The Boerne hotel where polo was first played in U.S. — maybe
BOERNE — The handsome, two-story building that fronts Main Street just up the road from downtown is impressive in its own right. Recently renovated from top to bottom, it has a history as colorful as any other in the Hill Country.
Originally built in 1851 as a small frontier home, it was added onto through the years and served as a restaurant, boarding house, bordello, old folks home and, when Debbie Gracy bought it in 2005, an office building. Today, after a four-year makeover, it’s a small boutique hotel that mixes history with modern amenities, overflowing gardens and a stone patio area and sweeping lawn for weddings, cocktail parties and other outdoor events.
But what makes the limestone and blue-painted Texas Polo Club Hotel truly special is that it once hosted what some say — and what Gracy insists — were the first polo players ever to play the sport in the United States.
Gracy concedes she has no hard evidence that polo was first played not New York City as the story is usually told, but in this small Hill Country burg. But she has plenty of circumstantial evidence to bolster the claim, including the influx of former British officers familiar with polo into the area in the early 1870s and newspaper accounts of “polo ponies” being bought and sold from here.
“There’s not a single document to prove it, but all our research points to the fact that they were playing polo here before James Gordon Bennett Jr. brought polo to New York in 1876,” Gracy said, “And back in the day, this is where the players would come and drink after the matches.”
Bennett, the owner The New York Herald newspaper, is generally credited with introducing what’s sometimes called the sport of kings to the United States when he organized a May 6, 1876 match at Dickel’s Riding Academy at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A week later the first outdoor match is said to have been played at the Jerome Park Racetrack in Westchester County north of New York City.
But Gracy and others harness a number of facts that suggest polo was already being played in Texas even before Bennett and others climbed aboard their mounts.
The modern sport of polo originated in India and, during the mid-19th century, was brought home to England by military members who played while posted there during the British Raj. By the early 1870s, a number of them, including Captain William Michael Glynn Turquand, retired to the area around Boerne, purchasing land to train military mounts to sell to the U.S. Army, including the post at what is now Fort Sam Houston.
These experienced horsemen knew that one of the best ways to prepare horses for the rigors of military life was to train them to become polo ponies.
“Polo desensitizes the horses to fast action, loud noises and close contact with other horses,” explained Ursula Pari, chairwoman of the San Antonio Polo Club and the long-time anchor at KSAT-TV. “At Fort Sam Houston, officers were required to play polo because it was considered good training.”
At the time, newspapers often published notices of the comings and goings of prominent people and of interesting business transactions. On April 4, 1876, for example, the Galveston News reported that a man from “New York has been in this region as the agent of the proprietor of the New York Herald, Mr. James Gordon Bennett, to purchase twenty small ponies for a ‘Polo Club’ of which he is president.”
That’s at least one month before Bennett organized the Dickel’s polo match.
“If they were selling ponies to play polo in New York, it only makes sense that they were already playing here in Boerne,” Gracy said.
Gracy added that polo was likely played on land that Turquand owned just outside Boerne.
Brenda Lynn, director of development for the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in Lake Worth, concedes there’s a “gray area” when it comes to nailing down, exactly, where the first polo was played in the U.S.
“There’s a long oral tradition that says it happened in Texas,” she said. “We don’t have any documentation to back that up, and it’s also hard to say whether they were playing organized matches or just riding ponies and hitting a ball around.”
As owner of the Texas Polo Club Hotel, Gracy has an interest in propagating the story that the first match was held nearby, of course. It took her the better part of four years to complete the renovation, which at one point involved dismantling all the longleaf yellow pine boarding in the building piece by piece and stacking it in the backyard while workers completely modernized the electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems.
She reinstalled the wood horizontally, like shiplap, without sanding it down. As a result, many of the walls and ceilings are an interesting mishmash of colors and textures. Leftover wood was recycled to make bathroom vanities, door and window trim and wainscoting in the guest rooms.
Gracy, who owns a luxury travel company and lives half the year in Zimbabwe (within walking distance of Victoria Falls,) named each of the hotel’s four rooms ($250 per night) after a famed explorer: Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Shackleton, David Livingston and, after she Googled “most underrated explorer,” Matthew Henson, said to be the first man to reach the North Pole during Matthew Peary’s 1908-09 expedition.
History, it seems, remains an integral part of the building’s existance.
Richard A. Marini is a features writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @RichardMarini