Accidental Historian

Barry Slater’s curious nature is helping a Toronto curling club rediscover its past.

Summer, 2018 / No. 41

Photo of the Royal Canadian Bicycle Club
Courtesy the Royal Canadian Curling Club

Members of the Royal Canadian Bicycle Club’s winning team pose with the Dunlop Trophy in 1895.

This April, on the last day of curling season, representatives of Heritage Toronto unveiled a plaque in front of the Royal Canadian Curling Club, on Broadview Avenue, marking its origins as the city’s most successful early cycling society. Afterward, as cake was served and guests mingled around various display cases—one of which contained the six-feet-tall 1894 Dunlop Trophy that, as a Heritage Toronto representative said during the dedication ceremony, “makes the Stanley Cup look like garbage”—Barry Slater gave a guided tour for one of the building’s history.

The first stop was an unassuming basement hallway connecting the curling rink to the club house. It was here, about eight years ago, that Slater, whose frizzy white hair and matching beard make him look like a lithe Jerry Garcia, discovered boxes of forgotten club trophies, historical photographs, and ephemera. “There used to be just a blue curtain across this exit corridor,” he said. “So I went behind the curtain and along this wall were all these framed pictures. One of an old man attracted me. I looked at it and thought, ‘Who is this?’ I cleaned the grime and the dust and dirt off it and his name was etched in gold letters.” The photograph, of A. E. Walton, an early club president and the man known as the organization’s “angel,” for his long support, is now on display in the club’s entryway. “It blew my mind that this photo had something to do with the big Dunlop Trophy, and it fell into place. It just sort of clicked. Each thing I picked up said something to me.”

The club officially marks its birth year as 1891, when a group of aficionados founded the Royal Canadian Bicycle Club to promote the growing sport. It moved from its original location, across the street, in what is now the Broadview Hotel, to its current dedicated space, in 1906, and grew to encompass a variety of sports, including bowling, boxing, and baseball. The rink was added in 1929, as the club added ice sports, including curling, which would eventually become its prime focus. Slater has been a member since 1986, but it wasn’t until his accidental discovery that he took a serious interest in the club’s history and became its historian.

Slater exited the hallway and moved into a changing area. “The men’s locker room now takes the place of what was a bowling alley,” he said. “This wall dates from 1945. The machinery for the ice plant is behind that wall. It used to be a ten-pin bowling alley, and then when they put the ice machine in they went to a five-pin.”

Slater darted through a room that contained still-visible remnants of a sauna, toward the stairs. In the main-floor lounge, he showed off one of the club’s most impressive assets, the Dunlop Shield, won twice by the cycling club, in 1898 and 1899. “Someone told me one night that it had been put someplace, in a store on Sherbourne,” Slater said. “I asked her again a couple of years ago and she said, ‘Oh, Dave, our past president, knows where that is.’ Sure enough, I asked Dave and Dave said, ‘Yeah, I know where it is.’ We brought it back to the club and started raising funds to restore it. It was almost forgotten except in some photographs. It used to hang on the wall but, over the course of fifty years, people being people, it suffered some damage.” (The shield now sits under glass.)

A few years ago, the club was forced to look for new sources of revenue, and leased out its main building, which, at various points, contained a grand ballroom, a smoking lounge, a billiard room, a reading room, and a full gymnasium, among other amenities. “We would have our banquets there,” Slater said. “We used to dance until four o’clock in the morning, and then fall down in the corner and wake up here on a Sunday and have a skating party. The kids would come out and skate and play hockey, and we’d have hot dogs. My kids used to love this place.”