Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Curling in Wisconsin

The Amusing History of the Scots Influence on Wisconsin

Curling in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeStudio portrait in front of a painted backdrop of John Johnston (1836-1904).

John Johnston and Curling Team

Studio portrait in front of a painted backdrop of John Johnston (1836-1904), a successful Milwaukee banker, seated second from right, with three other curling team members dressed in winter coats and hats and holding curling equipment. Johnston was a member of the Milwaukee Curling Club and served as president of the Grand National Curling Club of America from 1877-1879. View the original source document: WHI 85002

One of the most bizarre Olympic sports is curling, which has a proud Wisconsin heritage.

History Among the Scots

After a long time in which curling almost died out in America, the sport was revived in the 1930s by the invention of ice-making. A Wisconsin observer described it this way 60 years ago:

"It consists of sliding a stone down a 139 foot strip of ice and having it come to rest as close as possible to the center of a three ring bull's-eye at the far end of the ice, or 'sheet,' as the curlers call it. The curling stones, which resemble teakettles, are sent spinning down the ice while two sweepers under the direction of a 'skip' try to guide the stone by furiously sweeping the ice in front of it to increase its flight and to decrease its 'curl.'"

Curling was an important part of life among Scottish immigrants for much of the 19th century. Two of the earliest clubs in the nation were the Milwaukee organization, formed in 1847 and the Portage one, formed in 1850. And on the Fox River in DePere, Robert Jackson brought curling with him to Wisconsin in 1848 and was still happily playing it in 1895, when he was past 70.

EnlargeGroup portrait of Madison Curling Club's Jamieson Rink at the United States Women's Curling Association bonspiel. Left to right: Madeline Hefty, Edith Resan, Elynore Wegner, Myrtle Jamieson.

United State's Women's Curling Association, 1954

Group portrait of Madison Curling Club's Jamieson Rink at the United States Women's Curling Association bonspiel. Left to right: Madeline Hefty, Edith Resan, Elynore Wegner, Myrtle Jamieson. February 25, 1954. View the original source document: WHI 84699

Curling in Wisconsin

The first match on the Wisconsin River is thought to have occurred on a frigid New Year's Eve in 1850, at Dekorah. Its historian wrote, "There a reminiscing band of Scotsmen, full of nostalgia and perhaps of New Year spirits, cleared a space on the Wisconsin River for a curling match. Immune to the blasts of the cold winter's night, the Scots used flatirons for stones. Later, finding this improvisation unsatisfactory, they engaged a carpenter and a blacksmith to make the stones of wood with iron handles. Iron stones came into use in the early 1880's and the first granite stones were imported from Scotland in the early 1890's."

In 1860 the local press reported that, "The ancient and invigorating Scottish game of curling on the ice is becoming very popular in this neighborhood. Wednesday the 25th, being the anniversary of the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scotchmen of Caledonia, Dekorra and Portage had what is technically termed in curling phrase a regular 'bonspiel' upon the ice at Silver Lake." The next winter, the curlers of Columbia County advertised in the Milwaukee papers that they "hereby challenge any county in the state to the 'roaring game' with from ten to fifteen rinks to be played within the present month [February] at or within thirty miles of the city of Portage." Whether anyone accepted their challenge has not been discovered.

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