Inaugural croquet event recalls a bygone era

Mike Crowley
The Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE, Pa. — Sunday afternoon and the buzz of conversation in the garden, the rustle of tweed, the gentle thwack of mallet striking ball: croquet season in Meadville.

And for those who couldn’t sense the intensity of competitive lawn sports in the air, a leisurely stroll past the mansions of Terrace Street quickly revealed it. The scene resembled a historical postcard from the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club come to life in Tool City: ladies with parasols, gentlemen with suspenders and knickers, all of them wielding mallets beneath the shady trees.

If you were not aware that the last Sunday in July is the day Meadville turns back the fashion clock and pauses to play croquet, you could be forgiven this time — but mark your calendars for next year, says Crawford County Historical Society President Josh Sherretts, as the success of the Inaugural Eleanor Davies Croquet Classic and Garden Party means that plans are already in the works for the second annual version of the event on July 28, 2019.

“To us it’s a success when big sponsors tell you to just count us in for next year,” Sherretts said as the garden party that followed the championship match began to wind down.

“This will be the biggest fundraiser of the year put on by the Historical Society,” said Sherretts, who was quick to note that the more familiar Trees of Christmas event held at the Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum is organized by the Meadville Garden Club.

26 teams: The good-natured competition featured 26 teams of three members playing on 13 half-size croquet courts spread out over the carefully groomed lawns of six Terrace Street mansions. After several hours of “league play” in which teams played three matches, the top two finishers faced off in the featured match alongside the Baldwin-Reynolds House’s front-yard pond. Brief showers dampened the court, adding to the challenging components of a playing surface that fell somewhat outside the range of flatness called for by official croquet regulations.

“It was a close one,” said Kevin Parsons, who played on the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau team that vanquished the team representing Hagan Business Machines of Meadville. “Hagan’s put up a good fight, but they didn’t know who they were messing with.”

The finale drew spectators from around the garden and, according to Parsons, even featured some of the trash talking that has been associated with croquet since the Queen of Hearts repeatedly proclaimed “Off with their heads!” in “Alice in Wonderland.”

Spectacle: Even so, the real spectacle came earlier in the afternoon when the complete baker’s dozen of courts were in full swing and the distinctive croquet clack of wood on wood could be heard up and down Terrace Street.

In colors ranging from the traditional white all the way to the more experimental ecru, with bowler hats and fascinators, the competitors included men wearing socks that approached and, in a number of cases, far exceeded mid-calf levels and women attired in dresses rarely seen on contemporary sporting fields. They wound their way through nine-wicket courts at a refined pace, rarely taking the most direct course and pausing frequently to check the rules.

A map showing the correct direction of play was included in the event’s program, Sherretts reminded one team after another, along with a three-page synopsis of competition rules. The ball strikers didn’t always know what they were doing, but they were having fun doing it.

“This is a great event,” said Jaime Kinder, who was representing Evolution Printing Systems along with her son Maxwell Brown and her nephew Journey Brown. State-record-level speed did not seem likely to help when it came to croquet, but it probably didn’t hurt, either.

“We’re terrible,” Kinder added as she watched her son lining up a shot, “but this is a great event.”

The three, dressed all in white, were competing against a team representing the orthodontic practice of Dr. Douglas N. Smith. Mike Davis, wearing knickers with a tweed jacket and cap, was clearly the team’s fashion leader, but he pointed to Smith as the team’s leader when it came to actually playing.

“Doug’s played before,” Davis said. It was not a boast that every team could make about their members.

“He thinks it’s a blood sport,” agreed team member Deb Smith.

No blood and no decapitations were evident, however, as the ambiance at the Baldwin-Reynolds House owed more to “Downton Abbey” than “Wonderland” despite the occasional gibes emerging from players who questioned the placement of certain wickets.

Dedication: The well-mannered competition no doubt owed something to Eleanor Davies, to whom the event was dedicated. Davies, who died just over one year ago, shared Sunday dinners with the Reynolds family in their mansion for about 15 years after coming to Meadville during World War II, Sherretts said. Later in life, she was a key supporter of both the museum and the Historical Society, among numerous other Crawford County organizations.

Not only did the event honor Davies’ memory and her dedication to the museum, that dedication continued to live on in the competition as players actually used Davies’ personal croquet equipment, Sherretts said.

Whether the relaxed approach and amateur background of most competitors continues in future years remains to be seen. Already this year, several players claimed “ringer” status and with the Convention and Visitors Bureau team defending its championship, play could be more intense next year.

“I haven’t played croquet since my great aunt and grandmother taught me to play years ago,” Parsons said after the victory.

But, he added, “I’ve got a croquet set in my garage — I’m going to start practicing now.”