Eau Claire claims the game of kubb as its own

You know the expression about possession: It’s nine-tenths of the law.

Within one dozen years, Eau Claire has gone from dabbling with an unusual lawn game to raise $300 for a good cause to establishing and hosting the game’s national championship four years in a row.

The game is kubb, pronounced KOOB, and it is a much-loved pastime in Sweden. The game that Vikings may have played more than 1,000 years ago is a blend between horseshoes and bowling. Or bocce ball.

Wooden batons are tossed at wooden blocks. It’s a test of precision and concentration, not speed or strength. That makes it good fun for kids to senior citizens, people of any height, weight or fitness level.

The city council in 2011 declared Eau Claire the Kubb Capital of North America, and nobody seems to be challenging that pronouncement. The 2019 national championship, which recently concluded, is just one part why the city deserves the title.

This is a story of how a father’s gift to a son became something much, much bigger. It is about how to run with a dream and establish an identity.

The guy behind all of it is Eric Anderson, a regional planner for a seven-county area. That means he already is sensitive to issues that build and challenge harmony between communities.

He and wife Erin lived in Sweden for a year. That’s where they were introduced to kubb. “Everybody in Sweden seems to play it,” he explains. “I fell in love with it.”

Anderson’s grandparents are of Swedish descent, and his father later gave Eric a kubb set, which the Andersons brought with them when moving to Eau Claire in 2007.

“I thought maybe we should have a little tournament,” is how Anderson describes what happened next, and proceeds from entry fees were used to fight violence in Darfur, Sudan.

Why? “I had my own little kid and another on the way. Sometimes these atrocities touch you and don’t let go.”

Then he persuaded a few physical education teachers to include kubb in their elementary school classes. About one-third of Eau Claire’s public schools teach kubb to children today.

That’s made parents more aware of the game too. Little workshops teach the game to senior citizens, and kubb is a way to mix up training for a high school girls basketball team and the university’s cross-country team.

“It’s a great game for everybody,” Anderson believes, and his all-out kubb advocacy is an all-volunteer effort. “Like a bee pollinating” as one person talks it up to another, locally, then elsewhere.

College students graduate and take their love of the game with them. Grandparents play kubb with their grandchildren.

Anderson contends the world’s largest weekly kubb league – 28 teams – plays all year in Eau Claire. In winter, the game moves inside to a sand volleyball court.

He recalls approaching Mike Huggins, then the city manager, about declaring Eau Claire the kubb capital of the nation. Huggins and others thought bigger, as in capital of the continent.

So now kubb is part of the city’s identity. The local tourism website explains what kubb is and where to play it. The city’s block party program includes kubb sets to borrow, and the offer of a free demonstration about how to play it.

Anderson’s father has died, but in his honor is a Steve Anderson Kubb Set Program, through which 20 kubb sets per year are donated to worthy organizations around the nation. It’s a nice legacy for the man whose gift started something that just keeps growing and growing.

The 2019 U.S. National Kubb Championship maxed out at 128 teams about six weeks before competition began. The hundreds of competitors were from 20 states, Washington DC and Sweden (one player on a team from Minnesota).

The three-day event is not about beer-guzzling men trying to outdo each other. It is a family-friendly competition that begins with what Anderson says is the world’s largest kubb tournament for children ages 12 or younger. All 20 teams this year were from the Eau Claire area.

Winners, as usual, got medals, a goodie bag and bragging rights – but no prize money. Local and global charities benefited from event proceeds, such as entry fees. Fans pitched portable awnings and lawn chairs to watch the spectacle.

Teams come up with funny names. Drew Brandenburg, whose Poplar Culture team placed 24th, is a woodcarver who makes dozens of kubb sets per year. Poplar is the preferred hardwood for professional kubb competition.

“I’m trying to build the game more than anything,” Brandenburg says. “It’s not a game – it’s a lifestyle,” and the annual competition gives him time with brother Jeff of Germantown, who also is on the team.

Twelve hours after that chat, I swing over to the patio of a downtown boutique hotel where – you guessed it – a casual game of kubb commences as sun sets.

That’s a little extra proof that the kubb fever in Eau Claire goes beyond one tournament and location on a hot summer day.

For more about championship kubb competition: usakubb.org. The world championship happens Aug. 2-3 on the Swedish island of Gotland, where some say the game began.

Want to give the game a try? Look for a kubb pitch – playing field – outdoors at The Brewing Projekt, a microbrewery with riverfront views; Lazy Monk Brewing, a microbrewery with Czech and German lagers; and The Oxbow Hotel, retro lodging owned by native son Justin Vernon, of the Grammy-winning indie-folk band Bon Iver.