By Jim Force, special to Wausau Pilot & Review
When the Wausau Curling Club hosted the U.S. Men’s National Championships at Marathon Park in 1976, it put Wausau on the map as a leader in club curling in the United States.
And it was just one of numerous innovations and “firsts” the club has achieved over the nearly 100 years of its existence.
“It was an enormous honor for our club to be chosen to host the most important event of the year,” says long time curler and former club president Peter Hessert about the 1976 event.
“At the time, curling was not an Olympic sport, so this was the top competitive event in the country. We put curling ice in the Marathon Park hockey building and installed bleachers in order to seat spectators. The club really went out to host a first-class event.”
Today, as one watches a curling match in the comfort of the state-of-the-art Wausau Curling Center, it’s hard to envision this hearty winter sport being played out-of-doors, or in the drafty confines of buildings at Marathon Park.
Yet that’s exactly where it’s come from.
About a century ago—give or take a few years—a group of Wausau sportsmen started sliding stones and keeping score on various ice surfaces in the area, including the frozen Wisconsin River. Gary Gisselman of the Marathon County Historical Society suggests that business and community leaders with Scottish heritage may have brought the game to town with them.
No doubt to get a more reliable surface, curlers moved to ice on the tennis courts at the old YMCA on Third St. in the early 1920s. Natural ice was used and the game was very much dependent on the weather. Later, there are reports of the game moving to the Rothschild Pavilion.
Then, as buildings were erected in Marathon Park to host the fair and other activities, the curlers negotiated with officials to put down two curling rinks on the dirt floor of one of the cow barns in the park and establish a curling center.
The official history of the early years of Wausau Curling—called House, Hack, and Hogline—describes the surroundings: “The new curling barn ran east-to-west with two sheets of ice separated by a row of cattle stanchions and two rows of posts supporting the roof. The viewing wall was built in sections with old storm windows placed horizontally…(curling) stones were kept on benches at the end of each sheet and brooms were suspended, straw upright, through the cattle nose rings in the walls.”
The document goes on to describe how club members worked feverishly to convert the building from cow barn to curling rink as winter approached. The stanchions had to be removed, the dirt surface graded and compacted, the warming room rebuilt, and ice laid down.
“All this work was done by volunteers providing labor and materials…such activity and dedication initially assured the survival of curling in Wausau. It still does.”
Truer words were never spoken, in the view of Randy Brandner, current club president.
“The Wausau Curling Club has prospered over the years because of our volunteers,” he says. “And we will thrive going forward because of them.”
That dedication to the game is reflected in the numerous firsts the club and individual members have achieved over the years.
High school curling started here in the 1930s, and Wausau won the state high school curling championship in 1959. Altogether, local high school students have won more than 20 state championships and the logos of Wausau East and West, Mosinee, and D.C. Everest are embedded in the curling club ice. The annual state high school curling championships are located here.
In the 1940s, needing more room, the club negotiated with the county for a new four-sheet building that ran north and south, and housed livestock during the fair, much as the previous building did.
In 1948, the Wausau Highlanders curling group was formed and became the one of the largest women’s curling associations in the country.
It has become traditional that the U.S. and Scottish women curlers exchange visits every five years. In 1986 Wausau’s Dorie Eberlein was captain of the U.S. women’s curling association team from the United States to Scotland.
“We traveled by bus over 1, 800 miles, in little Scotland,” she remembers. “We were hosted in homes as well as hotels and ‘toasted’ as royalty, along with the queen.” Wausau hosted the Scottish women in 1991 and will again in 2022.
Improvements and events
The club installed refrigerated ice in 1951 by placing new piping and compressor in a separate building.
The Lee Duncan rink won the state curling championship in 1957.
The club hosted the women’s national championships in 1959, and again in 1977 and 1982. In 1975, the local Robarge and Collins rink won the national mixed curling crown, and the Robarge-Shannon rink repeated in 1979. Sandy Robarge went undefeated to win the women’s nationals in 1977.
In 1988, curling was added to the Olympics as a demonstration sport, and that may have sparked interest among local curlers in hosting a Badger State Winter Games, similar to the summer games held each year in Madison. Local curlers Bob See and Doug Seeber were instrumental in forming a local committee that convinced Badger Games officials that Wausau was the logical site for the winter competition. Curling, Nordic and downhill skiing, and youth hockey were the original sports.
The curling competition has been held here every year since. There were more milestones ahead.
Wausau curlers Marcia and Cal Tillisch were on the mixed national championship team in 1991 and 1993. Marcia Tillisch was the lead curler on the women’s national championship team in 1995, which finished fifth at the world competition.
Matt Thums qualified as a member of the US national wheelchair curling team, competing in the world’s in Scotland in 2018. He’ll be the “skip” of the U.S. team for the Paralympics in 2022.
And in 2012, the Wausau Curling Club opened its new curling center on Curling Way. With eight sheets (or lanes) of ice, it is the largest privately owned curling club in the country. Generous contributions from local foundations, businesses, families and individuals made it possible. Last May, USA Curling held its national championships here under strict COVID precautions.
With at least 100 years of curling behind it, the Wausau Curling Club prepares to open its new season in late October.
And for those who want to learn to play, a Learn to Curl open house will be held from 9 a.m to noon on Saturday, Oct. 16, at the Wausau Curling Center, 1920 Curling Way. Equipment and instruction will be provided. Masks are encouraged for those vaccinated and strongly encouraged for those who are not. Cost is $10 for those 18 and older; children no charge.
Pre-register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling Lori Ziegel at 715-432-6289.
Onsite registration starts at 8 a.m.