than establishing another branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, however, they voted to form the Grand National Curling Club of the United States. In its annual report it was stated that "the object of the club shall be to encourage the game of curling, foster good feelings between its members, and endeavor to bind them together by brotherhood ties, so that no unseemly conduct shall be known, either in the club house, or on the ice".

By the end of the first year, 13 clubs, with a total of more then 400 members, had joined the Grand National. (Dues were fifty cents a year for each member, with an initial admission fee of fifty cents per member.)

When the Grand National Curling Club commemorated its 125th anniversary three years ago it included 37 member clubs with a total membership of more than 2000.

One of these 37 clubs was the Philadelphia Curling Club, which maintains its rink at 65 Plank Avenue in Paoli.

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It had its beginnings in 1957. The early history of the club is recalled by W. Scott Johns III, a charter member of the club:

"Dwight S. Coon, Dental General of the Canadian Air Force, living in the local area, started the Philadelphia Curling Club.

"In the spring of 1957 he ordered two sets of curling stones from Scotland, and got together with Doug Withington, Charlie Brown, Albert Haakinson, and Scott Johns to form a curling club. These five charter members agreed to start the club. Each member contributed $367.00 towards the cost of the stones, and Johns was appointed secretary of the club.

"The original group induced a few others to join them on rented ice in an ice skating salon in Villanova, near the intersection of Rte. 320 and Lancaster Avenue. They curled there two or three times in the early spring of 1957.

"In the fall of 1957 the group became serious and signed up additional members, bringing the total to 19 members. Among the new members were Paul Kistler and Frank Brandon, two local doctors. Incorporation as a non-profit organization took place in March 1958, and these nineteen members signed the original charter.

"The group curled for another year or two on the same rented ice, until the owner decided to change the rink into a boat sales business. [In the meantime] Alfred Johnstone had built the Villanova Ice Hockey Rink, and the curlers played on that ice two times a week for two or three years. After the hockey games were over and the Zamboni had cleaned the ice, the curlers arrived. They carried the 42-pound stones from a storage area to the ice. Circles were painted 114 feet apart and the game began. During this period the club bought a third set of stones.

"Disaster struck when the roof of the hockey rink collapsed under the weight of snow. It was very fortunate the accident occurred three to four hours before a sell-out crowd arrived for the hockey game, or there would have been loss of lives and many injuries. Scott Johns and Goodhue Diament crawled into the wreckage and retrieved the curling stones.

"For the next three years the group did not curl. Finally, the 12 members of the Board of Directors got together to raise the money to build their own rink and clubhouse. To buy the ground and build the building, $70,000 was needed, of which $30,000 was borrowed from Hershey Trust through John Shuey of Hershey, Pa. The balance of the money was borrowed from the Upper Main Line Bank in Berwyn. Charlie Brown and Scott Johns each had to personally guarantee up to $100,000 against this loan."

Page 64

Scott Johns is the only surviving member of the original five who started the club, but three others of the original 19 charter members of the club are still active curlers: Jack Wehner, Frank Brandon, and John Hayes.

The 1965-66 season was the first in which the club's curlers could display their finesse in their own building.

The lot on Plank Avenue was purchased from the Philadelphia Suburban Water Company in 1964, and ground was broken in November of that year. The original clubhouse structure included two sheets of ice and a small warming room. In 1971 the clubhouse was enlarged, with the addition of a kitchen, basement locker rooms, and a new entrance. All the lighter work that went into the completion and improvement of the building, such as painting, panelling, and carpentry, was done by the members themselves.

During the summer of 1976 the base, foundation, piping, and the slab were completely rebuilt, again through the hard work of the members. Seventy tons of sand were removed, and the new base was covered with four inches of styrofoam, two layers of plastic, and two inches of concrete before the piping was put into position. And in the fall of 1981 the clubhouse was further enhanced by the addition of a new bulletin board and a trophy and pin case.

(The Philadelphia Curling Club still takes pride in being a "do-it-yourself" club. Whether it is a matter of maintaining the premises, creating and caring for the ice, or preparing the fine dinners sponsored by the Philadelphia Belles, the members do it themselves.)

As of 1994 there are 160 members, both men and women, in the club. At the present time, it is the only curling club in Pennsylvania.

Curling is a sport that is played on ice but without skates, nowadays usually in an indoor rink. (The temperature is between 32 and 38 Fahrenheit, so the players have to dress accordingly.)

It can be played by men and women of all ages. (We have several active curlers in the club who are approaching 80 years of age!)

It is a sport in which a newcomer can begin participating almost immediately.

It is a sport with a strong tradition of good sportsmanship, fellowship, and good friendships. Social interactions are an essential and integral part of the activity.

The ice surface on which a match is played is 146 feet long and at least

15.7 feet wide. At either end of the surface are four concentric circles, known as the "house", with their center known as the "tee" or "button". Crossing the surface, at either end, are four lines: the "foot line", the "back line"; the "tee line" or "sweep line"; and the "hog line", as shown in the diagram on the opposite page. Their functions will be explained a little later.

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The major items of equipment needed include the curling stones, brooms or "besoms", and special footwear. The shoes look like a mismatched pair: for a right-handed player, the sole of the right shoe has a surface that grips the ice, while the sole of the left shoe is slippery, so that it can slide along the frozen surface. (You soon learn always to enter the rink with the right foot first!)

The stones, as noted earlier, weight about 42 pounds each, and are of a circular shape, with maximum and minimum circumferences and heights set by the International Curling Federation. (With their handles attached, in appearance they somewhat resemble a spout-less tea pot.) Highly polished, the stone from which they were made was for many years quarried from the little island of Ailsa Craig, located in the River Clyde, but since the second World War stone from the Trefor quarry in North Wales has also become quite popular. The stone that is used must have a basic homogeneous quality that holds it together and prevents flaking or chipping, and should also have a low water absorbancy. The handles, while not infrequently simply made of plastic today, are sometimes carved from wood or bone, or made of brass or silver, and can be quite ornate and elaborate.

The brooms, similarly, were once intricately carved, and made of twigs of broom or other varieties of wood. Today, however, they are generally just commercial brooms or brushes, of diverse shapes and sizes, frequently made of man-made fibers,

Each team has four members: a lead; a second; a third, or vice-skip, and a skip. Each member has an important and specific task to perform, and the players rotate in delivering the stones during a match. The course of play is directed by the skip or vice-skip. He indicates the spot to which the stone is to be directed, and also supervises the sweeping activities once the stone is delivered.

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The object of the game is simply to slide the stone down the ice and have it come to rest close to the "button" at the house at the other end of the rink, or to dislodge the stone of an opponent that is closer to the button to keep him from scoring. If the first stone is in a good position, the other stones may be used to put up a guard around it so that it cannot be dislodged by the other team.

The stone is put into play by the lead. With his back foot, usually the right foot, against a "hack" on the foot line [see the diagram on the preceding page] and his left leg extended towards the other end of the ice, the stone is released or delivered, usually with a long stride, with a motion similar to that used in releasing a bowling ball. (Curling is sometimes described as "bowling on ice".) Aiming for the spot designated by the skip, as the stone is released a twist of the wrist gives it a spin, or "turn", to give it a curved path. As a result, the stone generally rotates one to one-and-a-half times as it slides down the ice. The stone must be released before it reaches the nearer hog line, and if it fails to cross the farther hog line it is removed from play.

After the stone has crossed the nearer tee line, the other members of the team become sweepers and come into play. At the direction of the skip, they sweep from side to side in front of the sliding stoe, at right angles to its course, in an attempt to extend the distance it travels or maintain a straighter path as it slides towards the desired spot. The sweepers may not, however, touch a running stone; this is known as "burning" the stone.

As noted earlier, each team has four players, and each player delivers two stones, alternately with his opponent. This is known as an "end". A match usually consists of eight ends, and takes about two hours to play, with each player walking about two miles by the time the match has ended.

One point is scored for each stone that is closer to the "button" than are any of those of the other team, provided that it is within the "house". The team with the most points at the end of eight ends is the winner.

The curling season at Paoli extends from early October to the end of March.

For many years curling in Paoli was an all-male competition, but since 1991 women have also participated on an equal footing. Even before that, however, they made a major contribution in the preparation of the "bonspiel", when refreshments and camaraderie were shared jointly by both teams upon the completion of a match.

And that is curling -- and the Philadelphia Curling Club in Paoli.

As Captain Crawford observed,

"Whoever threw the first boulder, whether it be in the Low Countries of Europe or the moorlands of Scotland, six, maybe eight, hundred years ago, started a pastime enjoyed by hundreds of thousands every winter."


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