Romancing the Stone: A Brief History of Curling in Grand Rapids
by GF Korreck
Curling has long been recognized as a gentleman’s sport, though certain evidence suggests there were similar games played on ice by peasants and farmers.
Purists argue that the sport’s true history is traced to the Scots—the earliest evidence are stones found in the country that trace as far back as the 16th century. But, as is typical with many sports, the true origins of the game are lost.
At face value, it seems a ludicrous pastime—a combination of hockey, shuffleboard and maintenance engineering. Curling’s heyday was the 19th century and Grand Rapids gentlemen found the sport enough to their liking to conduct a thirty-year love affair, eventually challenging the supremacy of their Canadian neighbors.
The Icemen Cometh
William Miller, a carpenter and pipe fitter, is generally credited with being the father of curling in Grand Rapids but it was C. A. Renwick who introduced the sport here. Renwick organized a bonspiel (the term for a curling match) in late 1897. Less than a year later, curling was advertised as the new Grand Rapids sport and the Grand Rapids Curling Club was formed.
The club opened its season on a new rink at the Grand Rapids Athletic Club on Fulton Street and boasted fifty members. Shortly after the Club’s opening match, the Grand Rapids Evening Press ran a story explaining the unusual game. The writer praised curling’s tradition:
“Its rules have remained unchanged through the ages while even sacred golf has changed.”
Though curling may have easily gone the way of other curiosities, the game caught on in the city. By the turn of the century, the Grand Rapids Curling Club was prepared to file for articles of association with the Secretary of State’s office for the purpose of erecting a clubhouse in the south end of town. The Club listed $15,000 as capital and, in the fall of 1902, broke ground for new rinks at Lake Avenue and Junction Streets (Lake Drive and Norwood today). Though it may not have occurred to anyone at the time, the Club initiated what may have been a sporting first. Lights were installed for night play, an innovation other sports did not adopt until may years later.
The Fellowship of the Rinks
In 1904, curling received notice of encouragement of interstate play. The Chicago club was invited for matches that year and in 1905, the Club hosted the first annual Grand Rapids bonspiel with teams from Toronto, Sarnia, Detroit, Chicago, and Windsor. The teams competed for the Furniture and Pantlind trophies.
By this time, the sport had become extremely popular with the gentlemen of Grand Rapids. Men such as John W. Blodgett, John McNabb, and W. S. Hall, prominent citizens all, built their own rinks and what could have loosely been called a curling league was developed. In 1907, the third Grand Rapids bonspiel featured teams from seven cities as well as several local clubs.
By the close of the first decade of the new century, Grand Rapids had made a name for itself as a center of curling. The Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association put up a trophy in 1909 and in 1910, the local rinks made a clean sweep (a term used in the sport) of the competition. Also in 1909, the Grand Rapids Curling Rink Co. paid dividends of thirty-three-and-a-third percent. A structure was built and dedicated at Norwood and Wealthy Streets in 1903 and the property represented an investment of close to $9,000.
Enthusiasm for the sport stayed at an even level for the next several years. Eight rinks were in play for the city championships in 1917 and Grand Rapids teams continued to be less than gracious hosts—at least on ice—as they made routine work of winning the trophies that were contested.
Whatever inspired the birth of this strange sport in Grand Rapids seems to have died with the men who made it a popular pastime. The last reported event came in 1923 when the J. L. McKee Club defeated the William Miller players for the Renwick trophy. Though the sport no doubt continued for a few years after this time, it lost the appeal it once had.
East Grand Rapids, where many early rinks were laid, became a thriving city. Grand Rapids, too, continued to grow and open areas were less prominent. More than this—although related to it—is the historical background of curling: the gentleman’s game played at a leisurely pace with proper grace. The increased upbeat nature of a growing industrial city made the sport less of a feasible winter respite from cold. There was now more opera, more theater, more music, more entertainment of every kind, in addition to the increased mobility and comfort of the automobile. Curling--the game that even today is, almost to a colon in its rules, the same as it was 400 years ago, could not be adjusted to the times. All that remains is an old stone, its handle still looking new, resting in the Public Museum to bear witness to a sport that had once captivated the gentlemen of a city.
Some of the early players were: C. A. Renwick, John Steketee, John McNabb, James Bayne, Skip Thompson, Dave Forbes, Will White, Will Jarvis, Darby Hull, Bert Belnap, C. E. Miller, and Skip Robertson.
Photographs from James R. Hooper Photograph Collection, #059, Grand Rapids Public Library.