Normally, horseshoes would be flying every week. Out of an abundance of caution, though, our playing spot is on lock-down for another season. Not officially, but a fair lot of our group has drifted. Thanks, COVID. It’s enough to make you wonder why you drank so much beer practicing so hard.
Some of us have kept the faith — and our tendonitis, too — by throwing in private, although I think it’s a paler experience than competing with everyone. Implying that an organized horseshoe group actually exists. It does. Turns out there’s a vibrant local league, several of whose members decline spirits of any kind, many state clubs nationwide, and a large national organization.
Harold Taylor, head of the Lake County Horseshoe Association, blinks through his wire-rimmed glasses in mild confusion. His bristling grey mustache gives him the look of a walrus scholar. “Was it?” he asks. Dropping his gaze, he snaps open the locks of an ancient portfolio. It’s crammed with files. Running the back of his finger across the tabbed folders, he finds nothing helpful. “I thought it was 1983,” he says, “but if I told you 1987, that must’ve been it.”
The date regards the start of the LCHA. Call it two generations ago. Back then, says Taylor, who also runs the Pro Desk at Mendo Mill & Lumber Co., in Lakeport, the games were a rolling affair, with players convening in each other’s backyards for some 20 years. After that, play moved to the old Grange Hall in Finley; then to the current location at Lakeport’s Westside Community Park, the pitching courts above the Jane Barnes Field baseball complex.
I surprised myself by joining. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was familiar with the sight of horseshoe courts: they were everywhere, in municipal parks and picnic areas, weed choked and forlorn. Most had long since ceased beckoning players — except for the same three teenaged boys, it seemed, throwing jackknives at the backboards and scowling at passersby. I learned later that southern California — Pasadena in particular — was once a horseshoe mecca, much as the region had been the nation’s citrus and salad bowl, before they started bulldozing orchards by the square mile and paving the onion fields, to house the rush of new Angelenos following World War II. It was all of a piece. As anyone might guess, pitching horseshoes has long been a rural pursuit. But it had a grand run in major cities across the country.
By the time I signed into Kelseyville High School, I had entirely forgotten about horseshoes. Like me, my new friends were blissfully uninterested in local pioneer culture. We just wanted out, into the world. Except for “Butch”, a kid who I suspect now might have been a horseshoe sharpster. I think I remember him roping a ewe. He had coordination. His parents still looked like Dust Bowl refugees, and they were just as resourceful. His father’s coffee — something he took to work with him every day in a thermos: Milk. Splash of Maxwell House.
They owned a cow, not a coffee plantation.
Butch must have had game.
Horseshoes has at least two mythologies. One is that it began with Roman soldiers in Britain, who found new use for the old shoes of their draft horses; second is that it remains popular, a notion that holds best, perhaps, among the players ourselves. According to the crowd-polling site Ranker, something called pickleball is more popular. In fact, horseshoes missed the cut for their list of America’s top 63 sporting activities, if it ever was in the running.
Still, the game has a long history and legions of fans. So, while you may be forgiven for thinking the splintered backstops and rusting steel stakes at the county park are exquisite hazards — even when idle, never mind the alarming kinetic potential of a wayward two-and-a-half-pound metal shoe — the National Horseshoe Pitching Association would like to mention the virtues of playing.
They are not oblivious to the dangers. The group urges good judgement. As horseshoe pitching’s major governing body, the NHPA projects its focus on safe, organized competition. Beyond that, the game is a sport, they insist, enjoyed by some 15 million people in the U.S. and Canada, with players around the globe. They also promote horseshoe pitching as a clean, health-giving activity approved of by doctors who “have repeatedly stressed” its wholesome benefits, including those of camaraderie and physical movement.
They take no official positions on lawn chairs or coolers.
Brought here by the first European colonists, the game has been on an extended glide downward. But for over 50 years, beginning around 1900, it rivaled boxing, baseball and horse racing. Tournaments in New York, Chicago and San Francisco drew large crowds and national attention. In 1933, the NHPA reported that the Contra Costa Horseshoe Club, in Antioch, CA — whose population then hovered around 3,600 people — had “16 modern courts, with 439 members, including four…ladies’ teams” and other groups, among them a business club and a civic league.
But despite the NHPA’s historical success at elevating horseshoes’ popular appeal — enticing media coverage, merging with similar organizations, even working to participate in the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany — horseshoes is still sometimes called “barnyard golf”. The nickname is a knowing endearment and a send-up of the hayseed stereotype, but the association never liked it. In a newsletter column, Bob Dunn, author, NHPA hall-of-famer and the association’s historian, wrote that the name “didn’t project the image the national leaders would prefer.” Yet a good hook is a good hook. Around 1920, Akron, OH, sportswriter Harry “Doc” Kerr used the quip in a piece and seemed to spark even wider interest in the sport.
Meanwhile, as flappers flapped and blood and bootleg liquor ran in the streets, the NHPA promoted horseshoe pitching as a bulwark against moral decline; as if it cured rickets or tuberculosis. Enjoyable exercise, a neat personal appearance and fellowship in competition were all topics of pride. Touring professionals in neck ties and snap-brim hats roved like barn-storming pilots after WWI, demonstrating their prodigious skills by pitching ringers behind their backs or blind-folded, like Annie Oakley with her rifle, splitting cards edgewise in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Scrolling through The Horseshoe World, the association’s newsletter for some 20 years, until WWII caused the departure of many players and the loss or reduction of basic supplies, like paper and ink, you can almost hear the Kellogg brothers, those famed breakfast cereal magnates, whispering their gospel of good health and clean living between the lines of promotional copy. The approach proved useful. In 1921, the association managed to enlist recently elected President Warren G. Harding, a horseshoe enthusiast himself (and a philanderer), as its honorary president, and the number of players and affiliated clubs grew.
“I think as soon as you saw a president with a horseshoe in his hand everybody thought they had to do it, and I think a national effort came out of that,” says another NHPA Hall of Fame inductee, Casey Sluys.
Sluys (pronounced “sluice”) is also board president of the National Horseshoe Pitching Foundation, the non-profit group responsible for running the hall of fame complex in Wentzville, MO. He and his wife Gail, residents of Santa Rosa, CA, are both executives with the NHPA-affiliated Northern California Horseshoe Pitchers Association. They and their grandson are all hall-of-fame honorees, and they’re pleased about all their accomplishments, but they worry — about declining membership figures and how to boost them, about how to improve the sport’s image on Facebook, about new rules and the success of the next NHPA World Tournament.
I remember: Sitting on my ice chest, I’m leaned back against the chain-link fence that surrounds the Lakeport courts. My phone’s at home and I’m enjoying a cold beverage. The sun is warm. I hear the rhythmic metal ‘clank’ of shoes and stake. The players are practicing. It sounds a little like work. There’s a woman’s voice, laughing, and the low banter of competitive men.
It took me two years as an alternate, showing up every Tuesday evening from April through August, to get a regular spot. The Early Lake Lions Club now sponsors the league, which while unaffiliated with the NHPA adheres to its rules. We also have a few members who pitch in NHPA-sanctioned tournaments.
I can’t say why I started, really. Just that I was invited to stand in one day and got seduced. My first pitches were terrible; then I landed a few. My partner held his own and developed a knuckle-first style that still works. I stuck with my current balky flop pitch, straight-armed and ungainly.
Play begins and we take the first of three sets against two very good players. One of them, the guy next to me, suddenly appears furious when I land a ringer.
“Slopped on another one,” he says. “Great shoe.”
“Dumb luck,” I say, and then skip one into a leaner.
“Brilliant,” he says. “You had that planned, no doubt. Why don’t you learn what you’re doing first before coming out here and screwing everybody up?”
“Look, Dave,” I say, “I’m not trying to screw anybody up. I’m only out here for the fellowship and snappy repartee.”
We lost the next two sets, but he and his partner ghosted the next few seasons. Maybe they were just doing something else. But at least they were off our list of challengers. The following year I was awarded a plaque for contributing…enthusiasm.
I love this game. I want it back.