The First Cranbrook Gymnasium and Recreation Club Building

Sports were popular in Cranbrook from the outset but this was to be the first building truly dedicated to indoor sporting activities.

Top: The building in the centre is the Methodist Church. The building to the right is the Methodist Manse. The building with just the peak showing at the rear? That is the Gymnasium and Recreation Club – Photo author’s collection. Bottom: The building in the centre is no longer the church.  The space to the right is no longer the manse. The space to the left of the building that is no longer the church is where the Gymnasium and Recreation Club once stood - photo Cameron 2011

Top: The building in the centre is the Methodist Church. The building to the right is the Methodist Manse. The building with just the peak showing at the rear? That is the Gymnasium and Recreation Club – Photo author’s collection. Bottom: The building in the centre is no longer the church. The space to the right is no longer the manse. The space to the left of the building that is no longer the church is where the Gymnasium and Recreation Club once stood - photo Cameron 2011

Jim Cameron

During the early part of January, 1906, ears perked up within the newly incorporated City of Cranbrook when Rev. J.P. Westman of the local Methodist Church announced the intention of the construction of a public recreation club and gymnasium.

Sports were popular in Cranbrook from the outset but, short of hockey and curling, this was to be the first building truly dedicated to indoor sporting activities.

And not just sports for that matter. The Methodists, always keen on providing activities for young ladies and gentlemen, not only planned for a 30- by 55-foot building to serve as the gym but also the inclusion of a viewing gallery for spectators and two smaller rooms for reading, writing and table games.

With neither radio nor television and recorded music in its infancy, winters could prove very long indeed. Board and card games, and now indoor sports, certainly helped to pass the long winter’s nights.

The building was constructed immediately behind the Methodist Church, a modest structure on the corner of 8th Avenue and 1st Street, on land donated by the congregation. Local sawmills donated the majority of the lumber and Mr. V.S. Liddicoat and his volunteer team of ten carpenters erected the building in short order.

The main hall/gymnasium stood 29 by 40 feet with a 16-foot ceiling. The comfortably furnished and well-stocked reading/games rooms adjoined the gym. In truth, it was one of the first public libraries in town.

The facility was equipped with ropes, rings, a trapeze, parallel and horizontal bars for gymnastics, gloves and a punching bag for boxing, a shuffleboard table and, probably most importantly for the young lads of the community, a basketball court. Invented by Canadian Dr. James Naismith while teaching at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, the game of basketball was merely 13 years old at the time but had spread rapidly across the continent.

The opening of the Recreation Hall took place on the afternoon of Sunday, January 20, 1906. A short speech by Cranbrook Mayor George Rogers preceded a basketball game between the Banks and the CPR ending in a 6–6 tie. There followed a number of athletic demonstrations for the crowd of almost 500 spectators watching from the gallery, including handball, a display of rings, trapeze and club swinging (which was likely worth seeing at least once), and a lengthy address by Rev. G. W. Dean of Nelson, all of which (save the speechifying) was accompanied by a local 15 piece orchestra under the direction of painter/decorator B.H. Short.

It went without saying at the time that the physical activities were reserved solely for males while the women contributed by serving refreshments.

The local newspaper declared “The recreation hall is an assured and triumphant addition to the general well being of the city.”

Rev. Westman explained that the new building “marks a successful, useful, meritorious and auspicious start. A place badly needed for the young men of the city to meet and amuse themselves rationally and in a manly fashion.”

He further stated he hoped it would prove “that all the fun and enjoyment of life are not to be found in a bottle of ‘booze’ and the conversation of a crowd of filth-speaking companions.”

Attendance at the facility often ran to 100 per evening, with many enjoying the quiet of the reading rooms during the day. “It was,” quoth the Herald, “Truly the men’s home.”

The gym closed in June for the summer, although local strangers and visitors were invited to visit the rest room during the last week of August (and by that it is assumed to mean the reading room).

The second season began in October, 1906, by which point the building was under the official management of the newly formed Cranbrook Gymnasium and Recreation Club, boasting 100 members.

The gym was not used only for sports however. Out of town entertainers, comedians and lecturers occasionally played the room and local talent often found a home there including scenes from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, (Shakespeare in Cranbrook has appeared in the oddest of places)  and a well-attended concert of fencing, boxing and singing, luckily, or perhaps disappointingly, not at the same time.

The building stayed open two nights a week throughout the summer of 1907, although no basketball was allowed until the winter months.

During August of that year, the ladies turned the gym into a well-used sewing room,  the first female foray into the heart of the club which would, by October, lead to the allowance of one afternoon a week for women to partake of the sporting facilities and the formation of a ladies basketball league soon thereafter.

Things carried on apace for the next three years although the opening of the local YMCA at the west end of Baker Street in 1911, with its bowling alleys and billiard rooms, amongst other amenities, must certainly have affected attendance of the recreation hall. Nonetheless, in late 1911 the Methodists announced their intention of building a bigger and better recreation hall and adding an indoor swimming pool.

Next Week: The Second

Cranbrook Gymnasium and Recreation Club Building.

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