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"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
The Popularity of Polo

Michael Barr

Polo has a reputation as an obscure sport played by highfalutin Easterners with time on their hands. Many Texans, myself included, have never seen a polo game and don't know a chukka from a tail shot. And yet a unique set of circumstances made polo, for a time, a popular sport in Fredericksburg and the Texas Hill Country.

Polo began in the Middle East and spread to Europe in the 19th Century. Two English cavalry teams, using hockey sticks and a billiard ball, played the first polo game in England in 1871. Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York hosted the first polo game in the United States in 1876.

The New Yorkers who first played it believed polo would one day become a popular spectator sport. Americans, after all, love sports - the faster and rougher the better. Many team sports became wildly popular across the country in the second half of the 19th Century, but polo wasn't one of them.

As baseball and football gained acceptance with the masses, polo remained the purview of the upper class. Baseball was democratic - anyone could play it. A poor boy could become a star in the major leagues if he was good enough, but only the rich could afford a stable of specially trained polo ponies.

And yet the sport of aristocrats caught on in a few unlikely places. The Texas Hill Country was one such place. For a time in its history, polo came out of the drawing room and into the bunkhouse.

Polo Game in Persia
Wikipedia

Polo came to Gillespie County from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. No sport teaches horsemanship like polo, and the cavalry units at Fort Sam fielded some of the best polo teams in the country.

On June 18, 1923 two polo teams from Fort Sam Houston traveled through Fredericksburg on the way to Denver. The teams played an exhibition game at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds. Polo found an audience that day in Fredericksburg.

But polo in Gillespie County really took off when W. L. Burke, a polo player from Houston, moved to Fredericksburg in the early 20th Century. Burke befriended Dr. Victor Keidel, a fellow horse lover, and in 1926 the two men and some friends formed the Fredericksburg Polo Club. Fredericksburg was the smallest town in the country with a polo club sanctioned by the American Polo Association.


As polo's popularity grew, other Hill Country towns formed clubs. Teams from Llano, Stonewall, Cherokee, Brady, Junction, Menard, Rocksprings, Mason and Fredericksburg played scheduled games and tournaments every spring and summer.

Llano played polo as early as 1923. A trio of men from Llano County, Cecil Smith, Rube Williams and York Ratliff were world-class players. Llano County was renowned for its polo players and its breeding and training of polo ponies.

On May 22, 1926 Fredericksburg's recently formed polo club played Stonewall at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds. In a game that lasted 1 hour and 35 minutes, a large crowd watched Fredericksburg beat Stonewall 11 to 9.

As the 1926 Gillespie County Fair approached, the polo club petitioned fair directors to include polo in the festivities. The polo club volunteered to level the field inside the racetrack (it was bumpy and uneven) if it could use the area for polo. The directors accepted. That August, polo became a featured event at the Gillespie County Fair.


Polo grew in popularity throughout the 1920s. By 1929 the Fredericksburg club fielded 2 teams: the Bootleggers and the Crapshooters, and by 1930 they played at the fairgrounds (Now HEB) and at the polo field at the Temple D. Smith Airport.

Then came the Great Depression, and polo's popularity with the general public declined. The sport seemed pretentious and extravagant at a time when many Americans were out of work and didn't have enough to eat. And polo's reputation never recovered, even in the economic boom of the post-war years.

But polo still has a following in Western Texas. The sport is popular and quietly fashionable in certain affluent areas of San Antonio and the Hill Country where men and women admire fine horses and appreciate horsemanship.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
August 1, 2017 Column


Sources:
"Polo in Gillespie County," Fredericksburg Standard, February 5, 1927.
"Fb'g's Polo Club," Fredericksburg Standard, January 4, 1930.
"Llano County Polo Well Known," Llano County News, June 5, 1958.


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