Polo on the Plains

 

During the 1920s, wealthy area businessmen revived Ellis County's polo history.  Photo Courtesy Ellis County Historical Society.

During the 1920s, wealthy area businessmen revived Ellis County’s polo history. Photo Courtesy Ellis County Historical Society.

When most people think of Kansans on horseback, they picture cowboys herding cattle under a wide-open sky. They probably don’t think of polo, a sport historically dominated by the British upper classes.

But maybe they should.

After all, in Ellis County, Kansas, the sport’s history stretches back to the nineteenth century.

“There really is a tradition of polo here dating back to the 1870s,” said Donald Westfall, Ellis County Historical Society’s Hometown Teams Partner Site Project Director.

That’s when a wealthy British man named George Grant bought tens of thousands of acres of land in Ellis County and established a “colony” he named Victoria. His plan was to sell land to other members of the British nobility.

One of the ways Grant appealed to potential settlers was through the promise of a refined, gentlemanly lifestyle. Polo was a major part of that, offering the British transplants a taste of home while they were on the range.

But when the promised easy riches failed to appear for most ranchers, many British settlers left Kansas, and polo mostly left with them.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that a group of wealthy business professionals and ranchers interested in the sport’s history in the area inspired a polo renaissance in Ellis County, with local ranches like Sweetwater and Philip Ranch both fielding their own teams.

The sport enjoyed a few decades of relative prominence in the area before the Fort Hays Polo Club closed in 1956. Since then, Ellis County’s polo history has been just that—history.

Westfall hopes that this exhibit will revive interest in the sport. There is a lot of interest about horseback sports in the area, he says, but it tends to be “strictly Western.”

“I hope the exhibit gives people a greater appreciation for [Ellis County’s] diversity as far as heritage was concerned,” Westfall added. “This is only one part of that, but it’s a part that sometimes gets lost.”

Polo on the Plain will be on display at the Ellis County Historical Society Museum from March 21 to May 31.  For more information, visit www.elliscountyhistoricalmuseum.org or call (785) 628-2624.