Most Americans view curling — reinstated as an Olympic medal event just 16 years ago , in 1998 — as a novel and peculiar sport. Given its exotic status, not to mention the U.S. team’s dismal performance at Sochi, it may come as a surprise to learn that this ancient Scottish game also has a long history here in the United States.
It’s generally agreed that the first curling club in America was established in the 1830′s, near Detroit, and by the 1850′s, the sport’s popularity spread to a number of other locales, including New York City. Indeed, according to Scotsman John Kerr — whose 1890 History of Curling is still considered the “cornerstone of any curler’s library” — Sottish immigrants made New York “the “headquarters of United States curling.” One of the earliest New York clubs was the St. Andrew’s Curling Club, established in 1858. It was started, according to an early member, by “a little colony of Scotsmen, mostly stone-masons” who wanted “to while away the time during the long winter months” when the building trades were out of work. They made the first curling-stones out of boulders strewn around Manhattan (which then still had some meadows), assisted by their wives, who were said to be “so enthusiastic that they all turned in and helped to polish [the stones] in the wash-tubs.” (Skeptics might ask if the ladies were avid for the sport or just eager to get their unemployed husbands out of the house!).
In keeping with the traditions of their homeland, the St. Andrews’ curlers insisted on “cordiality and brotherly feeling with each other,” as expressed in their motto “We’re Brithers A,” and their delightful logo illustration. Other New York clubs soon followed (the New York Curling Club, the Thistles, the Caledonians, the Yonkers, and many more), and the clubs competed in hotly-contested matches on lakes in Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park, and Hoboken, among others. In fact, one of the ponds in Central Park was originally known as the “Caledonian Curling Pond.”
By 1867, there was a sufficient number of clubs to warrant formation of a “Grand National Curling Club of America,” also headquartered (naturally) in New York City. Modeled on its Scottish counterpart, the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, the American federation of clubs held annual meetings and produced a yearly guide that detailed the previous year’s team records. It also promulgated the rules of the game, providing detailed illustrations of the various diagrams that were to be drawn on the ice. Most importantly, though, the National Club sponsored contests and presented the winners with prestigious trophies, including the most important prize of all: the Gordon medal.
This gold medal was donated in 1869 by Robert Gordon, a Scottish immigrant who was among the founding members of the St. Andrew Curling Club, and was later elected the first patron of the Grand National Curling Club. It was awarded to the best national curling team, to be determined at an annual bonspiel (curling tournament). Still held today, the Gordon Grand National Championship is one of the oldest sporting events in North America, preceded only by the America’s Cup yachting races (1851) and the Bell Quoit Silver Medal, an iceless summer bonspiel where quoits (the forerunners to horsehoes) are thrown.
In 1884, Gordon presented a second medal, to be played for in an annual contest between the United States and Canada, which is also still being held (this year’s will take place from March 13th to March 15th at the Schenectady Curling Club). The U.S. won the very first Gordon International Curling Medal medal in 1884, and also won it last year. But Americans looking to for consolation after Sochi will not want to examine the in-between record, which is resoundingly in favor of Canada.
There’s hope for the future though. Although curling has long taken a back-seat to baseball and other sports in the U.S., it seems to be making a comeback: the Bronx recently approved plans for the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which will include a year-round ice curling facility, and plans for similar facilities are afoot in other states. Canadian curlers, watch out!