The unusual, curb-type rectangular structures at Forest Park are something of a curiosity, appearing to have been part of a building that once existed.

However that is not the case. An inscription on a marker states “Shelbyville Roque Club-1948.” It is believed the courts were used for roque and croquet as well as horseshoes and other activities. But the appearance of the court is typical of ‘roque’ design.

What is, or was, roque?

It appears that the game of roque, (pronounced “roak”) was an American version of croquet that was very popular from the early 1900s to the late 50s. The sport developed a large following and the American Roque League was formed in 1916, surpassing the popularity of croquet.

Billed as “The Game of the Century” roque was a game of the gentility and much more difficult than croquet. Roque seemed to appear around places that featured Chautauquas and roque clubs were formed from New York to Florida to California with the highest concentration being in the Midwest.

Shelbyville is unique in that even though the game has been largely discarded, the courts have survived as a reminder of a time gone by.

Daisy Rittgers, age 99, is a life-long Shelbyville resident and remembers the game being played at Chautauqua events in Forest Park. “I saw people playing but I didn’t pay much attention to it. They were older than me. I was only 12 and they were in their late teens and early twenties. It seemed to me that it was a game for the elite, not a game for the masses like baseball. I believe you had to belong to a club and pay dues to play. It was more of a social game like bridge.”

Those sentiments can be found in a handbook entitled, “Shelbyville Chautauqua Assembly-1912” produced by the Shelbyville Chautauqua Association. Special mention is made of the roque courts and their use. “This old time open air amusement has not lost its many attractive features and its devotees are many. The croquet courts at the park are nicely aranged--the borders are concreted, thus enabling expert players to display their skill. While the grounds are not, strictly speaking, for the use of the public, visitors will be cordially invited to participate in the sports of the game.”

Patricia Miers of Decatur agreed with Rittgers. Her husband, C. T. “Pete” Miers was an avid player and member of the board of directors of the American Roque League. “He was very active in the society when he was younger, but I don’t know much about the game other than he played a lot. He loved the game and the camaraderie of the people he played with. It was a game mostly played by businessmen or people of leisure.” Miers said that it was like belonging to a country club or tennis club, not something everybody did.

Also according to Miers, The roque parks in Decatur were in Fairview Park, where the tennis courts are now. “The courts, like the people who played roque, are mostly all gone,” she said.

Miers added, “I am sure he came down to Shelbyville to play. He played all over. I know it was a game played by men and women because he talked about a lady in Texas who was a very good player.”

Rittgers also said she saw both men and women playing at Chautauqua. “There were men and women playing as I recall. They chose up sides and formed teams when I saw them play.”

But as the automobile, radio, movies and other forms of entertainment became popular, the Chautauquas, croquet and roque began to fall by the wayside. By the late 50s, interest in the game had faltered.

However, roque is still played during some festivals like in Angelica, New York during Heritage Days. The Nottingham Croquet Club in England still has a healthy membership and roque and croquet are still played in Maui, Hawaii. The Maui Croquet Club states that, “Croquet is played competitively in over twenty countries, the major ones in the 1990s being Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the USA.”

Barty Johnson of Levelland, TX was a maker of roque mallets and balls. “I haven’t made any in the past three or four years. I got too old. It is still played in Missouri, Oklahoma and California, places like that.” Johnson said he hasn’t made any gear for Illinois players in a long time.

Roque authority, Garth Eliassen said, “There are a few courts still in existence, scattered across the country. Roque is still played at a few locations in the United States, played the same way it has been for over 100 years. It's a version of nine-wicket croquet, usually played on hard sand with a raised border that the balls can carom off.”

“It was a hard game to play,” said Miers. “They used small mallets and hard balls to carom off the walls of the court. The hoops were smaller too, I believe.”

The roque surface was hard packed sand and the mallets were short.

Some said players wanted a game that was truly American so they came up with the name “roque” by dropping the “C” and the “T” off croquet.

“Pete was the youngest of his group that played and he eventually had to give it up. I think they all died or just faded away from the sport,” added Miers.

Several area people were listed as being active roque players during its heyday. W.W. Smith of Strasburg, Charley Vulgamott of Cerro Gordo, Gene Goodwin of Dalton City, Karl Waterman of Elkhart and John Campbell of Carlinville were all listed in the membership directory of “The American Roque Club Official Rules 1958-1959.”

In David Drazin’s “Untold Mysteries of Croquet History,” that appeared in Croquet World Magazine, (Oct. 2004) he discusses the rise and fall of roque and the survival of croquet. “The history of roque remains to be told. Its demise is no doubt due in part to the greater appeal of play on grass than on a prepared hard court. But I suspect that is only part of the story. A tour through the association’s recent yearbooks leaves the impression of a governing body that somehow lost its way. How this came about I would dearly like to know.”

Email john.carswell@shelbyvilledailyunion.com

This Week's Circulars

Recommended for you