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Croquet in Public Parks - A Case Study

by Ed Merrill, past president and greens chairman, Denver Croquet Club

By 1985, the venerable lawn bowling green in Denver’s Washington Park had declined to such a sad state that lawn bowlers around the country knew it as “The Colorado Cow Pasture”. At least forty percent of the green was clover, twenty percent was dirt, and what remained of the Seaside bentgrass was badly infested with broadleaf weeds. The standard of maintenance for the green was so low that nobody objected when spouses of lawn bowlers, to get a close-up view, set up folding chairs in the middle of the green to watch the competitions — leaving inch-deep craters in their wake. Because the lawn was already bad, no one could effectively object to its frequent unauthorized service as a field for calisthenics or even touch football. Unable to justify maintenance of the lawn for 24 bowlers, the City of Denver was considering removing the four-foot chain link fence “protecting” it and letting the lawn go wild to blend with the surrounding bluegrass.

In 1985, something intervened to prevent the final decay of this once-resplendent bowling lawn, to restore it beyond its design specifications as a state-of-the-art bowling green when it was built in 1920. By 1993, “The Colorado Cow Pasture” was one of the finest lawns in the country.

What happened? The answer is simple: Six-wicket croquet came to Denver.

It started in Denver pretty much the same way it started in other places in those “pioneer years” of the early eighties. Sparky O’Dea, Jr. happened upon several croquet lawns in Australia, tarried to watch, and got hooked. He came back to Denver to found the Park Hill Croquet Club. They played in Denver’s City Park on the most level public turf they could find. It was mostly a family club, with about 10 regular players.

When I moved to Denver in 1985, I called the USCA headquarters and learned of the existence of the Denver club. This was important to me, as I had played croquet for two years as a member of the New York Croquet Club.

To my first meeting with the Denver croquet players, I brought my set of Jaques equipment, and we used it on their field in City Park. Soon after, we found a more congenial square of grass in the center of the flower garden in Washington Park and began to play there regularly.

That is where we discovered the degenerated bowling lawn. I told Sparky and Charles Berberich that the New York Croquet Club shared greens with lawn bowlers in Manhattan’s Central Park, and that we should do the same in Denver. We agreed to give it a try.

The bowling club membership had declined from 96 members in 1967 to 24 members in 1985 — all of them 75 years or older. They paid only $15 a year for membership and did little to assist the Park Department in upkeep, either by volunteer labor or financial contribution. The club had declined apace with the lawn.

We first approached the president of the lawn bowling club with a telephone call. He seemed somewhat receptive and asked us to put our request in a letter. We did that. In due course, we received a letter back with a cold, emphatic, “NO.” The lawn bowlers had been there since 1920 and had never had to share the green, and they never would. Never. The letter was firm.

We decided to shift our tactics. We got the phone numbers of the presidents of both the croquet and lawn bowling clubs in New York and in Beverly Hills. We then sent a letter to the head of Denver Parks and Recreation, with a carbon copy to Lynn Tyler, Superintendent of Washington Park, and another to the president of the lawn bowling club. The letter made these points:

  1. Our croquet club wanted to share the Washington Park Bowling Green.
  2. Croquet and lawn bowling are compatible, requiring the same kind of playing surface.
  3. We would not interfere with the lawn bowlers’ regular playing schedule-Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM.
  4. By occupying the lawn at other times on a regular basis, we would discourage its inappropriate use by unauthorized groups, which had contributed to its decline.
  5. It is difficult for the City to justify a reasonable standard of maintenance for a lawn used by only 24 lawn bowlers.
  6. We would like to have a meeting with three Denver Parks Department people, three lawn bowlers, and three croquet players, to try to arrive at a fair agreement.

In addition to the New York and Beverly Hills phone numbers, we included references from other cities around the country where croquet players and lawn bowlers had made shared-use agreements — usually with the help and encouragement of budget-conscious city park and recreation departments.

The City responded favorably to our letter and notified us of a hearing date. The lawn bowlers declared that they would not attend. The City said that if they did not attend, the meeting would go ahead anyway, and a decision would be made without benefit of the lawn bowlers’ presence. The lawn bowlers decided to attend.

For our three representatives, we sent John O’Dea, Sr., to represent the senior group of our club; Charles Berberich, who is marvelously eloquent; and myself. (My chief quality is persistence.) The bowlers sent three top officers.

We brought to the meeting a TV monitor and VCR, a USCA videotape showing basic court layout and describing the basics of the game, a photograph of the existing Denver lawn, a large duffel bag of croquet equipment, and all our nerve.

Because we had requested the meeting, we were prepared to make a complete presentation. Charles opened by saying that a shared-use agreement could be a boon to both clubs, as lawnsport organizations from coast to coast had already discovered. We followed this with the USCA introductory tape.

Both the park department staff and the lawn bowlers were impressed by the video footage. They could scarcely believe how much nicer the court in Central Park was than the Washington Park lawn. They liked the elegance of the white-clothed players. They were amused by the jump shot.

They examined the equipment with genuine interest. They were curious about the square-headed mallets and the size of our implements. We had brought along a backyard set to give them a comparison between the toy game and the sport of USCA 6-wicket croquet.

Finally, we pointed out that other major cities had croquet lawns, and Denver did not. Denver had 163 tennis courts, 131 soccer fields, 46 football fields, 125 playgrounds, 24 recreation centers, 122 softball courts, 12 senior centers, open spaces for volleyball, one lawn bowling green, and not a single croquet court.

In response, the lawn bowlers made two points: 1. They had squatters’ rights (this is a paraphrase); 2. They did not want their “beautiful” green damaged by wicket holes and croquet play.

In reply, we declared our commitment to help put the green in better condition for both lawnsports; and to never interfere with the bowlers’ long-established weekday morning playing schedule.

The City made an instant decision: we could use the lawn for a one-year probation period, after which time they would reevaluate the shared-use agreement.

We left the meeting with permission to use the court and to help improve its condition, and with the key to the gates-all in one afternoon. Two days later we went out to the lawn, set it up for play, and worked out a lawn improvement agenda.

We started by paying for the expert advice of the superintendent of the Denver Country Club, near our court. Over a series of six visits, he helped us put in motion a long-range plan.

The first part of the plan was to correct the worst flaws of the surface. The lawn bowlers gave us permission to try to bring back the 20 percent of the court surface which had nothing growing on it, not even weeds. Using my Porsche as a truck, we hauled in 3,000 pounds of sand and potting soil, dug out the bad areas, and filled them with sand and a thin layer of dirt. The City gave us $250 worth of PennCross bentgrass seed. Within a few weeks, the court looked much better. We had a Stimpmeter speed of almost two feet.

Then we asked the bowlers if we could kill off the clover. They said it was okay to give it a try. We did, and there ensued a huge upset, because the chemical MCPP we applied produced hundreds of dead spots the size of dinner plates all over the green. “At least it was green,” the bowlers cried. “You've ruined our playing surface!” But we spread more of our PennCross seed, and in a few weeks the court was green again.

The next step was an application of Tri-Mec, to get rid of some 35 broadleaf weeds at once. Again, the court turned spotted brown, and once again we reseeded.

When the court turned green again, we all breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over. The bowlers acknowledged that the lawn had not been in such good shape for many years. All of this took place from April to late June.

With the major corrective work done, we could focus on maintenance procedures. The Parks and Recreation Department was pleased with our success, so we asked them to mow the court three times a week now, instead of the accustomed two times. This went on for four weeks, while the new grass continued to fill in. When we asked for four mowings a week, they decided to allow one member from the two clubs to use the mower.

Soon, the croquet club was cutting the grass almost daily. The court became much smoother, the texture even, the speed constant. We now had a Stimpmeter speed of four and a half feet.

Our advisor then warned us of a common error: Too much water is worse than not enough water. We backed the water down, and the Stimpmeter speed came up to five feet.

Over the course of the next year, we learned what we needed to know about long-term maintenance. We bought a liquid chemical applicator and started a program of putting down a spring pre-emergent to prevent germination of crab grass, clover, and various broadleaf weeds. We got a soil analysis and bought special fertilizer to bring the court sand and-soil mixture back into balance. We handled a terrible night crawler problem (they produce mounds of dirt and mud) with alternating applications of Sevin 80-S and diazinon.

At the end of our first year on the bowling lawn, we had spent $550 on chemicals, and all the mowing of the lawn was done by volunteers from the croquet club.

With responsibility for maintaining the court almost entirely taken over by our club, the City gave us permission to use the mower in any way we wanted, provided we maintained it as well.

All of this development was done with a small core of members sharing the work and the expense. In 1987, with $187.32 in the club's bank account and 22 members, we decided to host that year’s USCA Western Regional Tournament. With the generous help of experienced tournament directors from Arizona and Northern California, we pulled it off. We even made enough money to put lights at the court, a patio, refrigerator, and a gas barbecue grill.

The City gave us two outdoor dining tables.

The courtside improvements we made that year helped us provide the physical and social environment we needed to make our one-lawn club flourish during our 6-month playing season. And of course, the lawn bowlers had access to the same amenities. With night lights and electricity, food, fun, and croquet, we had a winning combination for building and maintaining membership.

The club grew rapidly, and our bank account grew along with it. With increased income from our membership dues, we have been able to hire a greenskeeper and stave off the impending burnout of the few club members who volunteered much more than they sensibly should have.

Our annual expense for purchase and application of chemicals, mowing the court, and repairing and maintenance of equipment is a little more than $5,000. We could get by on much less. We need to spend this much to have a first-rate, world-class lawn.

The Washington Park Lawn Bowling Club, with its own increased member revenues, helps us with half of the chemical expense, half the mower repair bills, and half of any greens equipment the two clubs agree to purchase.

We all have had to learn to operate as a large club instead of a small one. We have had to regulate play, calendaring activities to allow adequate participation of all members, at all levels of skill. We have a planned event each week night on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We use the court intensively on weekends, all day Saturday and Sunday, as well as Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

We have had to tackle a lot of challenges and dissolve many obstacles in getting croquet established in Denver. Throughout the growth of our club, the members have stuck by one another and pitched in whenever and wherever help was needed. I think that is the reason why we have succeeded and why we have grown.

With sensible management of lawn space, neither club is placing limits on how much more growth is possible on our single, shared lawn. Some of us dream of persuading the City to build an adjacent lawn, possibly funded by the state lottery. Some croquet players suggest looking for a separate site and forming a second club.

It’s my personal belief that it is useful to have a partner to share the expenses of the green. And it is useful to have people on the green at all times, to discourage the vandalism that is always a problem on public turf. I believe that having two clubs jointly responsible for the same lawn-and committed to getting along with one another-helps to forestall the petty infighting and political maneuvering that might otherwise poison our relationship with the City.

Here are the recommendations I would give to any croquet club sharing a public facility with another organization:

  • Have a Chairman of the Greens on your Board of Directors.
  • Make a detailed budget with timeliness, and a plan for maintaining the green. Determine clearly what the City will do and what you will do. If you hire an outside concern for help in caring for the lawn, we would recommend Scotts (the fertilizer company).
  • Be sure to have your Chairman of the Greens get the consent of his or her counterpart in the other club before any chemical goes down, and make sure that the application date is known to everyone.
  • Have only one person in your club authorized to communicate to and deal with the City.
  • Have the president of the two clubs be in open, regular, and cordial communication.

(The preceding article was originally printed, in slightly different form, in Volume One of the Croquet Foundation of America's MONOGRAPH SERIES ON CLUB BUILDING, ORGANIZATION AND MANAGMENT, available by order from the USCA.)

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