by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
It’s one of those little quirks of history. If not for a dispute over the type of rocks being used, Winnipeg’s oldest existing curling club may not have been formed and the city’s oldest existing rink may not have been built.
But the outcome of the “battle between the rocks” was heavily staked in favour of one side over the other, resulting in the demise of one club and Manitoba’s history giving pride of prominence to the other.
The creation of the Manitoba Curling Club on November 9, 1876, with 20 members, marked the beginning of organized curling in the province. The club purchased land from businessman A.G.B. Bannatyne and built a rink on the present site of the Victoria and Albert School on Ellen Street. Eight members played their first club game on December 11, using iron “rocks.”
Irons rocks were first used by Scottish troops serving in the British Army in Montréal when they introduced the slippery game to Canada in the early 1800s. The first Canadian curlers had to use whatever local materials were available, including wood, to form curling stones. Iron was favoured as it was readily available and could be easily moulded into curling rocks for use in games played on the St. Lawrence River. On the other hand, granite stones had to be imported from Scotland at great cost. By 1807, Canada’s first curling club was formed in Montréal.
In turn, Winnipeg possessed foundries that could mass produce iron rocks at a lower cost than importing expensive granite stones.
The Manitoba Free Press on December 16, 1876, reported the event as “the first game of curling ever played in Manitoba,” although curling had actually come to the province as early as 1860, and was originally played on the frozen surface of the Red River. In addition, construction workers at the Stony Mountain Penitentiary had converted a wood shed into a one-sheet rink in 1873-74 and used iron rocks to play their games, but it is uncertain whether or not they formed a club (Curling capital: Winnipeg and the roarin' game, 1876 to 1988, by Morris Kenneth Mott, John Allardyce). What is known is that the Stony Mountain curlers abandoned the game shortly afterward.
The first Manitoba Curling Club game was won in an extra end by a team skipped by James Barkley that included A.P. Denholm, George Northgraves and A.G.B. Bannatyne. The victors sent their prize of “a barrel of oatmeal” to the Winnipeg General Hospital, which was established four years earlier.
The first curlers were invariably wealthy businessmen, whether residing in the city or in rural communities, who had the wherewithal to purchase shares and build curling rinks. It wasn’t until years later that “working-class” curlers took to the ice and they usually played in leagues sponsored by businesses such as Eaton’s and the Canadian Pacific Railway, as well as organizations involving teachers, printers, telephone workers, firefighters, the police, church members, fraternal brotherhoods, and unions. These groups rented ice from established city clubs.
In the early years of Winnipeg curling, Bob Dunbar, the game’s first superstar, was a rare exception to the rule that only the wealthy played the game. Dunbar worked at a city hotel bar and whenever he had a spare moment would hone his skills at the nearby Thistle Curling Club.
A rift arose in the Manitoba Curling Club between those who preferred iron rocks and those who favoured granite. Due to their preference for granite rocks, a splinter group formed the aptly named Granite Curling Club in 1880 (a Free Press article dates the club’s formation to 1881, while the club maintains that the true date is 1880). With the waning of interest in metal rocks, the first official club in Winnipeg folded in 1883, leaving the Granite Curling Club as the victor in the battle between the rocks.
The Granite club first played its matches in 1881 under canvass on Lombard Avenue. The next move was to a building at the corner of McDermot Avenue and Rorie Street and then to a frame building called the McIntyre rink on Albert Street behind the McIntyre Block which was destroyed by fire in 1898. The “early records of the club, which were kept in Charlie Carbert’s office, were burned and the early history of the club — which would have made interesting reading — was lost” (Free Press, April 17, 1911).
The growth in membership allowed the club to build an indoor facility at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Hargrave Street in 1892. It was reported that there were 124 members with 48 being new to the club.
The two other curling clubs in the city, the Thistle and Assiniboine, also built new rinks in 1892.
The inaugural games in the new Granite rink was reported in the December 8, 1892, Free Press. The new rink was described as “well lighted, ten arc lights being used for the ice and the incandescent in the offices. In the centre of the building are four sheets of ice, and one more on each landing around the three sides of the building (for a total of six sheets) with a walk ten feet wide, extending around the three sides of the building. The offices and general waiting room, very large and commodious, are on the ground floor, while the entire upstairs forms a ladies’ and members’s room, part of which, it is expected, will be used for billiards and as a club room. The entire front of the rooms facing the ice is glass, thus giving all ample opportunity of witnessing the contests. The rooms are well heated and fitted up with all conveniences.”
At the time, the new Granite rink was considered to be a first-class facility with “spacious waiting rooms and large galleries,” according to the 1911 newspaper article.
“It has done a great deal to popularize the roarin’ game. There are few people who live in Winnipeg or who have visited the city in bonspiel time who have not witnessed games there, It has been, and is still, the most convenient from a spectator’s standpoint, and it is safe to state that if a move is made the rink to be erected will be even finer than that which now stands at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Hargrave Street.”
The latter statement was an acknowledgement that the Granite club was contemplating the construction of a new rink in 1911, although a location had not been selected.
In March 1912, a joint committee set aside $30,000 from the proposed sale of the existing rink for the construction of a new facility and to form a new stock company with capitalization of $100,000. Shareholders held stock in the Granite Curling Club and with the announcement that a new rink would be built, the business of the existing club was being wound down.
“It was big night for the Granites,” according to a report in the Free Press on March 29, 1912, about the club’s annual wind-up meeting, “as it marked the last meeting in the old building which has been their home for so long.”
Actually, the club was facing a great deal of financial uncertainty at the beginning of the curling season, “a condition brought about by the original Granite club being in a state of litigation due to the sale of the present site, making it necessary to undertake larger financial responsibilities than ever before,” according to the report by club secretary R.P Lewis. “This was made possible by five of our staunchest members going personally responsible for the necessary amount to finance the season through.”
James Cleland, C.C. Chisholm (the new 1912-13 president of the club), F. Kenny, E.H. Hebb and J.H. Hulman provided the funds to operate the club.
Thomas Kelly, Thomas Black, T.L Lowe and D.E. Sprague had applied in 1911 to Winnipeg Police Justice Hugh John Macdonald to wind up the affairs of the Granite Curling Club in order to commence the process of forming a new club in preparation for the construction of the new rink.
Objections arose among some of the members that the men had acted on a motion that didn’t receive a three-quarters majority as required by the company’s charter. The shareholders then took the matter to the courts, but it was eventually resolved and those originally opposed to the sale joined in promoting the new stock company and facility.
In April 1911, it was announced that the Granite Curling Club at the corner of Ellice and Hargrave was to be sold to the highest bidder.
“In the stockholders there are many who are not now active curlers, but they are all united with one purpose, to keep the Granite Curling Club the premier club of Winnipeg, the West, and, in fact, the entire Dominion. This is known from the fact that at the meetings held to discuss the proposed sale there was not the slightest kick forthcoming about what had been done by the executive” (Free Press, April 17, 1911).
This clearly showed that shareholders who had originally objected to the sale had been somewhat placated.
The site to be sold had 120 feet of frontage on Ellice Avenue and 200 feet on Hargrave.
It was believed that, since it was of the few large tracts of property remaining in the downtown, it would command several high-priced bids.
As it turned out, the only tender received for the club property was one for $141,000. The members were surprised by the bid, as prior to the advertisement of tenders for the sale of the site, which began on April 15, 1911, one verbal offer had been for $150,000.
According to a motion passed by the membership, “That the opinion of the meeting is that the property should be sold for $200,000, and that if an offer of not less than $180,000 was received by the director that a meeting of the shareholders be called to consider the offer.”
Fortunately for the shareholders, an offer of $200,000 for the property was made by Edward Brown and Associates, which was accepted. Since the property only cost $12,000 when bought in 1892, a significant profit on the original investment was realized.
(Next week: part 2)