Historic Thistle levelled by fire — flames claim memorabilia of Manitoba’s second oldest club

by Bruce Cherney 

In the early morning hours of June 10,  a fire levelled the historic Thistle Curling Club at 754 Minto St. 

The fire, which Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said originated at the rear of the curling club in the vicinity of garbage bins, also caused damage to neighbouring houses.

Despite the building being insured, club officials told the media that they wouldn’t have enough money for the curling rink to be rebuilt. 

While the Thistle Curling Club was founded in 1887 — it is the second oldest in Winnipeg after the Granite Curling Club — the present curling facility was built in 1921.

The suspicious fire is being investigated by the Arson Task Force, according to WFPS. 

Fire crews and police arrived at the scene of the fire at about 4 a.m. and evacuated homes in the area as a safety precaution.

Damage to the facility and two surrounding properties is estimated at $2.3 million.

Memorabilia lost in the fire includes records, photos and trophies from the early years of the club that cannot be replaced.

 At approximately 1 p.m., construction workers were attempting to secure the fire scene, when they ruptured cooling lines filled with ammonia, reported WFPS. The lines were used for ice making within the rink.

One member of the construction crew was exposed to escaping ammonia gas and was pulled to safety by an attending police officer. Both the officer and construction crew member were transported to hospital for treatment and were subsequently released.

The ammonia leak was capped within a few hours.

Traffic previously rerouted was restored at approximately 5 p.m.

The first media reference specifically to local curling comes in the March 28, 1860, issue of the Nor’Wester. A letter from “Templeton” outlines curling as it was played in Scotland and mentions that some gentlemen in the then village of Winnipeg planned to form their own club to arrange games with curlers from the lower district of the settlement, which was presumably the St. Andrews area, where Lower Fort Garry now stands. 

Apparently, the Royal Fort Garry Club was never formed, but documents from the era give evidence that curling was played, although not on an organized basis, upon ponds and rivers wherever a clear patch of ice could be found. 

The creation of the Manitoba Curling Club on November 9, 1876, marked the beginning of organized curling in the province. Originally possessing 20 members, the club purchased land from businessman A.G.B. Bannatyne and constructed a rink on the present site of Victoria and Albert School. Eight members played their first club game on December 11, 1876. 

The Manitoba Free Press on december 16, reported the historic event as “the first game of curling ever played in Manitoba.” The newspaper said the game took two hours to play and went to an extra end. The game was won by the team skipped by James Barclay which included A.P. Denholm, George Northgraves and A.G.B. Bannatyne. The victors sent their prize of “a barrel of oatmeal” to the Winnipeg General Hospital.

The losing rink was skipped by Alex Brown, who was the first president of the Thistle Club when it was formed in 1887.

Games at the Manitoba Curling Club were played using iron rocks, which led to a rift in the membership and the creation of a new club. Because of the splinter group’s preference for granite rocks, it was aptly called the Granite Curling Club. The Granite Club remains in existence to this day, though its location has changed throughout the years. 

For three years, those who used iron rocks and those who used granite shared the same facilities, but with the popularity of metal stones waning, the iron club folded in 1883. 

Morris Mott and John Allardyce wrote in their book, Curling Capital: Winnipeg and the Roarin’ Game, that another rift occurred in 1887 when a group of Granite Club members became dissatisfied with the rental arrangements at the “mother club,” and in 1887 broke away to form the Thistle Curling Club. 

The Thistle’s and its membership’s importance to the promotion of early curling in Manitoba cannot be overstated.

Alex Brown, the first president of the Thistle, had been an original officer with both the Manitoba and Granite clubs. Originally born in Scotland, Brown came from Ontario to Winnipeg in 1872.

He  was a partner in a local lumber company, and was one of first members of the Winnipeg Board of Trade. As well, he was a three-time city councillor. Brown was also an early chief of the city’s volunteer fire brigade. 

In 1892, the Thistle built a new four-sheet club on Alexander Avenue near Main Street. 

During the decade following the 1892 construction of the new facility, only three clubs served Winnipeg curlers — the Granite, Assiniboine and Thistle. 

In the winter of 1902-03, the total membership of the three curling clubs was just around 250. But by the following year, Winnipeg curling had reached such popularity that five new clubs were built in the year before the First World War.

Thistle curlers were highly successful in the early days of the annual MCA Bonspeiel.

For two weeks, the bonspiel created a holiday atmosphere in Winnipeg. Hundreds of people journeyed to the Prairie community, especially after an 1898 railways’ agreement with the bonspiel organizers allowed special return fares for families, relatives and friends of the curlers. The curlers had always received a special rate, but the extension of the agreement meant that more people began to flood into the city. 

Recognizing a bargain when they saw one, conventioneers from Western Canada began to plan their get-togethers to coincide with the annual bonspiel. Stores and theatres were also caught up in the holiday spirit and began to hold “bonspiel specials.” 

In 1894, the Daily Nor’Wester listed the communities and clubs participating as the Thistle, Regina, Selkirk, Gladstone, Morden, Brandon, Holland, Portage, St. Paul, Minnesota, Rat Portage (Kenora), Pilot Mound, Carman,  Granite, Deloraine, Neepawa, Moosimin, the Assiniboine, the  (Manitoba) Legislature, Birtle and Duluth, Wisconsin, making for a total of 68 rinks entered. 

Curlers today would be surprised to know that games in the early days of curling were 24 ends. The number of ends dropped to 20, then 16 in the 1890s  and 12 by the 1900s. In the modern MCA Bonspiel, 10 ends are used in the majors and eight ends in the minor events. 

The bonspiel even had a special sermon delivered by the Rev. Hugh Pedley, of Winnipeg’s Central Congregational Church, who served as the chaplain of the Manitoba branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club (Montreal) from 1894 to 1896 and from 1898 to 1900. 

An avid curler, Rev. Pedley compared the game of curling to the game of life.  As reported by the Manitoba Free Press, Rev. Pedley compared sweeping in curling to helping others in life; curlers who missed shots, because they failed to keep their eyes on the broom, were unlikely to succeed in life, since they had no definite objective; curlers who “hogged” rocks did so because they lacked resolution, curlers who fired rocks through the house lacked moderation; and curlers who raised an opponent’s rocks into the house played into the devil’s hands by acting with indifference to corruption and vice. 

“And when the fading honour of the bonspiel should be passed, when cup and locket and medal should be gone to rust and decay, might it be theirs to receive the fadeless laurels from the King themselves as one who fought the good fight and left a good record in this world,” is an example of how curling, according to the Rev. Pedley, assumed the status of a noble sport. 

One hundred years ago, the Winnipeg Morning Telegram reported that the “Mac” Braden rink of the Thistle won 25 of 26 games played, taking the Dingwall and Tetley Tea trophies. 

“To go through a bonspiel with 147 rinks competing and to lose but one game is something for which the Thistle men have reason to feel real proud.” 

The newspaper proclaimed their feat “a record that will stand for some time. It has never before been equalled, and it is not likely that it will be surpassed for a long time.” 

The only game the Braden rink lost was to Bob Dunbar of St. Paul, who was a former Winnipeg curler from the Thistle club. Braden was called “the animated iceberg” for his coolness on the ice. 

“By their ability to vary their style sometimes playing the ‘draw’ game almost totally, and on other occasions trying nothing but ‘running’ shots, much of Braden’s rink’s success is due,” reported the Morning Telegram. “When they found they could not get the counts fast enough one way Braden was able to alter his tactics and always for the better, for he and his men are as proficient at one game as the other.” 

W.A. “Bill” Carson, president of the Manitoba Curling Association from 1906-07, which had just years before replaced the Manitoba branch of the RCCC as the provincial governing body for curling, threw third stones as a member of the Dunbar’s Thistle rink in the 1890s. Carson skipped his own Thistle rink when Dunbar left for Minnesota.

Dunbar was the first superstar of curling. Born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1860, he arrived in Winnipeg in late-1870. An all-round athlete, he was introduced to the game in the late-1880s while he worked as a bartender in a hotel near the Thistle Curling Club. 

Whenever he had a spare moment from his job, Dunbar would walk to the Thistle to hone his curling skills. Dunbar is noted as being the first to effectively use the slide delivery. He learned the delivery by bending his knees more than any other curler when throwing a rock. His delivery was smoother, and greater accuracy was produced if he allowed his momentum to carry him a short distance from the hack. 

By the time he had left, a group of young curlers led by Braden and Carson had learned the finer points of the game from him and carried on his tradition. 

Carson was the MCA president while also serving as an officer of the Thistle Club.

Mott and Allardyce said, “... he travelled countless miles and spent much of his time and more than a little of his money promoting his sport.”

In 1912, the Thistle Club had built a new seven-sheet rink on McDonald Avenue just off Main Street. The club remained at its new facility until financial pressures caused the membership to abandon the curling club. Until they built a new club on Minto Street in 1921 (the building which burned down on June 10), the Thistle members rented curling ice.

An another important early Thistle Club member was George J. Cameron, who was born in Ontario and came West in 1900 to work for a railway company.

In 1903, Cameron joined the  MacKenzie Company Ltd., the Western representative of the MacDonald Tobacco Company of Montreal, becoming the local company’s owner by 1920.

In 1904, Cameron joined the Thistle club. He later became a member of the Granite and Strathcona clubs.

“One day in 1924, while talking to Walter F. Payne, who was news editor of the Manitoba Free Press, a past-president of the MCA as well as one of the founders of the Strathcona club (1908), Cameron suggested that it would be a good for the sport and good for the country if eastern and western curlers could compete against each other,” wrote Mott and Allardyce.

Out of this meeting arose the Canadian championship known as the MacDonald Brier, named after the sponsoring tobacco company. The first “brier” was held in Toronto in 1927.

Manitoba Free Press sports editor from 1908 to 1924, W.J. “Billy” Finlay, was another prominent Thistle curler. Born in Orillia, Ontario, in 1888, he moved to Winnipeg in 1904.

Finlay was noted as an all-round athlete. As a star lacrosse player, he played professionally in the years before the First World War. 

In 1906, he joined W.A. Carson’s Thistle rink. Later, Finlay joined the Strathcona Club and formed his own team. 

In 1909, he switched to play second for Frank Cassidy of the Thistle club  which in 1910 emerged with the best MCA Bonspiel record, winning the Dingwall Trophy. Because of this victory, the Dingwall Trophy was permanently ceded to the Thistle and a new bonspiel championship trophy was created. The Dingwall Trophy is the only relic from the early years of curling to escape the June 10 fire. It was saved because it happened to be at the home of a club member when the fire started. 

For the next two years — 1911 and 1912 — the Braden rink from the Thistle won the new trophy that replaced the Dingwall Trophy.

Howard “Pappy” Wood is counted among the early super stars of Manitoba curling. Born in Winnipeg in 1888, he and his three brothers took up curling with the encouragement of their father D.D. Wood, who was a member of the Thistle and president of the MCA in 1900-01.

Howard Wood joined the Thistle in 1907 and played in his first MCA Bonspiel in 1908. During the years 1910 to 1915, he played for the Carson and Braden teams at the Thistle. In 1916, he started to skip his own team.

By 1919, the Wood and the Braden teams had moved from the Thistle to the Granite.

The first Manitoban to earn the right to skip a local rink in the Brier was Jim Congalton, who beat the O.S. Barkwell rink from Saskatchewan in the 1927 western playoff. But, Congalton had to wait until 1930 until he made his appearance in the Canadian championship and that was with Wood’s team on which he played third. Congalton missed his chance to skip the first Manitoba team in the Brier because of the illness of his third man’s father. The Wood team substituted for the Congalton rink.

Congalton came from Guelph, Ontario, in 1905 and curled for Mac Braden’s Thistle and later Granite rinks from 1912 to 1914.

Wood, Cassidy and Braden have all been inducted into the Manitoba Curling Hall of Fame, as have Thistle club past members Malcolm “Mac” Campbell and E.J. “Mac” Rochon.

Rochon participated in the MCA Bonspiel from 1892 to 1917, winning 20 trophies over those years. He was a past-president and and honorary life member of the MCA and the Thistle club.

Campbell originally came to Winnipeg in 1880 from Clinton, Ontario. He died in 1939. The headline in the Free Press announcing his passing, read Famed Curler Laid to Rest.

Campbell was a charter member of the Thistle club and its 1897-99 president. He played in the first MCA Bonspiel in 1899 and annually in the bonspiel for the next 49 years. Campbell also played in the first British Consul (Manitoba provincial ) championship in 1925 and in four others. He served on the MCA consul for 24 years, which included a term as president in 1927-28.

“The building’s gone,” Thistle member Elaine Delannoy told the Winnipeg Sun as the fire raged on June 10, “but nobody can take away our memories.”