A Walk in the Woods: Squash in New England

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Hiking in New England during the US’s hottest summer since 1895 may not be everybody’s idea of a relaxing holiday. Whatever plans you might have had to explore the Great Outdoors tend to change daily, if not hourly, as the mercury rises, the forest shade beckons and a craving for the next ice-cold drink begins.

Well, that’s what it was like for me when I hiked the trails around Burlington, Vermont, where squash is still very much part of the varsity athletics scene. Not only that, one enterprising Burlington squash player had even built himself an outdoor court, with a slight gradient from front wall to back for drainage purposes.

The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

Things were much the same hiking the trails of Acadia, off the coast of Maine, where I came across a fellow traveller and hiker who just happened to play in Philadelphia’s squash leagues. I even experienced déjà vu on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire where a passing conversation with another hiker revealed yet another ex-college player and squash lover.

So, by the time I headed south towards Massachusetts, I already had a feeling that all I had to do to stay connected with squash was to keep travelling, hike trails and share stories with strangers. After all, I was wandering through a landscape which, over the years, has attracted travellers and hikers from all over the world. People who, just like me, wanted to go for a walk in the woods, whatever the temperature.

People drawn to the place where squash first took root in America.

The First American Squash Court

St Paul’s School, New Hampshire

The first squash court in America was built at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in 1884. Two years previously, the headmaster of St. Paul’s had seen the game played in Montreal and wrote an article about it for the school magazine. In the article he favoured squash over rackets, largely on the grounds of its lower costs. But, despite his enthusiasm, the soft ball used in the sport proved to be unsuitable for use on the unheated squash courts of New Hampshire with its cold winters. Because of this, a harder ball was developed which was more suited for use in colder temperatures and on narrower courts.

In 1924, the US hardball squash court was standardized at 18.5 feet wide with a 17 inch “tin” – the out-of-play strip of metal at the bottom of the front wall. This contrasted with the British (international) court which, four years later, was finally to be standardised at 21.5 ft. wide with a 19 inch “tin”.

But whatever progress was being made on both sides of the Atlantic in standardising squash balls and squash courts, there was one milestone in the development of squash which proved to be ‘no contest’. In 1904, twenty years after the appearance of America’s first squash court, the world’s first national squash association was formed.

It was American and was to pre-date its British equivalent by almost a quarter of a century.

Harvard Connections

From its beginnings in New Hampshire, squash began to spread further into the US through the private boys schools of New England. This initial phase of squash development is still reflected in the distribution of squash courts throughout the country, the majority still being located in private universities and athletic clubs. Today, there are over 1,000 facilities across the US which house squash courts including those at the Ivy League universities of Yale in Connecticut and Harvard in Massachusetts.

Concord Acton Squash Club, Massachusetts

Not surprisingly, I found that Harvard featured on the fixture list of the Concord Acton squash club which I visited, and played at, between walking excursions. Before my visit to the area, I’d already discovered that Concord itself boasts a remarkably rich literary history centred in the mid-nineteenth century. So it was as a lover of traveller’s tales that I took a particular interest one of the town’s most famous natives, the author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is best known for his book ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Published in 1854, the book is part personal declaration of independence, part social experiment, and part manual for self reliance in what were then physically demanding times. Thoreau was also a follower of transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the Eastern region of the US as a protest against the current state of culture and society and, in particular, against the state of intellectualism at Harvard University.

Thoreau himself was no great traveller or walker, but others in the local area shared and outlook on life which combined intellectualism with more physical pursuits.

Including sport.

Harvard Squash

By the time transcendentalism had run its course in the early 1850s, Harvard had begun to embrace another new movement, that of intercollegiate athletics. In 1852, the first intercollegiate sporting event, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale, took place on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Other sports were to follow, tennis making its debut in 1880 and, eventually, squash, arguably Harvard’s most successful sport of all, in 1922. The first-ever intercollegiate squash match, Harvard versus Yale, followed in February 1923.

Harry Cowles’ ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’

Harvard squash was to produce its own successful exponents including the legendary Harry Cowles who coached its men’s team for its first 16 seasons, leading it to five national titles and mentoring no less than 13 individual champions. Cowles’ book ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’ was published in 1935 and is still available if you look in the right places.

Over the years, many other notable figures were to emerge from Harvard’s squash community including one who would come to be recognised as one of the leading all-round athletes of the first half of the 20th century.

Someone who was to blaze the trail for women’s participation in sport in America.

The First Women’s Squash Champion

Eleonora R. Sears, nicknamed “Eleo,” was born in Boston in 1881. The great-great-granddaughter of the 3rd President of the US, Thomas Jefferson, Sears enjoyed all the benefits of an aristocratic upbringing. In her youth she was part of the social elite that vacationed each summer in Newport, Rhode Island, where she learned to play tennis and golf, rode horses, swam, and sailed.

In 1911, Sears began to play tennis competitively, when she and her friend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman won the US women’s doubles championship. Over the next five years, Sears won four more doubles championships, scandalizing crowds each time with her rolled up shirt-sleeves.  In 1912, Sears nearly lost her membership to the Burlingame Country Club in Southern California, when she rode front-saddle into the all-men’s polo arena wearing pants.

But, despite receiving criticism for her unfeminine style of dress and her avid participation in athletics, Sears was unfailingly popular among the upper class circles of Boston and New York.  She was a frequent guest at the all-men’s Harvard Club, where she first learned to play squash in 1918.

Eleanora Sears in 1929

In 1928, she helped to found the US Women’s Squash Racquets Association. In the same year, at the age of 46, she not only became its first singles champion but the first women’s squash champion in history. In 1929, she convinced Harvard’s officials to open its squash courts to women. She later served as the USWSRA’s president and was captain of the US national women’s team.

Sears frequently topped New York’s “10-best dressed” list, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) claimed her to be his favourite dance, squash, and tennis partner. She played and coached women’s squash into her 70s, and was also famous for her frequent marathon hikes, her favourite being from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, a distance of 44 miles. She once walked the 73 miles from Newport to Boston in 17 hours and during her 1912 visit to California, walked the 109 miles from the Burlingame Country Club to the Hotel Del Monte in 41 hours.

Sears, nicknamed ‘The Universal Female Athlete’ died in 1968 at the age of 86.

So the next time you travel to the US, why not visit some of the places where squash is still very much part of the local culture? New England, perhaps, or maybe further south even as far as Atlanta, Georgia where the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail ends. And while you’re there, why not take a walk in the woods?

You never know what squash stories you might hear.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as always, to Wikipedia for its entries on squash, Eleanora Sears, Concord Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, Harvard University and the Appalachian Trail.

Thanks also to Peggy Miller Franck for her article ‘The Mother of Title IX: Trailblazing Athlete Eleonora Sears’ in The Daily Beast.

And, finally, thanks to the Concord Acton Squash Club for allowing me to play in its Sunday morning ‘round robin’.

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