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Cape Girardeau might have the nation's oldest handball court

Posted Tuesday, January 1, 2013, at 11:30 PM

...but not for long, if the university gets their way.

Although we may never know for sure, it's quite possible that the doomed handball court on the grounds of old St. Vincent's College is the oldest remaining handball court in the whole United States -- east or west of the Mississippi River.

A variety of sources, including the Northern California Handball Association, claim that the oldest documented handball court was located at 543 Market Street in San Francisco. City directories from as early as 1851 list "Thomas Cullen's Saloon and Shamrock Ball and Racket Court" at that address, which was apparently an Irish pub where one of the walls was used for handball. Irish immigrants during the California Gold Rush had brought the sport from their home country.

However, those Californians weren't the first handball players in the New World. Cape Girardeau already had a handball court in 1843. According to Vincentian church records, it was built by Joseph Lansman at the same time as the first St. Vincent's College building. In their book Our Dear Brother Joseph, Sharon Sanders and Diana Bryant write:

At this time, 1843, Lansman also erected the lower handball court, which then was called the ball alley near the river. This structure appears on the 1880 Bird's Eye View map of Cape Girardeau and in other lithographs and advertisements for the college. This alley was a large, thick brick wall complete with buttresses. Oral tradition states the alley was shelled by a Confederate gunboat travelling north on the Mississippi during the Civil War. Apparently, the commander mistakenly thought it was Fort D, one of four Union forts which guarded the city of Cape Girardeau. It is also possible he thought it was the city itself. At a latter date, the Vincentians sued to repair damages suffered during the Civil War and, after receiving minimal compensation, had the alley repaired. This court appeared whole on the 1880 map, and payout records for St. Vincent's note Lansman as the builder.

After the main college building was severely damaged by a tornado in 1850, Lansman set to work on repairs, as well as constructing a new addition. He was also, according to Vincentian records, asked to erect a second ball alley "on the same terms" as the addition. This was likely completed in 1853.

The 1880 Bird's Eye View does indeed show two handball courts: the first close to the river, and the second peeking out from behind the college building.

Of course, only one of these two handball alleys is still standing. The big question, then, is whether the current structure was the first one (1843) or the second one (1853). The nomination for the National Register of Historic Places states, "Secondary sources, including church histories prepared by the Vincentians, date the handball courts to 1843 and claim that they are the first such structures west of the Mississippi River."

That's true -- except the church records probably describe the first alley, closer to the river, which is no longer standing. Even with the later date, 1853 versus 1843, the Cape Girardeau ball alley is still probably the oldest remaining handball court in the country. The handball alley in San Francisco, dating to 1851, has long since been plowed under by the city's skyscrapers.

An article on the U.S. Handball Association website also mentions San Francisco as having the oldest known U.S. handball courts (although it gives a date of 1873). The article then explains:

As early as 1850, players such as Martin Butler of Kilkenny and William Baggs of Tipperary, with seemingly no fixed occupation, would travel all over Ireland to play for wages against the local champions. Another feature was the fostering of handball and other Gaelic sports by the Christian Brothers and other Catholic teaching orders. Many of these men later brought the game to South Africa, America and Australia, to schools such as Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and the high schools in Butte, Mont.

Both of the places mentioned weren't established until after 1870, so that rules out any chance that they have older handball courts. Another candidate is Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln played a version of handball in 1859 and 1860, just before receiving the nomination for President. Playing at a makeshift alley on Sixth Street, Lincoln was said to be "as vigorously engaged in the sport as though life depended upon it."

Lincoln's personal handball has survived, and has been on display at the Smithsonian. The handball court where he played, however, no longer exists -- the site has been replaced by a portion of the Lincoln Presidential Library complex. So we can cross this one off the list.

It seems increasingly likely that Cape Girardeau has the oldest extant handball court in the country, making this a nationally significant landmark. But this leaves one puzzling question: Why was handball so popular in Cape Girardeau's early history? There must have been a huge demand: Why else would the Vincentians direct Lansman to build a second court even though he was already overwhelmed trying to rebuild the college and St. Vincent's Church following the tornado?

The U.S. Handball Association story explains that the game spread from Ireland to America via "Catholic teaching orders." The Vincentians fit that description, but they were based in France, not Ireland. So how did an Irish sport come to Cape Girardeau? The National Register nomination tries to answer that question:

Hand-played ball games originated in ancient Egypt in 2000 BC. Alexander the Great introduced the game to the Greek colonies in Italy in 450 BC, from which it spread to Spain and France. Variations of the game appear throughout Europe by the sixteenth century and often appeared near church buildings to encourage play away from church walls with their glass windows. In France, the home of the Vincentian order, a version of the game invented by monks evolved into tennis. Modern American handball evolved from the game brought by Irish immigrants in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Because of its date of construction and associations with the Vincentians, it is possible that the structure's design has associations with the French antecedents.

A website devoted to Irish handball alleys (isn't the Internet wonderful?) provides photos of hundreds of the structures throughout Ireland. Looking through the photos, however, I couldn't find any that quite match the Cape Girardeau version. Our structure is double-sided so that two games could be played simultaneously on both sides of the wall, while the Irish versions are one-sided and tend to have longer side walls.

The same website states, "Purpose-built alleys first emerged in the late 1700s; though seem to have remained the exception for at least a further 100 years." Many of the Irish courts were apparently built with concrete, which means they aren't as old as our 1853 brick structure.

In Ireland, the alleys were more than just a venue for playing a game; they were social gathering places. Judging by all the names carved into the sides of our handball court, it must have been a popular hangout as well. The National Register nomination took note of the etchings, saying, "Historic graffiti remains on the brick walls and includes legible dates as early as 1871."

Walking around and studying the brick inscriptions, the oldest date I could find was 1919, although I'm sure there are plenty of older examples.

Look for the faint "1919" in the middle brick, second full row from the bottom of the picture

Some of the names are quite plain, and some have strong local connections. One brick marked "Buchheit" sticks out like a sore thumb.

The Irish website laments that an increasing number of handball courts are abandoned or demolished. The situation isn't any better on this side of the pond. In Los Angeles, for example, a concrete handball court in a city park is threatened with demolition; the city fathers claim that the wall encourages people to "drink" and "swear" while hiding out of the sight.

On the other hand, another Los Angeles area handball court has been spared demolition. Built in 1928, the Maravilla Handball Court is considered the oldest in the L.A. area. Thanks to a community effort, it has been added to the state historic register. It possesses a "rich, layered history and continues to serve as an important community space for youth and families."

If Californians can campaign to save something from 1928, then our own 1853 landmark must be worthy of some kind of effort to prevent it from becoming rubble. Time is running out, though: I've already seen construction workers busy in the area.

This might be like tilting at windmills -- as some would say, "You Can't Fight Academic Hall" -- but doing nothing will only guarantee that the university will continue to demolish historic sites until none are left to destroy.

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

I hope that the handball court can be saved. Far too many historic structures have already been destroyed.

-- Posted by tuffoldbird on Wed, Jan 2, 2013, at 12:27 AM

why do they want to tear it down, to build some white elephant project I guess.

spend and tear down is all they know...

-- Posted by bagman75 on Wed, Jan 2, 2013, at 4:40 AM


-- Posted by TommyStix on Wed, Jan 2, 2013, at 10:09 AM

James I think you should list all of the historic structures SEMO has demolished over the years.

-- Posted by Cap_Anson on Wed, Jan 2, 2013, at 11:08 PM

Great research into the history. This structure must be saved !!!

-- Posted by jacksonjazzman on Mon, Jan 7, 2013, at 11:47 AM

The University should recognize the importance of it. I think they did a good job with the rest of the old seminary - why not this too?

-- Posted by Danno1 on Tue, Jan 8, 2013, at 6:51 AM

Is there anything that can be done? I am appalled at this. I am an alumnus as is my wife and one daughter and another to follow. I can't believe a university with such an outstanding Historic Preservation program can let greed step in the way of sound judgement. I have the 1880 Cape Girardeau lithograph in my office. This may soon be the only way to see the handball court. Incidentally this article and the one featuring Joseph Landsman are impeccably written and I can tell you did a lot of research on this. Please keep up the fight!

-- Posted by VoiceofCape on Tue, Jan 8, 2013, at 7:31 PM

There is something that can be done. St. Vincent's Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the 1843 double handball court is listed as a contributing structure. The University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office that construction would not adversely affect the handball court. But this new construction will adversely affect it. If the University is using any federal funding for this project, the SHPO must review and comment on their plans -- and has the right to require mitigation. I will bring this matter to the attention of the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation during our meeting on February 8 in Jefferson City. In the meantime, citizens are welcome to contact the State Historic Preservation Office in Jefferson City.

-- Posted by bstepenoff on Thu, Jan 10, 2013, at 10:16 AM

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The webmaster of seMissourian.com and its sister newspapers, James Baughn has lost track of the number of websites he manages. On the side, he maintains even more sites, including Bridgehunter.com, LandmarkHunter.com, TheCapeRock.com, and Humorix.
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