The Harvard Polo Club

My grandmother [Anne Steward] with her father-in-law Campbell Steward, on the steps of the Steward house in Goshen, New York.
File this one to “You never know what you might find…”

I have written before about my great-grandparents’ house in Goshen, New York, built on land that had belonged to the Steward family since the eighteenth century. In the course of collecting family photos – generally, groups of (likely) house guests gathering on the front steps to be photographed – I’ve become familiar with some of the house’s features. At this point, I might be one of the very few who could look at a photo and say “Oh! the Steward house in Goshen.”

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the book I was paging through was my great-great-uncle’s history of the Harvard Polo Club. Amos Tuck French[1] was one of the founding members of this iteration of the club, and he begins engagingly: “Polo was started at Harvard in 1883, many years before it was even thought of at any other college. In fact it was not generally understood what the game was, for we received a challenge from Yale to play a match and discovered on enquiry that the Elis wanted to play hockey on roller skates!”[2]

Raymond Belmont[3] – son of the first August Belmont – “talked polo through his waking hours and dreamed polo in his sleep…” During the summer break of 1883, while staying in Newport, the younger Belmont invited some Harvard friends “to meet several times weekly and, mounted on [his brother August’s] ponies, knock the ball about on a hired empty field on Bellevue Avenue, just beyond the Havemeyer place.”[4] Ah, for the days when there was an “empty field” on Bellevue Avenue…

He notes that, in the ‘80s, “the horse was as unknown [in intercollegiate sport and undergraduate life] as the horseless buggy.” Raymond Belmont had an idea: he bought “a [train] car load of the fastest cow ponies he could find and ship[ped] them to Cambridge, to cost about one hundred dollars apiece. The car of 21 ponies arrived in charge of [Frank] Iselin on May 11th [1884].[5] Our fellows had an exciting time looking them over, trying them, and getting bucked off some, and matching coins for the new mounts, which were chosen by lot on May 13. This addition gave the Harvard Polo Club about forty ponies to use in the game.”[6]

In 1884-85, Uncle Amoy was the Club’s president. The ever-present danger around horses, even when not playing polo, is captured in his account of Olie Bird,[7] who “had a bad fall in the woods back of the [Country Club] house, the horse rolling over him, the soft mud alone saving him from being killed. He staggered into the dressing room, covered with blood and mud, while French was changing his clothes. No one had seen him fall. He was dazed and dropped on a bed, muttering, ‘What have I been doing?’ French rushed for a doctor, who found slight concussion, a broken collar bone and face badly cut.”[8]

He has another story of hitting Elliott Roosevelt – Eleanor’s father – over one eye with his polo mallet. Belmont, the team’s captain in that match, had directed French to monitor Roosevelt closely, so while the accident was unintended (he was “striking at the ball”), “cold-blooded little Raymond rode alongside of me and whispered, ‘You’re doing splendidly, old man, but don’t hit him in the head again.’ He took it for granted I was merely carrying out his instructions.”

“[Cold-blooded] little Raymond rode alongside of me and whispered, ‘You’re doing splendidly, old man, but don’t hit him in the head again.’”

Of Elliott, French adds that he “was a charming figure in those days, a good sportsman, a bold rider to hounds at Meadow Brook,[9] and popular with all classes. He was the younger brother of Theodore, and had the same teeth-gritting, pugnacious manner” – as suggested by Elliott’s cheerful acceptance of his apology for clumsiness, after which the two “were bosom friends ever after.”[10]

And, as in all good tales, the Harvard Polo Club team prevailed in a famous match against Meadow Brook in 1885. In the end, Harvard was five goals to Meadow Brook’s four, and “The excitement was indescribable. Belmont’s pony refused to get up, being dead beat, and we three that were left[11] knocked the ball out of bounds, just as ‘Time!’ was yelled by the Referee. Harvard had won!”

He continues: “I don’t know how the others felt, but as for me, I threw myself off my pony pretty well done up. My father[12] rushed out from among the carriages and wrung my hand with more enthusiasm than I had ever seen him display over a sporting event before. We had beaten the champions, the men who knew it all and had been telling us all summer how to play. It was indeed exhilarating. Those that had the nerve to bet on us reaped the harvest. Prescott Lawrence[13] made five hundred dollars and so did Harry Sears.[14] Olie Bird made several hundred, and Augie Belmont[15] and Wintie Chanler,[16] and so on. My silver Championship Cup looked bigger than the largest tank ever constructed by silversmith. And yet it was too small to hold my pride and joy!”[17]

The book ends here, with a nod to the rapturous press and then, of course, to the next society craze, the forthcoming America’s Cup race between Puritan and Genesta.

But turn the page over, to the photo captioned “Three Survivors,” showing Bird, French, and Egerton L. Winthrop[18] at my great-grandparents’ house for Amoy French’s marriage to my great-great-aunt, Mattie Beeckman, in November 1914.

Notes

[1] Amos Tuck French (1863-1941) was married to Pauline Le Roy 1885-1913 and to Martha Codwise Beeckman in 1914.

[2] Amos Tuck French, Harvard Polo Club 1883-1885: Notes from a Diary (New Rochelle, N.Y.: The Knickerbocker Press, 1930), 3.

[3] Raymond Rodgers Belmont (1863-1887).

[4] French, Harvard Polo Club 1883-1885, 5.

[5] The total amount paid here was equivalent to a healthy annual income for one person.

[6] French, Harvard Polo Club 1883-1885, 3, 18.

[7] Oliver William Bird (1862-1932) was married to Clara Sutton Gautier 1889-1928.

[8] French, Harvard Polo Club 1883-1885, 19, 20.

[9] The Meadow Brook Hunt Club, then in Westbury, Long Island, founded in 1881.

[10] French, Harvard Polo Club 1883-1885, 23, 24.

[11] Bird, French, and Egerton L. Winthrop.

[12] Francis Ormond French (1837-1893) married Ellen Maria Tuck in 1861.

[13] Prescott Lawrence (1861-1921) married Katharine Bulkley in 1886.

[14] Dr. Henry Francis Sears (1862-1942) married Jean Irvine Struthers in 1904; their daughter Jean was in my grandparents’ wedding in 1927.

[15] August Belmont (1853-1924) was married to Elizabeth Hamilton Morgan 1881-98 and to Eleanor Elise Robson in 1910.

[16] Winthrop Astor Chanler (1863-1926) married Margaret Louisa Terry in 1886.

[17] French, Harvard Polo Club 1883-1885, 30, 31.

[18] Egerton Leigh Winthrop (1862-1936) married Emeline Dorr Hecksher in 1890.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

4 thoughts on “The Harvard Polo Club

  1. Good morning! I could not find a Katharine Bulkley in the index of “All Our Yesterdays” by Janet and James Robertson about Hampton, Connecticut. Many Bulkeley family references, and one of favorite books. It has helped me to imagine the lives of my Sherwood ancestors in Fairfield.

    1. Mrs. Prescott Lawrence was the daughter of Edward Henry Bulkley and Catharine Wolfe Clark — Mrs. Bulkley was somehow a connection of the Lorillard family, another set of Beeckman in-laws.

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