Still rockin' after 100 years

Fairbanks Curling Club is one of the state's oldest organized sports

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Put away that hockey puck and stash the basketball. To play Fairbanks' oldest organized sport, you need a rock and a broom.

The Fairbanks Curling Club turns 100 this year, an anniversary that will be celebrated throughout 2005 by the members of one of the Golden Heart City's longest-lived institutions.

The year's events kicked off with a party at the club building earlier this month and also will include - weather permitting - a day spent curling outside on the Chena River in March, bringing the sport back to where it first was played here.

"I hope it's possible," said Ted Cox, a former president of the club and a member since 1955. "It'll show people how it started."

Curling, a sport similar to bocce or shuffleboard played on ice, originated in Scotland centuries ago and arrived in Fairbanks via Canada, brought to town by the gold seekers who migrated here from Dawson City, Yukon Territory, beginning in 1902.

Though documentation is sketchy, it appears about 32 of the men who played on the Chena River incorporated a club and received their first shipment of "rocks" - the granite slabs slid down the ice by curlers - in 1905, direct from the same Scottish quarry that supplies the rocks today.

"To the best of our knowledge, the club's been around since 1905," said club officer Leland Rich. "We're assuming this is the oldest organized sport in Alaska."

Rich said the sport was an upper-class undertaking at first, a notion borne out by photos of the nattily dressed players of old that decorate the club building.

Judge James Wickersham was an early member of the club, which played on the river ice until 1908 when a permanent building was erected on Second Avenue.

Before sports like hockey and diversions such as TV, curling was largely the only game in town. It was extremely popular, Rich said. He estimated membership grew to about 400 people in the club's heyday from the 1920s to the '50s, enough to max out its small playing area and membership capacity.

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"The curling club was the thing in Fairbanks; it was the social event," he said.

The club building was expanded in 1956, and just seven years later the current building on First Avenue was completed, with twice the playing area of the old one. Today, the cozy, relaxed club has a steady membership of about 300 people, which Rich said was well short of capacity but still "pretty strong."

Curling is huge in Canada and is growing in popularity since it became an Olympic medal sport in 1998, but only about 15,000 people play in the United States, Rich said. The Fairbanks club is one of the largest in the nation.

Elsewhere in Alaska, the Anchorage Curling Club plays in a building on Government Hill and members of the Barrow Hockey and Curling Club used to throw stones on the frozen Arctic Ocean or on local lagoons until the town built "Tupiqpak", an outdoor ice rink covered by a permanent tent.

"There are a lot of families that have been curling forever," he said. "We've got fourth-generation members here."

Different members of the club offered different reasons for the sport's personal appeal. Rich said the game requires a lot more skill, strategy and flexibility than one would expect.

Pat Fox, a member of the committee planning the centennial celebration, said the friendships inside and among the sport's four-person teams are part of the allure.

"What I like about it is the camaraderie," she said.

They also both stressed how inclusive the game is, as did Cox. Far from its more patrician roots, it's enjoyed by both women and men and by people ranging from young children to senior citizens, they said.

"It's just something you can do no matter how old you get," said Cox, who still plays regularly at 83.

Parts of the game have changed a lot since it was played on the river, Rich said.

Special brooms have replaced the common household ones that were formerly shuffled in front of the rock to speed its flight, and Teflon shoe covers have also made a big difference in playing style. The ice itself has also changed, with the surface at the curling club building now internally cooled and meticulously groomed.

The river event on March 19, for example, won't be an especially rigorous one by today's curling standards.

"It's more of a fun thing," Fox said. "It's hard to make good ice on the river."

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