Monday, January 23, 2012

Curling on the Chicago River in 1854 - Influence of Hughston McBain in Forming the Chicago Curling Club.

This is one of the cold days of our winter season in Chicago. There’s a dusting of snow but the sun is shining so it feels warmer. I came across an old article in the Chicago Daily Tribune about curling that I thought was interesting and well-written. The writer talks about the age of curling and mentions that it is an “Auld Scotia sport.” In fact he says the game was old when “Columbus wore aprons.” (Is that a reference to diapers?) James Duncan, the secretary of the Chicago club in 1854, had seen stones bearing the date 1701 but the game is much older. Scots took the game to Russia and the Germans have a similar game except the stones are wooden blocks.

The game was introduced to Chicago as early as the 1850s and was played on the Chicago River. Among the oldest members are names familiar to our Society: John Alston, Peter McFarland, Dr. McAllister; James Hutton and George Wilson. “As old age and consequent feebleness impairs and dims every facility it seems to have no power over the Scotsman’s love for curling.” James Hutton played until he was 72 and many have participated “up to the very time that death claimed him.”

Under the Rules of the National Curling Club (1890) members were forbidden to gamble or play matches for money. However, they could play matches for money if the winnings were given to the poor. In one year the match was played for a barrel of flour which was given to a worthy widow on the North Side. You could also play for medals “so as to create a friendly rivalry.” One medal was donated by Capt. John T. Raffen, one of Chicago’s most famous Civil War veteran and active in our Society.

The article lists a number of Scottish names and if you read these weekly blogs some of the names are familiar. Names like; James McWhirter, Alexander White, John Campbell, James Ralston, John McArthur and John T. Raffen. Four honorary members are mentioned: John Alston, Andrew Wallace, Robert Clark, and Alexander Kirkland. All of these men had served the Illinois Saint Andrew Society as president.

In 1888 the club in St. Paul issued a challenge to Chicago. The president, David Hogg, was not sure he could get four players to “go to the Northwest and play.” Each person had to pay their own expenses without any promise of reimbursement. He only needed four but 19 volunteered. All 19 decided to go and keep the others company.

There were also clubs in Lincoln Park and South Park. Thomas Dougal, a relative of my friend Bob Black (now deceased), was Secretary of the Lincoln Park club. Thomas Dougal had a soap factory along the Chicago River and his entire family is buried in Rosehill cemetery. The South Park club used the pond at Washington Park and some of its members included Robert G. Tennant, John Amour, F. N. Amour, William Nicholson, and John Muir.

The article concludes with the description of how the game is played and ends with this; “the Chicago clubs, the elements being propitious, promise a lively season with a number of local and foreign matches to enliven it.” That was in 1854.

In 1999, I received a letter from James McBain of McBain. He is the son of Hughston McBain, president of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society in 1963-1965 and had just retired as the Chairman of Marshall Field and Company. Mr. McBain was a recognized leader in Chicago and his accomplishments would fill several books. You could write a separate book about his Scottish connections. Enclosed in the packet from James McBain was a small booklet, “A History of The Chicago Curling Club.” It was written, printed and distributed “compliments of Hughston McBain and Fred Duncombe.” Mr. McBain "personally conceived and organized the United States Men Curling Association" and had Marshall Field and Company sponsor the United States National Curling Championships..."

The Chicago Curling Club, located at 555 Dundee Rd. in Northbrook, IL. is beginning its 63rd year. They have an excellent web site with pictures of the American Curling History Museum and have just concluded the Annual Men’s International Bonspiel. The official site of USA Curling, the national governing body, says that curling “is one of the fastest growing sports in the United. States.”

Much of the thanks must go to those early Scots willing to play on the Chicago River in 1854.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus

Please attend the next meeting of the Scottish American History Club on February 4, 2012. Tom Campbell of Baker and McKenzie will be our speaker. He is the author of “Fighting Slavery in Chicago.” Meeting begins at 10 a.m. Museum is open at 9 a.m.

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