Polos place in local lore
August 24, 2007
Aspen was a shining star back in the mining days a bustling town with culture, rich silver mines, electric lights and the imposing Wheeler Opera House. But as Aspens star faded with the silver collapse of 1893, Glenwood Springs took its turn as the beacon of the Roaring Fork Valley. Under the guiding hand of Walter B. Devereux, the Hotel Colorado was built and the Glenwood Hot Springs was developed as a world-class resort.A major component of Deve-reuxs plan was polo. The Hotel Colorado the Spa, as it was known to many was modeled on English traditions (in fact, its development was partly financed by British investors, including the governor of the Bank of London). But polo was not just the Sport of Kings, it was a way to pass an afternoon, providing entertainment and exercise for the resorts wealthy guests after they soaked in the therapeutic hot springs.
Polo was not Devereuxs only contribution to the valley, however. The New York transplant worked with Jerome Wheeler in Aspen, developing a smelter for silver ore. Devereux also helped bring electricity to Aspen, lighting both the town and the mines in the 1890s years before most mountain communities had such a luxury. But after a decade in Aspen, Devereux turned his eyes toward creating a first-class destination that would draw Europeans and Easterners to the healing waters of Glenwood Springs and to world-class polo.Along with F.H.A. Hervey Lyle, an Irishman from Londonderry, Devereux organized the Glenwood Polo and Racing Association. Lyle had played polo in India and was keen to get the game started in Glenwood. Devereux created a turf polo field just behind where Glenwood High School stands today, in the area of the football field (although three times as big). Around the perimeter was a racetrack and a clubhouse, where proper attire was expected women wore large satin hats; old photos show them with coy smiles, their gloved hands wrapped around their husbands polo mallets.Lyle and Devereux recruited the owner of the livery stable to play and brought in cowboys and hunting guides to try their hand swinging a mallet astride their ranch horses. Notable among the group were the Baxter brothers, who worked as hunting guides in the rough country around the flattops east of Glenwood. (One of the brothers more notable clients was Teddy Roosevelt, who was a guest at the Hotel Colorado while recuperating from a tropical disease he had contracted in Cuba.) It wasnt long before cowboys, Easterners and Europeans competed together on Devereuxs polo field. The local cowboys learned how to train a $5 horse and sell it back as a polo pony for $125, which made the sport especially attractive to the local horsemen. It also made them a little more accepting of the sudden shift in Glenwood from small ranching community to a resort town with international visitors.Walter B. DevereuxWith the Aspen smelter, the electric plant, the hotel and the polo club on his list of accomplishments, Devereux was larger-than-life. But even beyond these achievements he was simply unstoppable. Once, on a trip back from Denver on Christmas Eve, the snows became so heavy that the coach carrying Devereux was forced to stop at a stage station (possibly Wellers, near Weller Lake). The driver announced they could go no farther that night, but Devereux was not going to miss Christmas at home. He set about making himself a pair of skis out of two staves from a empty barrel. He drilled holes through the boards and laced them to his feet with cord. He set off walking on these Norwegian snowshoes in his beaver-lined coat toward Aspen. He arrived exhausted and collapsed upon reaching home, but damn if he didnt make it for Christmas.This is a man who had the grit to play polo and launch a world-class resort.Lyle was not lacking in the grit department, either. Lyle lost an eye in a practice polo match but didnt give up the game. Far from it. After the accident, all the photos of Lyle show him posing in profile apparently to conceal his injury.Soon other polo teams were competing in Glenwood for what was then called the Rocky Mountain Championship. Among them were Nebraska (10th Cavalry), Colorado Springs, Fort Logan and Denver. An old news article in the Frontier Historical Society archives reports that a team from Calgary came to Glenwood days ahead of the tournament to acclimate their horses to the altitude.Hotel Colorado visitors could play on the fields across the river from the hotel, and both men and women could take polo lessons. A rarified style was cultured that emulated the British, albeit with a Western flair. In the same area as the racetrack and polo field was a golf course, and the town council agreed to plant cottonwoods along Grand Avenue, leading to the polo field. Old photos depict a sizable clubhouse, tents and viewing stands. But the melding of this British sport with the rough-riding skills of local horsemen created a unique atmosphere: It was the Sport of Kings Silver Kings, Colorado-style.
Polo is a game of physical stamina and highly developed equestrian skills. A player must be able to whack a ball while riding 30 mph, push his horses shoulder against another and force them to yield as they pursue the ball, then rein and turn on a dime to avoid causing a collision.It can be dangerous, and players must have cool heads on the field. Nevertheless, hot words can fly and tempers do flare. As in any competitive sport, there is a rush of adrenaline; but this one involves eight 1,200-pound horses galloping flat out across a 300-yard field.The physical test must have been the same for turn-of-the-century polo players as it is today. This years Devereux Cup tournament was a tough test of endurance for even the fittest of competitors (see story, page XX). Seasoned polo player George Estrada, an athletic, lean man in his 40s, came off the field in the first chukker, saying he felt ready to collapse.Phew! Its the altitude, he said, hurrying to tack his horse for the second chukker, not wasting time to nurse his illness, but sucking it up for the next period.Ive climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and never had any problems, he said, slipping a bridle on his next horse. Hell, we have a house at 8,000 feet!Living at 8,000 feet isnt the same as playing polo at 8,000 feet, said his son, smiling and giving him a hand with the saddle. Its not the same at all.
Craig Huber, a 30-something from Vernal, Utah, started playing the game five years ago. Despite a nasty fall resulting in a broken arm in December, Huber was back on the field this summer. Its the adrenaline rush, he said. Theres nothing like it.Another player, commenting on the competitive nature of the game after players suit up for a tournament, said, Everybodys having a great time partying, laid-back and relaxed, but the minute they put those white pants on, they go crazy.But not everyone is out for blood, far from it. And an old tradition of polo is to exchange a handshake on the field as the competition finishes and share a beer at the tailgate or clubhouse.There is plenty of camaraderie, with opposing teams laughing together after the match and reminiscing about plays and horses.I trailer my horses up here just to play with my daughter, said Peggy Christensen, owner of Red Rocks Rangers Polo Club in Larkspur, Colo. Shes such a great horsewoman to see her out there with horses, no one else can ride makes it worth the trip.Women. Oh, yes. Three women played in this years tournament: Mother/daughter team Peggy Christensen and Michelle Huber for Team Azteca; and Linda Lafferty (the writer) for Hotel Colorado. There have been women playing every year since 2004. (In the heyday of Glenwood polo, there were polo lessons for both men and women, although no record of womens games or tournaments.)The whole spirit and family environment of the polo here brings me here, said Christensen. We come up here to have fun and play good, fast polo.Todd Merriam, former captain of the CSU polo team, added, Whats special is to be out here on Barrys ranch, up here on the plateau is so spectacular.Merriam went on, reflecting on the similarities between the 2007 polo tournament and the matches of the 1890s. This brand of polo is definitely more of the Western cowboy-style, kind of what I imagine they played in Glenwood back then, he said.Linda Lafferty is a freelance writer and polo player. Special gratitude to Willa Soncarty of the Frontier Historical Museum and Larry McDonald of the Hotel Colorado for information and photos contributed to this article.