Mystery uncurled The secrets behind one of the Olympics' most fascinating events are tucked away in Northbrook

  • Jennifer Geake throws a granite "rock" during competition at the Chicago Curling Club.

    Jennifer Geake throws a granite "rock" during competition at the Chicago Curling Club. Courtesy of Chris Neseman/Chicago Curling Club

  • Tri Banh throws a granite "rock" during competition at the Chicago Curling Club.

    Tri Banh throws a granite "rock" during competition at the Chicago Curling Club. Courtesy of Chris Neseman/Chicago Curling Club

  • Anthony Giannini throws a granite "rock" during competition at the Chicago Curling Club.

    Anthony Giannini throws a granite "rock" during competition at the Chicago Curling Club. Courtesy of Chris Neseman/Chicago Curling Club

  • The Chicago Curling Club in Northbrook will be installing a new ice surface for the first time since the 1970s.

    The Chicago Curling Club in Northbrook will be installing a new ice surface for the first time since the 1970s. Courtesy of Will Hsiung

  • This is the utility room the club is building: The concrete slab will house the new cooling and dehumidification system while the shed will house the rest of the ice making tools.

    This is the utility room the club is building: The concrete slab will house the new cooling and dehumidification system while the shed will house the rest of the ice making tools. Courtesy of Ryan Murphy

 
 
Posted6/18/2020 6:00 AM

Supporters of a hidden Northbrook gem are using this summer to ensure it sparkles for many winters to come.

The Chicago Curling Club, located at 555 Dundee Road near the intersection of Skokie Boulevard, is shielded from street view by a body shop and a car wash.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That the tucked-away club has been a haven for Chicago area curlers since it was founded in 1948 might come as news to even some longtime residents.

"We have people who walk into our facility who say they have lived in Northbrook for 30 years and never knew we existed," said Ryan Murphy, 31, a 10-year member and the club's full-time ice technician. "They always say 'You've been around here for how long?' It's pretty surprising."

The Chicago Curling Club is undergoing its most extensive renovation since the early 1970s, when the ice-making equipment was last updated. The makeover is being financed through a two-year, $1 million fundraising effort called The Campaign for the Next Generation.

Funds have been raised in conjunction with Second City Curling, a 501(c) (3) organization comprised of CCC members who donated their equity in the club. Second City Curling is dedicated to promoting junior curling in northern Illinois.

Murphy said the ice-making renovation is expected to be completed well before the season, which typically runs October through April. That's when the approximately 300 CCC members compete in various leagues on the rink's four curling sheets.

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The CCC offers men's and women's leagues and mixed doubles leagues. Also, between 10-14 "Learn to Curl" sessions for beginners are offered each season. These two-hour sessions give newcomers a taste of the sport.

The location also welcomes corporate team-bonding outings, club president Greg Sorenson said.

Additionally, the CCC hosts several bonspiels per season. Bonspiels are curling tournaments consisting of many games held over the course of a few days, usually weekends. Afterward, players congregate in the club's spectator room or "warm" room, which includes a full bar, according to Sorenson.

Such postgame camaraderie has been a hallmark of curling for generations, dating back hundreds of years to the sport's Scottish origins.

History

Curling in the Chicago area dates back to the mid-19th century.

According to a Chicago Tribune article cited by founding member Fred Duncombe, who co-authored "The History of the Chicago Curling Club," the sport was sometimes played on the frozen Chicago River in the 1850s.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Chicago Curling Club of Northbrook was established by a group of north-suburban enthusiasts, led by Hughston McBain. He was the president and chairman of Marshall Field & Company from 1943-1958.

A longtime member of Indian Hills Country Club in Winnetka, McBain and colleague Dar Curtis participated for decades in what was then exclusively an outdoor sport. Curling sheets were mostly attached to north suburban country clubs like Indian Hills, Exmoor in Highland Park and Glenview in Golf

Once Illinois temperatures dipped below freezing, these country clubs made ice sheets. According to Duncombe, tents usually were erected to shield the playing surface from direct sunlight. Canvas windshields were often used to protect the players and the ice itself from wind and snow.

Of course, the weather affected game play. While today's elite curlers compete on pristine ice sheets, yesteryear's outdoor players dealt with bumpy, uneven ice, often in bitter cold.

With approximately 350 players competing in the Chicago Curling District by the late 1940s, McBain, Curtis and their fellow enthusiasts set out to build an indoor club.

According to club history, private funds were raised over the course of nine months in 1948. Organizers sold shares to raise $125,000. Those shareholders became the CCC's first members.

The group purchased an old lumberyard in Northbrook and construction began. The roof of the icehouse itself was formed from army quonset huts made of corrugated steel.

The first granite "rocks" were thrown on New Year's Day 1949. The Chicago Curling Club has been a centerpiece of Midwestern the sport ever since.

Renovation

The bulk of the original ice-making system has been replaced only once, in the early 1970s, Murphy said. The nearly 50-year-old setup had grown less and less dependable over the last several seasons.

"My understanding from Ryan is that the previous hardware was held together with bubble gum and tape," Sorenson said, half joking.

"I'd say some part of the system has broken down each of the last five years," Murphy acknowledged. "It was costing us money every year."

The old hardware was removed earlier this month. A new utility room is being built. Later this month, new refrigeration, heating and dehumidifying machinery are scheduled for installation.

The new system will make ice-making more energy efficient. Previously, Murphy would fire up the compressor around Labor Day to get the chillers going. He said the ice-making process took six weeks.

"This should take that down to just a couple of weeks," Sorenson said.

The continuing capital campaign will eventually cover the cost of new air conditioning for the spectator room as well as new asphalt for the parking lot.

Future

Like every business in Illinois, the Chicago Curling Club is closely monitoring the state's reopening plan. The club would not be allowed to operate at full capacity until Phase Four of the Restore Illinois plan is reached.

Members have formed a committee to establish new protocols for the upcoming season, but it's wait and see for the moment.

"The United States Curling Association has come up with a set of best-practice recommendations for what curling would look like," Sorenson said. "We're trying to nail down what happens when you come into the club. Do we have to wear masks? Will we have to resituate our warm room area and try social distancing after the game? We're looking at all of it."

Though the club is dealing with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, members won't have to worry about ice quality for a very long time.

That's important because ice-quality demands have increased significantly in the last 10-15 years as players watch the Olympics and other televised international competitions, Murphy said.

Today's elite players concern themselves with matters Hughston McBain could not have imagined: a half-degree change in ice temperature; ice leveled to one thousandth of an inch; minor changes in the indoor humidity level. The renovated icehouse will allow the Chicago Curling Club better control over such factors that affect game play.

"This system will allow us to build the ice we want to build, that the current generation of players is looking for," Murphy said. "Our old system couldn't do that. We had really good ice, but we didn't have that top, top tier ice. What I'm hoping is this will allow us to make that next jump in ice quality.

"But most importantly, this renovation really solidifies us to have a good future in our location. The big piece of it is being able to support this club for the next 30, 40, 50 years."

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