Search This Entire Blog

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

“The Finest Consignment of Curling Stones Ever…”


There should have been noise – lots of noise.  But, it was eerily silent.  Everything moved in slow motion.  Some of the crates burst open.  Red ones and blue ones toppled out.  Some rolled; some slid.  Finally all movement ceased.   Two hundred seventy-eight came to rest on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean 200 miles off the coast of Ireland.  Only curlers would mourn their fate.  The SS Athenia had been sunk by a torpedo fired from U-30 – a German U-boat.  World War II was only hours old.

My involvement in this saga began shortly after I joined the Detroit Curling Club in 1979, when I was told a story that new curling stones ordered by the club in the 1940s had been lost at sea.  “Sunk by a Bosch submarine in WWII.”  The story intrigued me and I wanted to uncover the details.  Unfortunately, the facts I found disproved the story.  On March 26, 2013, I wrote an article on (Click Here) that showed the timing of the club ordering the stones (June 1941), and receiving the stones (December 1941), and the lack of ships sunk in this time-frame did not match up to make the story viable.

That blog-posting led a member of the Wausau (WI) Curling Club to write a comment on the blog about a similar story in his club’s history.  That story was even easier to debunk since they actually ordered and received their stones after the end of WWII (same Blog:  Click Here).  The North American Curling News article of February 1, 1947, was the deciding proof.  The Wausau CC had ordered and received its stones after the end of the war.

I asked U.S. Curling News columnist David Garber to publish a request in the spring 2015 edition of the magazine asking if other clubs have had similar rumors or stories floating around their membership.  No one replied.

The story continued to attract my curiosity.  How and why could a couple of curling clubs have such similar stories of curling stones lost in WWII?  I started reading the history Webpages at various curling clubs throughout Ontario and the eastern USA.  I found one article at Toronto’s High Park Club: “… In 1939, 41 pairs of stones, weighing 41.5 lbs. each with black or white handles, were purchased for $36 per pair. The first sets of stones were lost when a German torpedo hit the Athenia, the ship carrying them. New ones arrived in time for the following year.”  We now had the name of a ship.


The SS Athenia, a passenger ship, was built in 1922 for the Donaldson Line of Glasgow.  She was a 13,465 gross ton ship, length 526 feet, beam 66 feet, one funnel, two masts, twin screw and a service speed of 15 knots.   On her maiden voyage she sailed from Glasgow to Liverpool, Quebec and Montreal and returned to Glasgow.  This became her normal route.   In March 1927 she was refitted to carry additional passengers.  The ship could now accommodate 314 cabin-, 310 tourist-, and 928 third-class passengers.    The cargo capacity was 1,000 tons.


The Athenia returned to Glasgow from Canada on August 28, 1939.  Over the next few days her cargo was unloaded.  It was mostly foodstuffs (grain, butter, eggs), but there was aluminum and copper as well, much needed for the manufacture of aircraft and munitions.  Approximately 880 tons were loaded to be transported to Canada. 

During the early morning hours of Friday, September 1, 1939 German troops invade Poland.  At 12:05 p.m., the Athenia is about to leave Glasgow.  She is bound for Belfast and Liverpool before crossing the Atlantic for Montreal.  On board are 735 people including 315 crew.  At 3:45, the United Kingdom sends “a severe warning” to the German government to withdraw from Poland.  The Athenia weighs anchor and sets course from Glasgow to Liverpool.  Another 136 passengers board at Belfast.  In preparation for wartime, she has been fitted with blackout curtains and low-wattage running lights.

Throughout Saturday, September 2, 1939, the UK and other countries try to persuade Germany to withdraw from Poland.  Italian dictator Mussolini proposes a five-power conference to settle the crisis.  At 4:30 p.m. the Athenia slips out of port at Liverpool and begins her 2,625-mile voyage to Canada.  She is now carrying a total of 1,102 passengers and 315 crew.

Trying to locate a detailed manifest of the cargo on the Athenia has been quite difficult.  Three history books (written in 1959, 2009 and 2012) about the Athenia have stated: “Her cargo amounted to 888 tons, of which 472 were simply bricks.  Among the odd items were 50 pairs of curling stones, and a collection of schoolbooks for Toronto schoolchildren.”   The two newer books nearly quote verbatim the 1959 book.  I have never found a published cargo manifest.

Searching through newspaper archives, I found this article published in The Ottawa Journal on September 8, 1939.  A similar article appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Now we know there were at least 50 stones on the Athenia, perhaps 50 pairs.  Maybe more, with the references to clubs in London and Toronto.  I figured it was time for a shot-in-the-dark – I sent an e-mail to the current offices of curling stone manufacturer Andrew Kay & Co. asking if they knew of the loss of stones with the sinking of the Athenia.  I was fortunate to have piqued the interest of James Wyllie, who – as I now understand – is secretary and a director of the company.  He told me that his father would have been involved in shipments in 1939.  I also have learned that his grandfather had taken over stewardship of the company from Thomas & Andrew Kay in the late 1800s.

Mr. Wyllie spent hours going through old records.  His findings have solved the mystery with all the proof anyone could ask for.

I had also sent e-mails to the Toronto High Park Club, the Lindsay CC and the London CC to inquire what type of information they have to back up claims that their ordered stones were lost.  Their replies also helped to uncover the truth.

On Sunday, September 3, 1939, at 3:40 a.m. the Athenia passes Inishtrahull, an island off the northwestern corner of Ireland.  Poland has been under attack for over 48 hours.  At 8 a.m. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sends his ultimatum:  Germany must stop all aggressive action in Poland by 11 a.m. British Time.  At 11:14, having received no word from Germany, Chamberlain announces in a radio speech that France and the United Kingdom are now at war with Germany.  At 11:15 on the Athenia, Second Radio Officer Donald McRae picks up news of the UK’s declaration of war from the radio station at Valentia, Ireland.  Captain James Cook of the Athenia draws up a notice to inform the passengers that war has been declared.  The passengers crowd around the notice board to read the announcement.  The news is greeted in silence. 

Meanwhile, German Commodore Karl Dönitz signals his U-boat crews: “U-boats to make war on merchant shipping in accordance with operations order.”   At 2 p.m. on the U-30, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, 26-year-old commander of the 650-ton submarine, receives signal confirmation that the UK has declared war on Germany.  He gives orders for the U-boat to make for its operational area.

At 7 p.m., Lemp is on the submarine’s conning tower as a Force 4 wind is whipping up the waves around U-30.  He and his artillery officer see the silhouette of an approaching big ship.  They wonder if it is one of the British armed merchant cruisers that they have been warned to be on the lookout for.  On the Athenia, Captain Cook joins the first-class passengers for dinner.  At 7:15 Lemp orders the submarine to dive, and the klaxon sounds ‘battle stations’.  He is still unsure of the identity of the approaching ship but thinks it suspicious that she is showing no lights even though dusk is now falling.  Lemp decides to attack.

On the Athenia’s deck at 7:38, a group of children are singing that summer’s big hit, “South of the Border, Down Mexico Way.”  On the U-30 Lemp gives the order to fire the torpedoes, 1,600 yards from the Athenia.  Two torpedoes miss the Athenia completely.  Another is faulty and is stuck in its tube. The fourth finds its mark.  It explodes in the Athenia’s No. 5 hold and against the engine-room bulkhead.  Its impact claims the first victims of the war in the West.  Edith Lustig is blown overboard by the force of the explosion.  She is never seen again.  Ten-year-old Margaret Hayworth is mortally wounded by a flying metal splinter. 

Among the documents uncovered by Mr. Wyllie we find a cablegram to Andrew Kay & Co. from the sales representative in Toronto inquiring about the status of his upcoming shipments of curling stones.  On August 28, 1939, the company replied via cablegram: “Mr. H.H. Chisholm:  London, Toronto and Lindsay orders sailing Athenia Friday Insure War Risk.”  On September 4, the company wrote a letter to Mr. Chisholm that said in part: “… your orders for London, Toronto and Lindsay went forward from here, after inspection by Mr. Faulds, for shipment on the ill-fated SS Athenia…  We now learn that the Athenia was this morning sunk off the coast of Scotland, and we regret that the finest consignment of curling stones that have ever yet left our factory has gone with it.”  Mr. Wyllie also found the three bills of lading:

London Ontario CC   £201/12/-  (old British money)
                16 cases.  Each case contained 3 pairs Curling Stones
•             48 pairs Blue Hone Ailsa Curling Stones 40 lbs.
•             5-inch cupping on both sides
•             Countersinking for square-headed bolts
•             White Metal Handles
•             Vulcanite Handle Inserts

Toronto High Park CC   £172/40/-
                Cases Nos. 1-13 contained 3 pairs Curling Stones
                Cases No. 14 contained 2 pairs Curling Stones
•             41 pair Blue Hone Ailsa Curling Stones 40 lbs.
•             5-inch cupping on both sides
•             Countersinking for square-headed bolts
•             White metal handles
•             Vulcanite Handle Inserts

Lindsay CC   £210/-/-
                Cases Nos. 1-16 contained 3 pairs Curling Stones
                Case No. 17 contained 2 pairs Curling Stones
•             50 pair Red Hone Ailsa Curling Stones 40 lbs.
•             5-inch cupping on both sides
•             Countersinking for square-headed bolts
•             White metal handles
•             Vulcanite Handle Inserts

The total being:
          278 Andrew Kay & Co. Excelsior Ailsa Curling Stones with handles
·         47 cases.  Weighing nearly 12,000 lbs. or 6 tons.
·         1939 Value – £585/12/- or approximately $2,550.00 USD ($23,740.00 today’s value).  (This does not take shipping or sales commissions into account).

At the curling stone factory there were at least two other orders that did not make it onto the Athenia.  The Hamilton Thistle Club had a 34-pair order and the Toronto CC had a 50-pair order in process.  These orders were shipped in October and December 1939.

I would like to point out that this was a watershed moment in the evolution of the game.  The Toronto Curling Club was the first club in Ontario to provide matched club stones for its members in the 1937-38 season.  These matched stones had 5-inch cupping (the running surface) on both sides since they would be used on refrigerated ice only.  There was no longer a need for one side of the stone to have a smaller running surface (3-1/2 to 4 inches) used for outdoor or natural ice which becomes “soft” or “heavy” in warmer weather.  Secondly, the countersinking for square-headed bolts was new.  Previous bolts had round heads and were susceptible to loosening handles during play.  Interesting that today we have switched back to the round-headed bolt.  Hmmm?

At 7:45 p.m., the Athenia’s radio operator makes contact with a Norwegian freighter which is only 40 miles away.  The U-30 surfaces at 8:15. From the conning tower the crew can easily see the stricken Athenia.  With a jolt, Lemp realizes that instead of an armed merchant cruiser, he has torpedoed an unarmed passenger liner.  Lemp later claimed that the fact that the Athenia was steering a zigzag course which seemed to be well off the normal shipping routes made him believe she was either a troopship or an armed merchant cruiser, and when he realized his error, he took the first steps to conceal the facts by omitting to make an entry in the submarine's log, and swearing his crew to secrecy. 

The chief radio officer on the Athenia continues to send out SOS messages.  He makes contact with the American freighter City of Flint and a luxury yacht – both are on their way to help.  By 9:15, all but two of the lifeboats have been lowered.  At 10 p.m., Captain Cook is informed that all passengers are off the ship.  The wireless room sends out its last message that they are abandoning ship.

Just after midnight the Norwegian freighter arrives on the scene to help rescue survivors.  Two Royal Navy destroyers have arrived at the scene by 4:30 a.m.  The City of Flint arrives in the early morning hours.  The Athenia stays afloat for 14 hours, slipping below the surface at 10:40 a.m.



The German government vehemently denied sinking the Athenia.  It blamed Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty, for sinking the Athenia in order to draw the USA into the war.   The truth did not emerge until January 1946 at the Nuremberg trials, during the case against Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, when a statement by Dönitz was read in which he admitted that Athenia had been torpedoed by U-30 and that every effort had been made to cover it up, including ordering Lemp to alter his log book.  Lemp died on May 9, 1941, when the U-boat he commanded was captured.


During the weeks and months that followed the sinking of the Athenia, many newspapers from coast to coast reworded the original article about the lost curling stones.  It was used as filler.  Many of the papers were in cities where the readership probably didn’t even know about the sport of curling.  Examples:  Tucson, AZ; San Bernardino, CA; Brownsville, TX; Shamokin, PA.   Here is one from the Marshall News Messenger in Marshall, Texas:


On September 20, 1939, Andrew Kay & Co. dispatched a letter to Mr. Chisholm in Toronto with the schedule on how they planned to replace the stones lost at sea.  The Lindsay CC order would ship in mid-December 1939.  The London CC stones would ship three weeks later, and the Toronto High Park stones would ship in another three weeks.  This information matches the High Park Club records, which state that the new stones were received in February 1940. 

In the summer of 2017, Mr. David Mearns, an experienced shipwreck hunter, announced he had found what he believes to be the site of the SS Athenia in 650 feet of water.  He said divers had not yet visited the site.

It was a big loss for curlers to lose 278 curling stones, but we should never forget the 112 people who died that day from the sinking of the SS Athenia or the millions that died during the war years that followed.


© 2018 Angus MacTavish

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

When The Detroit Curling Club Hosted The Brier


The Detroit Curling Club has had a long and proud association with the Ontario Curling Association.  Three of the Club’s members have been past-presidents and at least two DCC members were designated Life Members of the OCA.  That is common knowledge to our American and Canadian friends.  But, they probably do not realize that the DCC played a role in the creation of the Canadian curling championship.  It dates to 1925 when the MacDonald Brier Tankard was offered as an extra event to the annual Winnipeg bonspiel.  The company offered to present a trophy and a prize which would include a trip to Toronto, Montreal and other eastern points for the winning rink with the object of fostering the granite game and inducing more frequent curling visits between eastern and western Canada.

The winning rink that first year arrived in Montreal on February 23, 1925. They headed to Quebec, Ottawa and Toronto.  According to the report, the weather turned mild and ice conditions were poor.  The report stated: “The ice for the Toronto games was in very poor shape for curling owing to the mild weather, but play took place at the Granite Club in the afternoon and evening.”  The Toronto organizers had planned on four days of curling between Winnipeg, Toronto, and Hamilton rinks, but owing to soft ice it was decided to pay Detroit a visit.  The Detroit club was one of the few curling clubs which enjoyed artificial (compressor made) ice.  The DCC extended a hearty invitation.

Arriving in Detroit, the champions received a very enthusiastic greeting. The visiting teams found the local hosts on hand early at the new Book-Cadillac Hotel to welcome them.  DCC President Richard Watson and J.M. Kerr gave the boys a ride all over the big city, which included a visit to Belle Isle and the Ford Motor Works.  Lunch and dinner were served at the clubhouse where the Detroiters have a splendid ice-making plant which was installed in 1924 at a cost of $28,000.  The DCC members enjoyed curling from December 1, 1924 until April 1, 1925.  The club reported much added interest in the game, especially compared with the increased number of playing days possible after the artificial ice plant was installed. 

Afternoon and evening games were played by the Winnipeg champions.  The first was a win for the Detroit’s Ontario Tankard rink, composed of F.W. Kerr, R. Kerr, J.M. Kerr and Ben Guiney as skip.  The evening game resulted in a victory for the Winnipeg team. 

The MacDonald Brier Trophy winners the following year (1926) were the last of the Manitoba champions to travel East before play for the MacDonald Brier Tankard became the Canadian men’s championship.  The Detroit Curling Club was visited again this year.  The 1926 Brier Tankard champs spent 24 hours in Detroit: curling, sightseeing and experiencing general enjoyment.

The 1st MacDonald Brier Tankard as the Canadian men’s national championship, was held March 1-3, 1927 at the Granite Club in Toronto.

So, now you know the rest of the story…The Detroit Curling Club, the only USA curling club, hosted a portion of The MacDonald Brier “Minus 2” and “Minus 1”.

I’m fair puckled!  Angus MacTavish

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Detroit Curling Club was once an Auto Plant

May 15, 1913.  Studebaker designates The Club as Plant #14.  The Studebaker Corporation has leased the Detroit Curling Club building on Forest Avenue as a storage warehouse for radiators, coils, springs and other supplies.  This is the fourteenth building that the Studebaker Corporation has acquired in the capital of automobiledom.




This arrangement was only for the non-curling months, since we know there was curling in the building in the winter of 1913-14.

Neither rhyme nor reason.
Angus MacTavish


Saturday, February 17, 2018

How Corny is a Corn Broom?

There is no corn in a curling corn broom.  The fibers in a corn broom are from a variety of sorghum.  This became such a popular broom making material in the early 1800s that people started calling the plant:  Broom-Corn.  The pictures below show a sorghum plant (about 10 feet tall); harvested fibers waiting to go into a broom and a finished curling broom.

 



There were two basic styles of corn broom.  The first has a skirt or apron of shorter fibers.  The apron serves two purposes:  1) to keep the lower fibers together during the power-stroke across the ice and 2) to act as a spring to return the lower fibers to center before the next power-stroke on the ice (see photo).



The second type of corn broom did not have an apron but rather a strap of leather or plastic inside the center of the bundle of fibers.  This center “spring” serves the same functions as the skirt.  Additionally, a string or band surrounding the fibers also acts to keep the entire bundle together during the sweeping process.


The sound made by these brooms was both musical and magical.  I am sorry that the youngsters learning the game today (and within the last 20 years) will never experience an arena full of the sounds of straw and leather slapping the ice or the poetry of seeing two sweepers in perfect harmony.  I found one video on YouTube that has the sound of one broom – try to imagine 12 or more brooms banging away at once.  At YouTube you can search for “The fine art of using a corn broom to curl” or Click-Here.


During the 1960s and 70s The Club purchased corn brooms to be used by guests and new members.  As these brooms aged, one by one they found their way out of The Club and into the trunk of many a member’s car – they were handy for clearing the snow off the car!  I know the location of only one of these brooms, but I would bet that there are a few more out there.



Hurry Hard!

Angus MacTavish
Knight of The Royal Order of The Broom

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Can Curling Help! The Beatles

Almost fifty-three years ago (1965), the Beatles’ movie Help! was released.  It was a whacking film about?…   about?…   well, I don’t really know.  It starred the Beatles and it was sure to be a box office success.  The important portion of the movie to us is the curling scene.  More accurately, the Beatles goof around with curling stones and brooms.  George slides a curling stone towards John and Ringo who comically chase after it and sweep.  Paul meanwhile appears to be more interested tidying up the ice.




Nearby, a mad scientist is preparing a bomb inside a curling stone and sets a timer.  He offers the ticking and smoking curling stone to George who delivers it toward Ringo.  As Ringo sweeps, George realizes it’s a bomb – “A fiendish thingy!”  He, John and Paul drag Ringo away from the bomb and run.  The bomb explodes leaving a gaping hole in the ice and a swimmer appears – asking for directions to the White Cliffs of Dover. 

It doesn’t connect at the dots…

Just a little confused,
Angus MacT.



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Overheard at the Old Rookery One Night

One of the etiquette rules of curling essentially states “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all”.   I remember a night, a long time ago, when the keen but cranky old skip, Cameron McManus, a true son of The Land of Cakes, lost a game owing to the bad play of one member of his rink.

McManus turning on the under-performing player with a sardonic grin, the Scotchman remarked:  “Eh, mon, you’ll ne’er mak’ a curler in this world and you’ll ne’er see ice in the next”.

Old nimble-chops,
Angus MacTavish

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Under The Lights

Did you curl one night this past week?  Were you warm enough?  Could you see the entire rink with ease?  One-hundred thirty-one years ago, the members of The Club had it a little more difficult.


Tuesday December 21, 1886.  The evening was a chilly 30 degrees; winds out of the NW with light snow falling.  DCC members were preparing for the first game of curling ever played in Detroit under electric light.


The City of Detroit had contracted the Brush Electric Light Company to build 122 electric light towers to illuminate Detroit.  These towers were 150 feet high with a ring of electric arc lights at the top.  Their lights were as bright as the moon; sometimes called "moonlight towers."  One of these towers was located at a corner of the Athletic Field near Woodward Avenue and Canfield Street.  

 Moonlight Tower circa 1900
Detroit – Old City Hall

This night it was a hotly contested battle.  To those who are initiated into the spirit of the royal old Scotch sport, it was an intensely interesting spectacle.  The play of rink No. 1 was directed by John Williamson, while his son, Robert Williamson, called the shots for rink No. 2.   The former’s men were C.T. Cole, J.H Kenn and A.W. Baxter; while the latter’s were J. Feuder, George O. Begg and T. Williamson. 

Rink No. 1 found itself entitled to that designation by defeating No. 2 by a score of 16 to 13, the game lasting three hours.

And so, to bed, perchance to dream,
Angus MacTavish