(as researched and compiled by Wendy E. Harris, Volunteer Associate Archivist and HPC Commissioner)
Tennis has been an important part of the life, culture, and landscape of Washington Grove since the camp meeting days. Philip Edwards (Washington Grove, 1873-1937) and others who have researched the history of tennis here estimate that the Town has been home to nearly twenty tennis courts over the years. Although many residents owned private courts, the recorded history of tennis playing in Washington Grove tends to focus upon the community-owned courts that have been located within the bounds of Woodward Park since the first decade of the 20th century. We have yet to come across any references to clay courts in our research although the term “lawn tennis” occurs well into the 1920s.
The earliest references to tennis found in the Town archives occur within the context of residents’ complaints that it was being played during the ten-day camp meeting season. In August of 1904, for example, the Board of Trustees expressly prohibited both baseball and tennis “for the balance of the season.” One basis for the ban would have been the community’s longstanding desire for “freedom from the disquieting effects of public sports on the Lord’s day.” However, the evangelical fervor of the camp meeting days gradually subsided as the community and the rest of the nation entered into what is known as the Progressive Era (1890-1920). One of the era’s hallmarks was the rise of sports as an American institution?along with an interest in improved public health, better education, conservation of natural resources, and civic improvement. Accordingly, on June 1905, Washington Grove’s Board of Trustees appointed its first Athletic Committee. It should be noted that during the same 1905 summer season, for the first time, the Washington Grove Chautauqua held its Assembly in the newly completed Grove Auditorium.
We have yet to locate archival records documenting the exact construction date of tennis courts in Woodward Park but references to the construction of the Girls Athletic Association’s club house indicate that courts already existed at this location by 1911. Because the courts also adjoined the new Auditorium, the physical linkage between tennis and the Chautauqua Assembly can be seen as indicative of a Progressive Era, post-camp meeting ground landscape that gradually evolved during this period.
An interesting footnote to the discussion is the fact that Washington Grove’s ban against “Sunday athletics” was finally lifted in 1934. The resolution, however, made an exception of baseball, which would not be permitted “unless otherwise authorized by the Association.” Thus, while many residents of this increasingly secular former camp meeting ground continued to view certain sports as disruptive to their “time honored observance of Sunday as a day of rest and worship,” they were reluctant to curtail their tennis playing?even by a single day.
Our history of tennis in Washington Grove has several gaps but we believe that these will be filled as we continue our work in the archives. Based on what we know so far, there has clearly been a century-long tradition of tennis playing in Washington Grove, much of it occurring in the Woodward Park courts. As elements within an historic landscape, these courts derive their significance from their association with the community’s ties to the Progressive Era, a phase of the community’s development that immediately follows the period during which the community was almost entirely defined by its camp meetings.