Ready, set, curl!

Published 9:06 am Friday, January 23, 2009

MAPLETON — Curling is embedded in the history of Mapleton. When a wave of Scottish immigrants settled in the Mapleton area they began curling on ponds and lakes, transforming the town into the center of curling in southern Minnesota.

With clubs in Owatonna, Mankato and Mapleton, the sport has attracted men, women and children to venture onto a sheet of ice to throw rocks.

The Heather Curling Club is known as the oldest curling club in southern Minnesota and its history dates back to 1857 when Scottish immigrants began to move into the area, according to Tim Solie, a club member and resident curling historian.

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“A lot of it is family orientated,” Solie said. “When I was a kid my parents played and we’d go down and watch and have a hamburger. It’s a lifelong sport.”

Solie has curled since he was 10 years old and enjoys the sport because any one can play it, and it is involves a level of sportsmanship that isn’t seen in other sports.

Each match begins and ends with a handshake. Tournaments, better known as bonspiels in the curling community, bring together people from across the country for a time of competitive fellowship.

“The people are just great,” Solie said. “It’s not necessarily people you would associate with normally.”

The bonspiels at the Heather Curling Club draw people from Minnesota in addition to people from Wisconsin and even Nebraska. The bonspiels have allowed club member Dana Krengel an opportunity to become friends with a group of curlers from Centerville, Wis.

“We’ve got a lot of people from Centerville that we’ve gotten to know real well,” Krengel said. “Our clubs are similar size and same background. We’ve played golf out there and gone out there just to visit.”

The Heather Curling Club was built in 1904 and has had renovations over the years. The club has 80-100 male members and 40-50 female members, Krengel said.

Curling has a special place in Mapleton, not only because it has been a staple, but also because of the youth program the club maintains.

“Curling really fills a void for some kids,” Solie said. “They want to do something, but the opportunities aren’t there.”

As part of the physical education curriculum in Mapleton, the high school spends a unit on curling at the club every winter.

“We’ve got an excellent youth program,” Solie said. “At some point if you’re going to Maple River you’re going to get curling.”

Larry Barott helps run the youth program at the club and holds time for younger players three times a week.

“The target area is fourth-grade and up,” Barott said. “Once you get to high school age they usually form their own team.”

Barott also enjoys the family aspect of curling and grew up curling with his father.

“What I like to watch is there is an age where the son will curl with his dad,” Barott said. “And then he wants to play with his friends.”

The Heather Curling Club has even produced some top talent in the sport. Pete Annis grew up in Mapleton and won the 2008 U.S. Curling Championship with teammates John Dunlop, Craig Brown and Rich Ruohenen.

The unique aspect of curling is that many of the world’s best play in bonspiels across the country with regular players. It is sort of like playing golf with Tiger Woods, Solie explained.

“You can take the best team in the U.S. and you can find out where those guys are going to be and you can take three new people and possibly compete against the best team in the U.S.,” Solie said. “It’s so unlike any other sports, it’s really unique that you can play against the best in the sport.”