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Mila Koumpilova, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published December 25 2012

A century on Selby

ST. PAUL - Men in three-piece suits and insignia-covered cardigans sped on the ice, wielding brooms and trailing smoke from the cigars between their teeth.

The sleeves of their floor-length gowns tucked in vintage muffs, women stood by, clapped and snapped the occasional digital camera photo. Young boys cheered and tossed fedoras and top hats into the air.

The St. Paul Curling Club traveled back in time Sunday to mark a century in its Selby Avenue home. Members revisited the early days when cigars and scotch were fixtures on the ice, and female curlers were decades away from stepping onto it.

Over the years, fluctuating membership and financial woes have threatened the club’s existence. But amid a recent surge in the sport’s popularity, the club is in a comfortable spot to celebrate its past. With about 1,200 members, it is the nation’s largest.

“The club is as strong as it’s ever been right now,” said Tim McMahon, a member and one of the authors of a new book charting the club’s history. “It’s overflowing.”

A precursor of today’s St. Paul Curling Club started back in 1888, when games took place on the frozen Mississippi River near Raspberry Island. That earlier club shrank and folded in the early 20th century. Then, two smaller local clubs came together to form the St. Paul Curling Club’s reincarnation in 1912.

They moved into a new clubhouse on Selby Avenue, which would come to host national and international standoffs. Before the advent of artificial ice to the clubhouse in the late 1930s, Winnipeg teams would get on a train to St. Paul, knowing full well uncooperative weather could defeat the trek’s purpose.

Paula Arnold, at 85 the club’s oldest curler today, and 15 other women kicked off the first women’s season in the early 1950s. For years before that, they would watch their husbands play from the cozy, wood-paneled upstairs lounge.

When the neighborhood around the clubhouse turned rougher in the 1960s, members debated whisking the club out to the suburbs. Instead, they stuck around.

“There aren’t too many 100-year-old organizations that are still in the building they grew out of,” said Greg Walsh, the club’s president.

A recent spike in the sport’s popularity has boosted the St. Paul club’s ranks, even as four other curling clubs sprung up in the Twin Cities area, McMahon said. On the ice, players slide polished granite stones, or “rocks,” toward a target while teammates sweep in front of the stones to hurry them along.

Curling became a medal sport at the 1998 Winter Olympics, and St. Paul membership has gotten a jolt after each competition since. Two club members, John Benton and Allison Pottinger, played on the United States teams in the 2010 Vancouver games.

So when the club’s 100th anniversary loomed, members agreed they should mark it in a big way.

A plan to document the history of the club got a boost with a discovery in the club’s attic: boxes full of old photos, Pioneer Press articles from a time when the paper had a designated curling beat reporter, board minutes, brochures, rosters and more.

“A 100-year-old building has a lot of hiding places,” said Walsh, who also contributed to the richly illustrated coffee table book titled “100 Roaring Years on Selby Avenue: The St. Paul Curling Club.”

A kickoff party in early October brought 600 people to St. Paul’s Crowne Plaza. In January, the club will host a weeklong tournament, or “bonspiel.” Almost a hundred teams have signed up, including one from Scotland, considered the birthplace of curling.

And then, there was Sunday’s re-enactment of the first game played in the Selby clubhouse. The all-male teams sported old-fashioned brooms instead of today’s more practical squeegee-like ones.

“It’s just grand,” said Arnold, who commended the event’s faithful take on history. “Some of the stories get distorted over the years, but they came pretty close.”

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