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Barking Elbows: The First Squash Courts in America

By James Zug. May 1, 2001. © 2001 Funded by Squashtalk.com. May not be reproduced without permission.
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The first squash court built outside England was built at St. Paul's School (SPS) , in Concord, New Hampshire. The date: November 1884.

It was the work of one man, James Potter Conover. The oldest of nine children, Jay Conover graduated from St. Paul's in 1876 and after going to Columbia, he returned to teach at St. Paul's until 1915. With his steel-blue eyes and infectiously upbeat manner, Conover was a SPS institution. He married Mary Coit, the daughter of Henry Coit , the first rector of St. Paul's, became an ordained Episcopalan priest and wrote two books.

But his greatest influence was in sports. Conover was one of the most celebrated athletes of his era in the U.S. As a high jumper he was the first man to ever jump higher than his height; he led Columbia to notable football victories; a great fencer, he ran the fencing club at SPS; he was the top cricket player at SPS when the sport was the most popular game in New England and batted three-a critical spot-for the school when it played touring sides.

History, though, remembers Conover for a visit he made to Montreal during the Christmas holidays in 1880-1881. A skating enthusiast, Conover saw an early version of ice hockey and brought back to St. Paul's rules and standards, hockey sticks and a wooden block an inch thick covered with leather, soon to be called pucks. Ice hockey was unknown in the U.S., so St. Paul's is rightfully regarded at the birthplace of hockey for America.

While in Canada, Conover also played racquets at the St. George Street court in Montreal. He had played a fair amount of racquets while in New York and, after 1878, was a spirited member of the Racquet Court Club, which had a covered court at its clubhouse at 26th Street and Sixth Avenue (the building is still there). Playing the game again in Montreal, which had first built its racquets court in 1836, Conover remembered the delicious pleasure of smashing a ball against four walls. He decided St. Paul's should have a court.

It took two years, but in January 1883, St. Paul's finished a racquets building. Conover went back to Canada in the autumn of 1881 and hired a contractor from Montreal to build his racquets courts. Placed on the edge of the woods near a pond, the barn-like building, as Conover wrote, "has no pretensions to beauty and grace of outline." Made entirely of maple and birch and painted dark red, it was about sixty by fifty feet, with a steeply-pitched roof of seventy feet, "so as not to allow snow to accumulate upon it" and block the sun. It had four large windows on the front and one giant skylight. Inside were a large vestibule heated by a stove, with a carpeted dressing room partitioned off on one side and a small gallery above and two racquets courts painted white.

The building cost three thousand dollars and Conover formed a Racquet Club to pay for it. Thirty-five students paid fifty dollars to join, and Conover secured donations totalling over a thousand dollars from a number of Racquet Court Club members in New York.

Getting going took a while. Conover ordered two hundred dollars worth of racquets and balls from Arthur Pearson in London, but they were detained for months at the customs house in New York (did the customs officials think they were dangerous weapons?). The court was awkwardkly lit, by windows just on one side and by one skylight and the white walls were too bright in full sunlight. And it was annoying to laboriously slap black paint on all the racquet balls. Conover painted the inside walls black, which "proved to be a great improvement." Then, over the summer of 1883, the walls and floor warped and had to be replaced. The building found itself being used by non-racquets players. In 1884 the fencing club moved their boxes of equipment into the racquet building, "so that the members can fence while awaiting their turns to play" racquets, and in 1887 the school newspaper reported that Mr. Morley, the cricket coach, kept his stock of cricket, base-ball and tennis good for sale in the racquet building.

But they soldiered on and played. They had a series of tournaments each winter and began in the spring of 1883 to crown champions (Conover's son Dick won the championship in 1889). One of the tournaments was "The Lenten Tournament" which ran throughout Lent, with one round each week, with a prize going to the boy who won the most games. Other tournaments were handicapped acording to ability, and they also had a draw for younger boy. Each Christmas holiday, the school held a tournament at the Racquet Court Club in New York, with sometimes fifteen boys participating.

Was it actually racquets? Not really. A racquets court was, and still is, made out of slate or concrete, something hard, not wood. And one single regulation-size racquets court was about the size of the entire racquets building, so their two courts were much smaller. "The larger court and faster walls and floor give a great advantage to the large boys," recorded the SPS monthly newspaper after the 1885 SPS tournament in New York.

But it was not squash, because that came separately. In November 1884, the school newspaper reported that "the 'Squash-ball' courts are ready for play. They are open to all who pay the dues of $1 a year." They are bona fide squash courts because they were designed by a Harrow old boy

In 1930, just after Allison Danzig published his definitive The Racquet Game, a history of tennis, racquets and squash in the U.S., a row developed because Danzig had all but ignored the history of racquets and squash at St. Paul's. This was problematic especially because the SPS racquets courts were the first in the U.S. built outside New York and that the school had the first squash courts in the nation. Conover, then seventy-three, retired and living in Rhode Island, wrote a long letter to a fellow St. Paul's alum who was helping give Danzig a proper account of SPS athletic history. "I got the proper dimensions from Hyde Clark of Cooperstown, NY," wrote Conover of the squash courts. "Hyde had been educated at Harrow in England where they had such courts, and he and I were at Columbia together and both members of the N.Y. Racquet Club and both enthusiastic for racquets and cricket." There is the missing link-Hyde Clark had played squash in the Rugby fives courts at Harrow. Via his friendship with Jay Conover, squash crossed the Atlantic.

Harrow was indeed the model for the four courts. They were badly lit, with no skylights and the back walls were missing. "It is proposed," wrote Conover in the school newspaper, "if the players are incommoded with snow, to inclose the ends with wired glass." The ball was a dark grey rubber ball with a hole in it. And racquets were still considered the proper senior sport. The winner of the spring Lenten tournment in squash was automatically enrolled in the Racquet Club, but other boys had to prove themselves skilled enough in squash to graduate to playing racquets.

Still Conover recommended squash as a sport for schoolboys. "In such a court, the game is not quite so enticing as where the walls are of brick and the ball solid, like a small base-ball," he wrote in the school newspaper. "But the so-called 'squash-ball court' recommended itself to the club for many reasons;-such courts are largely used in English public schools; cost of contruction is much less; fewer raquette bats are broken and fewer balls destroyed; fewer heads are cracked and fewer knees and elbows barked; the danger from being hit by the ball (quite an item among young players) is cancelled."

In 1915 St. Paul's, with a generous donation from Maurice Roche, class of 1905 and grandfather of Lady Diana Spencer, built a new squash facility. It had eight squash courts, all, interestingly enough thirty by twenty-one feet, a size more common then in England that the U.S.-but the reason was simply that the courts were designed and built by the London firm H. M. Rootham, which had built the famous courts at the Royal Artillery Mess in Woolwich.

With its unmatched tradition in squash, it was no surprise that a flood of champions flashed from St. Pauls. The brothers Pool, Larry and Beek, and Bert Rawlins took two national championships in the 1920s and 30s. And more illustrious names followed: John Humes, Seymour and Nordy Knox, Pete Bostwick, Larry Terrell, Charlie Stewart, Jamie Barrett, Robbie MacKay, John Musto and Mac Carbonell.

And the 1884 courts? St. Paul's tore them down in 1915 and today at the spot is an unmarked carpet of thick green grass.

[ Read Origins of Squash, also by James Zug]

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