In Narragansett and Newport, Yesterday and Today
by Nancy Coggeshall
Pre-dating the 1950s' slogan "American's First Vacationland," Rhode Island at the turn of the twentieth-century was well established as a premier summer colony, whose summer visitors "played polo and were rich together." Among that set in Narragansett and Newport, polo was a popular pursuit until the Depression. The state's 400 miles of coastline, edged with coastal meadows, afforded ample acreage for playing fields.
One of the oldest games in the world, the sport is like "playing golf in an earthquake," according to the Argentinian player Ignacio Figueras, the face of Ralph Lauren's Polo brand. In field polo there are two teams of four players wielding mallets on horseback. The field is 300 yards long by 160 yards wide. Players vie to control a small solid plastic ball through thirty-two galloping equine legs toward a goal between posts placed twenty-four feet apart. Teams change direction after scoring. The play's intensity requires a fresh horse for each of a match's six chukkers, periods that are seven-and-a-half minutes long. With each goal, however, the horse beneath the player merits all the acclaim.
New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett introduced polo to Newport—and the East. He imported a railway car loaded with Texas ranch horses in the spring of 1876 to interest like-minded young sportsmen he believed would enjoy this new game. The young swells embraced it, it became part of their summers in Newport, and they established the Westchester Polo Club. On Aquidneck Island there were fields next to Morton Park, at Brenton Point State Park, and one in Middleton. Newport's Westchester Cup, an historic tournament in 1886, was considered "one of the earliest international sporting events." It established Newport as an international polo destination.
Across the bay in 1899 a columnist for the Narragansett Times reported that polo was "the backbone of the Pier's social season, much as yachting is the mainstay at Newport." The Point Judith Country Club maintained four fields. The New York Times noted that a 1903 polo tournament at Point Judith was expected to attract Newport polo "enthusiasts," who would sail "to the Pier in their yachts." Seven years later, Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, was transported from Newport for Point Judith polo with Mrs. Payne Whitney on the yacht Atlantic.
In the nineteen-teens Emily Randolph Stevenson, the daughter of the Club's founder Philip Syng Physick Randolph, was widely recognized for her polo playing and "superb horsemanship." Mrs. Stevenson was considered "the greatest horsewoman of her day" and then "the only woman ever handicapped by the Book of the National Polo Association."
Express companies in South Kingstown "handled as many as 100 cars of ponies." Stabling in Narragansett could accommodate 1,000 horses. On mornings during tournaments at Point Judith, "Every road leading to the polo club was lined with ponies." The route to the polo grounds was half asphalt and half grass to lessen wear and tear on horses' hooves.
International teams regularly competed during Point Judith's polo tournaments. One English team shipped forty horses for its players. The Maharajah of Rutlam, a player for the British Army-in-India team, traveled to the town with two cars of ponies. In great umbrage at not being met at the railway station, the maharajah left town on the morning of the match.
The only active Rhode Island polo club in the 1920s, the Point Judith Country Club remained "a citadel of good taste and excellent polo" throughout that decade. Moving into the 1930s, however, the onset of the Depression's austerity—along with the imposition of a federal income tax in 1913 and participation in World War I—prohibited the spending involved in maintaining and transporting strings of polo ponies for matches. Polo in Narragansett never recovered.
Newport, like Narragansett, experienced the same toll levied by the thirties' economic strictures. Unlike Narragansett, though, Newport polo has experienced a resurgence due to Dan Keating's passion for the game and entrepreneurial drive. In 1990 he founded Glen Farm Polo Productions in Portsmouth and created the Newport International Polo Series, an annual event for the past twenty-four years. Keating's drive also led to reviving the Naval War College Polo Club and New York's Westchester Polo Club, now at home in Newport. In 2011 the 125th Westchester Jubilee was held to celebrate the origins as the "most famous rivalry in the history of sport."
Today the Newport International Polo Series is far larger than anything James Gordon Bennett would have imagined. Polo at Glen Farm is flourishing. Besides hosting international competitions and honoring Newport's polo history, Glen Farm Productions offers polo lessons and provides facilities for polo teams and clubs at Brown and Roger Williams universities—reflecting today's wider participation and interest in the sport, no longer limited to kings.
- Randolph, Norris. "Cocktail Days," Rhode Island Magazine, June, 1990.
- Fitzgerald, Scott. The Great Gatsby.
- Laffaye, Horace A. Polo in the United States: A History. North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2011.
- Pitt, Margaret. Point Judith Country Club Centennial 1994.
Newspapers (quoted in Point Judith Country Club Centennial 1994)
- The Narragansett Times
- The New York Times
- Shirley Eastham, President of the Narragansett Historical Society, August 27, 2015 Narragansett, Rhode Island.
- Newport vs. New York, August 29, 2015, Glen Farm, Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
- El Caso Ranch (Arena) Polo Club, August 15 and 22, 2015, El Caso Ranch, Quemado, New Mexico.
- Jules Olley, General Manager, Point Judith Country Club
- Chris Rhodes, Business Manager, Point Judith Country Club
- Shirley Eastham, President of the Narragansett Historical Society
- Rhode Island Historical Society
- Christopher Martin, Curator, quahog.org
Freelancer Nancy Coggeshall has been writing most of her life. Her first book-length project, the award-winning biography Gila Country Legend, The Life and Times of Quentin Hulse, was published in 2009. A Rhode Islander by birth, she's lived in New Mexico since 1988.