BELFAST — The icehouse at 211 Belmont Ave. might be considered a shrine to community effort.

Evolved from a flooded field, the Belfast Curling Club now stands as one of the finest curling facilities in the Northeast. Built in 1957 by an all-volunteer crew of locals, the club, and the sport it houses, has never been more popular.

“We’ve had a boom year,” said Belfast Curling Club President Stephen West. “Our membership is at 215. Those are record numbers.”

Belfast Curling Club member Mary Ellen Tardy plays a shot during recent league play. Photo by Jim Leonard

Curling is experiencing its own boom. In the last decade. The number of active curlers in the United States has risen from 16,000 to 25,000. They curl at one of over 200 clubs across 49 of the 50 states, Louisiana being the lone holdout. Belfast Curling Club has followed this arc of popularity, growing steadily up to, and through, the pandemic.

“Pre-pandemic, we had about 190 members,” West said. “The year after the pandemic shut us down, we had 175. We’ve rebounded well.”

The club has evolved from humble beginnings at the same location for nearly seven decades. The history of the club, and curling in Belfast, can be traced to a physician from Canada.

Dr. Norman Cobb practiced in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. An active curler, he eventually moved his practice to the Belfast area in the 1950s. Cobb would often take friends to St. Stephen to curl. After generating local support for the sport, a field was flooded to allow outdoor play. Eventually, the landowner donated the parcel, and the facility was constructed with two sheets in 1957 and expanded to three sheets in 1962. Cobb served as the original president of the Belfast Curling Club.

Dr. Cobb would barely recognize the club today. Several upgrades have occurred through the years, the most recent due to flooding caused by a burst pipe in 2021.Those renovations were completed in April 2022.

The three ice sheets are now supported by a state-of-the-art ice management system, visible from an enclosed warming room above the ice. The warming room has padded bench seats, TV monitors, a kitchen and a bar. Behind the warming room is a banquet hall.

Tables at the rear of the warming room provide a space for members and competitors to eat, converse and, on occasion, talk a little trash.

There are pro-shop tables at the rear of warming room with another in an office below. Trophy cabinets and memorabilia are displayed in glass cases that adorn the walls and hallways. A multimedia center, donated by a club member, is set up to stream matches from all three ice sheets to a dedicated YouTube channel.

The Belfast Curling Club’s multimedia center (pictured) streams matches to a dedicated YouTube channel. Photo by Jim Leonard

The extra space is necessary. From November to March the club supports a variety of league play seven days a week, while hosting several “bonspiels,” or curling tournaments, that attract teams from across the U.S., as well as Canadian and other international teams.

At present the club hosts the Maineac, Belfast Open Doubles, the Little International and the Wood bonspiels. With curling surging in popularity, the tournaments fill up quickly.

“There’s always a waiting list of six to 10 teams for the bonspiels,” West said. “People really like coming here.”

All the bonspiels hosted by Belfast Curling Club feature a mix of local, national and international teams.

“The Olympics have given curling a big boost,” West said. “The 2022 Winter Games gave it a lot of coverage. People got a chance to see it and understand it a little and they decided to give it a try.”

Olympic curling coverage also created a new generation of curling fans.

“I definitely see an influx of young people getting involved since the Olympics,” West said.

Team members brush, or sweep, ahead of a curling stone during league play at the Belfast Curling Club. Club membership is at a record level. Photo by Jim Leonard

The club has seized upon the growing interest in the sport, offering Learn to Curl sessions in October and January each year prior to the start of the split league seasons. The two-hour Learn to Curl sessions are an opportunity for the curling-curious to learn the rules, practice the skills and participate in a game while being coached by an experienced curler. Each session accommodates 24 participants, and the four January sessions are nearly full.

Following the Learn to Curl sessions, participants can choose to join one of the various divisions for league play. In cases like this the club always places the novice curler with those more experienced.

On Sundays the club hosts a youth curling program.

“That program is for kids between the ages of 8 to 18,” West said. “It’s great to see the little ones out here.”

League play is where the club’s character is revealed. Held during afternoons and evenings, Monday through Friday, league play offers the perfect blend of competition and camaraderie.

A typical afternoon has six teams competing on the three sheets of ice, with several teams waiting their turn in the warming center. Behind them sit teams that have already played enjoying refreshment and good-natured jabs.

“It’s a welcoming environment,” said BCC member Meredith Coffin, who has been curling for 20 years. “They give you the space to progress at your own pace and there are lots of opportunities.”

That same welcoming atmosphere is present at the bonspiels hosted by Belfast Curling Club. Tournaments raise the level of skill, intensity and community among curling teams. They also help the club pay the rent.

“Those events are really what drive the club financially,” West said.

The club is a gracious host at bonspiels.

“When a team comes to one of our bonspiels, their rink fee pays for the competition as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner from our kitchen — for all three days,” West said. “Those people eat really well.”

At present West and the club are enjoying and supporting the global attraction to the sport they love.

“It’s very much a sport of camaraderie and sportsmanship,” West said. “It can be intense and there is a lot of strategy involved but, mostly, it’s about having a good time.”