After sixty years of fun and frolic, a piece of Leduc County history might be gone, but it is not forgotten. The Conjuring Lake Curling Club closed it's doors in January of 2011, and the building, affectionately known as "The Strawpile", was demolished less than two months later.
Five generations of people walked through the doors of the Strawpile, enjoyed themselves and gained a real sense of community through sixty years of cold Alberta winters. But that was just how they liked it…cold, that is.
A recently published book about the Conjuring Lake Curling Club details, amongst other things, the lengths the club went to in the early days to keep their precious sheets of ice in the Strawpile at the right temperature. But that is getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let's begin at the beginning in 1953…
Local resident and curling aficionado Bill Rath, and some of his neighbours, decided that it would be a good idea to build a curling rink closer to home, on a 3.03 acre parcel of land that already housed the Conjuring Lake Community Hall. The land was originally owned by Rudolph Joseph and Nora Elizabeth Halat, who gave the fledgling club a 99 year lease at a rate of $5.00/year for the little spot 13 miles south of Calmar.
With lumber being deemed as too expensive, the building committee, consisting of Bill Rath, Ed Sych, Tom Bell, John Pahl, and Berwyn Pederson, began cutting trees and standing them in post holes to frame the walls, piling up straw bales to be used as the walls themselves, stuffing the cracks between the bales with sawdust from a local mill to hold the water in when it was flooded, and using loose slough grass hay for a roof. It was then agreed to purchase Ernie Ferster's "shack" for $35.00 to be used as a lean-to reception area for the rink. Hence, the Conjuring Lake Curling Club was born.
And it didn't take long for the building to earn the nickname that stuck with it for the next sixty years. At 150 feet long and 8 feet high, with a single sheet of ice inside, it was a pretty impressive looking pile of baled straw, which is obviously what a straw buyer thought when he offered to buy "the strawpile" that was sitting alongside of Hwy 795. One can only imagine his surprise when he was denied the sale by club members who informed him that the "strawpile" was actually their curling rink! From that day forward the rink was always referred to as "The Strawpile".
Due to the nature of the building and the fluctuating temperatures during a typical Alberta winter, it could be a real challenge to keep the sheet frozen and in good shape for the eighteen teams that turned up to use the rink that first year. A times, if it was warm and the ice was "sweaty", snow would have to be shoveled onto the surface of the rink and then shoveled off again before the sheet could be used.
The water used to flood the rink for the first several years was pumped directly from Conjuring Creek onto the floor of the building. The water from the creek was quite dark so it was decided that if the price of the bags stayed at $5.00 or under, powdered milk would be used to whiten the ice, and an old tea kettle was used to boil the water and then sprinkle on the top sheet of ice to create the stippling pattern so that the curling rocks would spin. In between games the lights would be turned off to try and keep the rink cold enough that the ice would remain frozen, and then before the next game could start, the sheet would have to be scraped and swept of all the melted drips and loose hay that fell down from the ceiling during the last game. It was also not unusual to see a curler "sweeping" a mouse down the rink, as they came scurrying out from between the bales in the warmer weather.
For several years the ice makers couldn't figure out the mystery of why there was an oily film that gathered on top of the ice every year, until they discovered that Conjuring Creek was being used as a beaver's bathroom. After that they hauled water in from Wizard Lake to create the rink.
In the early years the club used whatever they already had to stock the club, or they made it from scratch. Originally they only had one set of curling rocks, but many of the curlers had their own, so they would tie tassels onto the rocks during each game to keep track of which rocks belonged to whom. The rings at "Home" at the end of the sheet were hand painted into the ice, which caused a problem in warmer weather as the paint would leech through and create an uneven surface. The outlines for the rings were made by using a wooden board with saw blade teeth attached along it's measure length, and then weighted with a curling stone and dragged in a circle to scratch a template into the ice so the circles could be painted. The first club President built all the stools for the club, and there was no such thing as specialized curling shoes in those days. People wore their four-buckle overshoes, which were their work shoes, and just washed the dirt off them at the door before going in to curl.
The 1956/57 season saw the original straw bales and sawdust enclosed between wooden walls, and at that time the building was expanded and a second sheet of ice was added, along with a brand new metal roof. Things were updated and modernized over the years, with plastic rings replacing the hand painted ones to create the House, more rocks were purchased from the Calmar Curling Club when they sold off their old rocks, water was hauled in on trucks from Calmar to flood the rinks, and the "shack" was replaced with a heated lounge and bar within the new building.
The one thing that never changed though, was the sense of community that belonged to the Conjuring Lake Curling Club. One of the original members, Andrew Belozer, recalls that it was a "real gathering place", where entire families, sometimes three generations all at one time, would come to visit with friends and neighbours, celebrate important moments in time, and fit in a game or two of curling in between everything else.
As time has a habit of doing, it marched on, and in January of 2011, due to a number of reasons, Conjuring Lake Curling Club officially closed it's doors on one of the last natural ice curling rinks in Canada. The land was sold, and on March 13, 2011, The Strawpile was demolished and swept into history.
A mural was created by local artist Jeanine McIntosh, on a wall in the Calmar Curling Club that commemorates the Conjuring Lake Curling Club. Hanging on another wall in the same building is Ed Glassman's curling broom, which was the first broom he used at The Strawpile.
A group of former Conjuring Lake Curling Club members, headed by their last President Blake Bartlett, put their energies and talents together over this last year and created a book about the club. Unofficially titled "The Strawpile", the book holds extensive hand written records right from the first year the club began, interesting remembrances, facts and anecdotes, as well as fascinating photographs that document The Strawpile and all it's history from beginning to end. Copies of the book are being donated to libraries throughout Leduc City and County.
A "farewell party" was held for the club at Telford Hall on August 26th of this year. It saw over 100 people gather together to remember the good times that were had at The Strawpile, and to introduce the book that would mark it's place in history. County Councillor Betty Glassman took the opportunity to speak a few words at the celebration stating that, "This book is a wonderful memory of the curling club. It was an exceptional project to be undertaken by such a small group of people. I used to curl there as a younger person and I remember those days." The following week in Council Chambers, the group presented Betty, on behalf of Leduc County, with a framed print of the mural that hangs in Calmar. They stated they wanted to specifically present it to Betty as her father had passed away recently and he was one of the original members of the club, and it is his broom that is mounted on the wall in Calmar.
Several mementos and artifacts from the club were also donated to the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in Red Deer, who, at some point in time in the future, stated that they would feature a display of the antique items donated by the club.
The building may no longer be standing, but memories of the club will continue to live on for many more years, thanks to their book, which is very aptly titled "Conjuring Lake Curling Club, A Friendly Place Frozen In Time."