By Anne Pryor
The Chester A. Fowler Memorial Trophy is one of several historic trophies on our club’s shelves. It marks the winners of the Fowler Event from 1950 through 1982, with later winning teams noted on a wall plaque hanging near the men’s locker room. Knowing some of the event’s history shows what it takes for an intraclub bonspiel to still generate excitement more than 70 years after its founding.
As each generation of curlers passes through our club, it’s good to acknowledge them as more than just names. So, before we look at the event, let’s look at the man.
Chester Almeron Fowler (1862-1948) was born in Rubicon, Wisconsin, graduated from Whitewater Normal School, and served as a school principal for three years before getting his law degree from UW-Madison in 1887. Seven years later, he and a partner established law offices in Portage and Montello. According to the Wisconsin Court System website, “While in Portage, he held the office of city attorney for six years. He also became an avid curler, a sport he enjoyed until the age of 80.” He must indeed have been avid for his professional biography to mention curling!
Fowler served as a circuit judge starting in 1905 before becoming a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice from 1929 until his death in 1948. He is buried in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery. He was married to Carrie Julia Smith and had two children, twins Dwight and Mary. It was his son Dwight S. Fowler who presented the trophy to MCC in 1950 in honor of his father.
The Fowler Event became an opportunity for the top Madison men curlers to compete at the end of the season. Some familiar MCC names are among the first two decades of Fowler Event winners: Jerred, Drives, Mansfield, Botham, Leifer, Woody, Strobel, Loew.
Today, the Fowler is one of the most anticipated events of MCC’s curling season. The buzz starts weeks before and the hunt for underpointed potential teammates starts the first day of the season. But it wasn’t always that way.
After a presumedly enthusiastic start, the “Men’s Post Season Club Bonspiel (Fowler)” dwindled in popularity so much thatparticipation dropped to only 8 teams by 1996 and 1997. To keep it going, the board switched it to an open event for 1998-2000; that’s reflected in the 1999 winning team with Ruth Ann Loew as lead. But even that change couldn’t save the spiel and the Fowler did not occur in 2001-2003.
And then along came Scott Reich and Mark Zylkowski. Bothcurlers in that interesting Thursday late Mansfield shift, they creatively rethought how to revive the event for the 2003-2004 season.
As Mark recalled, “It was a year when there were a dozen new really good men curlers. We thought about how to get them involved. Scott thought of lowering the point limit and that worked.”
Previously set at 55 points, they slashed the Fowler to only 33 points per team, adding a strategic element not present before. “It got a lot of the newer people involved,” Mark continued. “It made the event for camaraderie and to get together, not for grade-A competition.”
That major change made a big difference. As Scott explained, “It’s fun for people to come down and get a real bonspiel experience. It’s fun for people to move up a position. It’s an event where you can bring a friend in and have them experience a real weekend of curling.” The -1 point assignment for an entirely new curler added to the fun and strategizing.
With a lot of heavy support from the Thursday late Mansfieldshift, which was loaded with “home brewers and beer geeks,”Scott made craft beer a central part of the event as well, workingespecially with Fred Swanson, the Brewery Coordinator for Great Taste of the Midwest Beer Festival. “Very few spiels had anything other than Miller Lite at that time,” Scott explained. “We thought it would be attractive to add craft beers. It worked really well, almost too well. We had some really wild nights and eventually had to restrict it to men 21 and older.”
From these changes, along with heavy promotion, the Fowlergrew from 18, to 24, to 32, then 36 teams. Signing up in time became challenging. Scott recalled, “We’d put the board up on Friday morning at 12:01 a.m. Folks would set alarms and come down at midnight to get their team entered. If you weren’t signed up by noon on Friday, you didn’t get in.”
Mark took care of the food, purposefully keeping it simple. Nothing served on Friday and easy meals on Saturday and Sunday. “This was a time when some of the other bonspiels were going way over the top, very elaborate, very expensive. We kept the menu simple: hot dogs and chili. Sandii (Zylkowski) and Cary (Reich) helped. Randie Schlamp would help too but I kept the kitchen volunteers very limited.” Scott agreed, “It was a two-man, two-spouse operation.” The offerings expanded when Rich Lepping generously donated food and staff from his Taco Bell franchise for Friday night.
Scott and Mark ran the Fowler through 2011, then Bruce Garner took over for two years, bringing in more emphasis on food with the help of his wife. Starting in 2014, Joel Dietz and Brian Kopp took over. Joel added an emphasis on smoked meats, ably abetted by meat expert Steve Elmer. “I was really fortunate to get hooked up with Steve,” Joel said. “I learned a lot from him. He’s forgotten more about meat than I’ll ever know.”
Kopp took care of the on-ice element, growing the field to 40 teams by 2017, not making their work any easier but expanding the opportunity to play. Brian reflected, “It’s meant to be fun, celebrate our camaraderie, and carry-on traditions in our club. Running and organizing a spiel of any kind is a lot of work but hugely rewarding when you see people sitting at the tables having a good time.”
Joel agreed. “We wanted to focus on getting everybody down there and keeping everybody there. If you put a bunch of curlers in the same area, they’re gonna have fun. We wanted to make the party bigger, have everyone come down. Yes, it’s a men’s spiel but invite the whole club and let everybody have a good time.”
That invitation still stands as Brian, Mark McDermid, and Mike McDermid, with help from Miranda Hofmann, host this year’s Fowler. You can watch curling, visit with friends, play games, eat great food, sample beer and cider, and try your luck in the eagerly anticipated meat raffle on Saturday night. Stop by and enjoy the 67th time MCC has put on this spiel and appreciate the creative dedication that keeps it alive and thriving.
And while you’re there, remember to raise a glass to Chester and Dwight.