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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Polo field to air field

By Martin Middlewood, for The Columbian
Published: February 26, 2023, 6:03am

Around 1871, British cavalry officers introduced polo to the United States, and the sport became popular quickly. Harvard University founded its intercollegiate team in 1885. The U.S. Army endorsed the sport to train cavalry officers at Fort Riley, Kan., in 1896. By 1892, the U.S. had 13 polo teams. West Point picked up the sport in 1901.

The Army believed polo taught physical fitness, teamwork, mounted combat and riding skills. Instead of sabers and lances, the riders used mallets or sticks to swat a small ball while charging down the 300-yard course in less than a minute, the speed of a calvary charge.

Just when the sport came to the Vancouver Barracks isn’t known. However, Donna Sinclair’s “Riptide on the Columbia” notes that barracks officers played polo during the later 1800s. Where barracks officers played is vague. There were at least three polo field sites, maybe more if you consider casual games. Today, Pearson Field is 134.4 acres and could easily contain 13 300-by-160-yard polo fields.

Two maps published by the Vancouver Barracks, one from 1912 and another from 1928, show two different but officially mapped polo fields, according to Bob Cromwell, manager of the National Park Service’s Pearson Air Museum and archeologist for Pearson Field.

The local newspaper started running occasional articles mentioning the polo field and polo games around 1909. But casual polo games may have been held earlier. A March 1899 Vancouver Weekly Columbian published a brief about an officer’s polo injury but didn’t mention the polo field location.

The first field legitimately created in 1910 was positioned between the current site of Pearson Air Museum and the rebuilt Fort Vancouver. Pioneering aviators Silas Christofferson, Walter Edwards and Charles Walsh encamped there to tinker with and fly airplanes. During World War I, the erection of the Spruce Production Cut Up Plant covered this field, ending polo games.

Polo playing didn’t reboot at the barracks until 1924. Lt. Frank Strickland and other polo enthusiasts reestablished it at the barracks just in time for the May 1924 Northwest International Polo Tournament to be held there. The contest ran for nine days and used an aerial campaign by Lt. Oakley Kelly for advertising.

In 1928, a second field appeared west of Fort Vancouver where the Kanaka Village at the fort once stood. This field, laid out during polo’s golden age in Vancouver, 1925 to 1931, included a grandstand holding 500 spectators. They also visited the Vancouver Barracks grounds for events like Army air circuses. In September 1927, this included stunt flying by Army pilots, including Lieutenant Kelly, airfield commander.

Clark County polo died out when the Depression hit, but it was not until March 1942 that the U.S. Army deactivated its mounted cavalry. By 1936, the polo fields disappeared and were replaced by barracks for the Civilian Conservation Corps, where the polo grounds had once been located.

Today, references to the “polo field” don’t refer to a specific area. Instead, the term suggests the entire grassy green area between state Highway 14 and the Vancouver Barracks, including the parade ground and Pearson Field.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.