Curling rinks, long low windowless buildings popped up in towns and hamlets, as each community grew. Inside were sheets of natural ice, 146 feet long and between 14 and 15 feet wide, marked out with lines and the target (called the house) for the rocks or stones as they are also known. Old curling rinks were cold places, but that was exactly the point—they had to be. In 1953 avid curlers in the small farming community of Conjuring Creek, south of Calmar, built a natural ice rink using straw bales for insulation. When someone unsuccessfully tried to buy the stack of bales, the rink became known thereafter as The Straw Pile!
Albertans were already avid curlers by the late 1880s with clubs in Edmonton, Fort McLeod, Banff and the mining town of Anthracite. By 1902, Edmonton had a club with a three sheet indoor rink and 100 members. Vegreville curlers began on a pond in 1907; a year later they builit a three sheet indoor rink.
The introduction of mechanical ice plants to make artificial ice for curling rinks was a major change for the sport. Ice could be kept at the ideal temperature -5° (Celsius) to -3° with an ambient temperature of 4° at chest height. Artificial ice came to city centres first, although Claresholm, plagued by chinooks, installed an artificial ice plant in their rink in 1952. Vegreville opened a new professionally engineered and constructed a six-sheet artificial ice rink in 1955 at a cost of $80,000.
Just as artificial ice was gaining momentum, the Conjuring Creek Curling Club was formed. Lumber was pricey, so Club members decided to build with straw bales, a tried and tested construction method for curling rinks. Square straw bales made thick walls which provided good insulation to control rink temperature. The bales were lined up, and spruce posts were spaced along their length to keep the bales together. The exterior walls were covered in wood slabs, and the rink was wired and lit by a generator. The first Straw Pile proved to be temporary, and in 1956 a new building was erected. Straw bales were used again, but this time the Club sprang for exterior siding and also lined the interior walls. The rink was bigger, with 2 sheets of ice. Further improvements in 1973 included fluorescent lighting and comfy red bench car seats in the viewing area.
Preparing the ice took time. Sawdust was spread to the edges of the bale walls against the advice of B.E Olson, whose 1929 pamphlet The Art of Making True Curling Ice noted it was not a good conductor of cold and was inclined to go mouldy in spring. The rink was flooded in layers slowly and evenly; if it was too cold during flooding the ice would crack and peel off. At the right level the surface was planed with a homemade scraper, and then a scriber, a board with saw-teeth spaced to mark the rings of the house, was used to etch the ice. A hole made in the centre of the house to anchor a measuring stick for use during play. The water pumped from nearby Conjuring Creek was a little yellow so powered milk was added to whiten the ice, until it was decided to tank water in. The hacks for placing a player’s feet were frozen into the ice as the flooding progressed. The coloured lines and rings were painted on using paint mixed with oil and then frozen over, and finally the ice surface was pebbled. Closing the doors and turning off the lights in between games kept the rink cold.
The Conjuring Lake curling rink was a community gathering place. Part of the fun was preparing the ice and the social aspect of curling included cheering from the viewing area, which eventually hosted 5 generations of eager spectators. The first prizes included jam, cigarettes, eggs and chocolate! Trophies came later. By 2010, however, it was no longer viable to keep the rink going and it was demolished, the straw pile burned in 2011. It’s not known how many natural ice rinks were built using straw bales in Alberta, but Conjuring Lake rink was probably the last one in use. We hope to be proved wrong—is there yet one more quintessentially prairie ice rink out there somewhere?
Written by: Judy Larmour.