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Polo celebrating 135th anniversary of its introduction in Aiken

April 1, 2017 GMT

Polo was played in Aiken for the first time 135 years ago, and it made a big splash when it was introduced.

In 1882, the area was a bustling resort for wealthy Northerners, who wanted to escape cold winter weather. Some also believed they could improve their health by breathing the vapors produced by the many longleaf pines.

Most of them had plenty of idle time, and they spent it outdoors riding horses and pursuing other activities.

According to a story that appeared in the March 27 edition of Charleston’s News and Courier, “gay parties of ladies and gentleman mounted on prancing steeds dash over the country enjoying the delightful surroundings, through the beautiful driveways and bridle paths of our celebrated pine forest. Picnic parties have been the order of the day, and sumptuous lunches have been served that would do honor to Delmonico’s table.”

The Palmetto Rifles, described in the article as a “crack military company,” held parades, and other events included fairs “in aid of the churches.”

Celestine Eustis, granddaughter of banker, philanthropist and art collector W.W. Corcoran, entertained her friends “in a royal manner” at the spring and park near Barton’s Pond, the story reported.

The author of the article, however, was most impressed by polo’s Aiken debut, calling in “the great event of the season” and adding, “It has caused a great sensation and completely revolutionized the city as far as amusements are concerned.”

The sport of polo, which got its start in Central Asia, is more than 2,500 years old. But it didn’t arrive in this country until the 19th century. James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, widely received credit for organizing what was billed as the first polo match in the United States in 1876 in the Empire State.

Col. C.S. Wallace, a New Yorker associated with a major sugar company, brought polo to Aiken, where the enthusiastic players included the mayor along with R.B. Barber of New Jersey, Edward Tuttle of Boston and W.R. Lincoln, who was prominent in Baltimore’s social circles.

The News and Courier reported that Aiken’s polo contests were “very exciting” and had been “witnessed by the entire population and visitors in the city.” To get to the matches, spectators “pressed into service” every available horse and carriage.

The scenes at the games, according to the News and Courier, “reminded one vividly of festive days and the excitement attending an Old English race-course or an Oxford and Cambridge boat race in the suburbs of ‘Old London,’ where crowds wear the colors of their favorites and present the victors with rare gifts at the close.”

The place where the polo matches were held later became known as Whitney Field. Today, it is the site of Aiken Polo Club games.

Among Aiken’s earliest polo stars was Thomas Hitchcock Sr., who was one of the first 10-goal players in America. His wife, Louise Eustis Hitchcock coached and inspired future polo stars.

Both of the Hitchcocks are members of the Hall of Fame at the Museum of Polo in Lake Worth, Florida. Also in the Hall of Fame is one of their four children, Thomas Hitchcock Jr., who was a 10-goal player.

Louise Eustis Hitchcock was the niece of Celestine Eustis.

The 2017 spring polo season begins today with the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, Pacers & Polo, at Powderhouse Polo Field.

Gates open at 10:30 a.m., and the match will begin at 1 p.m.

General admission tickets purchased at Pacers & Polo are $10 each for adults and $5 each for children. Kids age 6 and younger get in free.

Powderhouse Polo Field is at 820 Powderhouse Road S.E.

Want to go?

WHAT: Pacers & Polo

WHEN: Gates open at 10:30 a.m., the match begins at 1 p.m.

WHERE: Powderhouse Polo Field, 820 Powderhouse Road S.E.

COST: Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children and free for children ages 6 and younger