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Local History: South Orange at Play

Surprising local sports and wagers of the past centuries.

In 2009, the Baird Center and town playing fields host nearly every sport that demands a field or court. Besides soccer, Ultimate, and bocce, I've seen rugby practice, tai chi, and a makeshift cricket pitch set up on Flood's Hill. This might be hard to imagine for previous centuries' residents of South Orange, of course, when news of different activities filled the local newspaper's sports pages and social notes.

Even before the Lone Oak Golf Course was built around the Baird Center, then the course clubhouse, residents had plans to play golf in town. According to a May 7, 1915 article in The New York Times, County Park Commissioner and South Orange resident Robert S. Sinclair and his wife returned from vacation in the "Bahama Islands" with the notion of establishing a miniature golf course. A site was chosen at the corner of Irving Avenue and Scotland Road for what was called the Scotland Court Golf Club. The course was expected to accommodate 20 members at a time, playing holes as long as 65 yards. Clarence B. Riker, then a resident of the Kip-Riker mansion, was a member of the Executive Board. Whether the Scotland Court Golf Club succeeded isn't clear from maps and documents of the time, but it's fun to imagine golfers shouting "Fore!" as they hit long drives across busy Scotland Road.

At the turn of the 20th century, Philip Detrich ran a livery and boarding stable on South Orange Avenue. Horses were a necessity then, of course, and a service he offered was hauling luggage from the train station to homes in town. At the same time, horses made for popular sport. A September 1888 article entitled "Trotting on Springfield Avenue" recounts several "contests" between "speedy roadsters" to determine whose horse was fastest. A race between the South Orange Poor Farm and Canfield's Hotel at Hilton determined that Patrick Kelly of South Orange had the fastest horse in town, though it "suffered defeat at the feet of a big black horse owned by a citizen of Newark."

In the same year, horses were put out to play in another sport altogether. An article entitled "The Coming Polo Tournament" locates the grounds of the Essex Polo Club at the corner of Center Street and South Orange Avenue, across from the gates of Seton Hall University. Mr. Robert Sedgwick organized a competition, offering a "handsome silver cup" to the junior polo team who "shall come out victorious for three seasons." All matches were to be played at the local polo club, and teams in competition included Westchester, Rockaway, Essex County Country and the Meadowbrook Club. The name of the winners are lost to history, but only a few years later, Village President would take the honors.

Finally, when the sporting season passed, there was still opportunity for a flutter. The classified listings of Sept. 1, 1888, offered "A Chance to Wager." F. B. Salisbury & Co. put up the sum of $500 backing Grover Cleveland's reelection, and invited bettors to gamble on his competition, Benjamin Harrison. So confident were the Salisbury folks that, "The amount will doubled if desired." Benjamin Harrison won the electoral count, though he lost the popular vote in 1888; I hope that a savvy South Orange resident did well by the new president and won $500. That would have bought a good horse to ride through the streets of old South Orange—for work, for play, even for polo.

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