Many years ago, before the excellent athletic fields of today were given to the Academy, boys of the 19th century competed in athletics on the field above Munro House. It was known as “The Old Playground” and was purchased by KUA in 1843 from Levi Bryant, owner of the former Daniel Kimball store, for $100. The Academy invested a further $75 in order to level the ground. There is a wonderful description in a 1929 Kimball Union Bulletin by Maurice J. Duncklee, class of 1893, of the surrounding scenery as viewed from the playground and of the importance of school athletics.
“To the southwest are the twin hills, the rugged Cliffs, while farther to the south is Ascutney, blue in the distance, dominating the landscape in symmetrical, majestic beauty. The old playground, with the solid ledge showing through here and there, scene of so many hard won victories and some heart-breaking defeats, place where strength of body and character were gained, where lifelong friendships were cemented, dear to the hearts of so many loyal sons and daughters of the school.”
What activities did they engage in on this field in the middle of the 19th century? Probably there were early versions of baseball, football and field day events. By the time Duncklee came to KUA in 1889 the rules of baseball were in place and he was able to recall, over 30 years later, the excitement and details of one particular game. He wrote, “A Saturday afternoon the first week in June. The wooden stands filled with the girls of the school. The baseball team at grips with an ancient rival. The last of the ninth inning. K.U.A. leading by one run. The visitors at bat. Two out and the bases full. A long hit which appears to be over the fence and the men on bases scamper for home. The center fielder races back, rests on the fence leaning backward and spears the ball with his gloved hand. The game is saved! Great excitement and rejoicing. The Academy bell sends the good news pealing over hill and valley.”
Above left: The 1893 Champion Baseball team pose on the church green with the old Meriden grade school in the background. Above right: The track team in 1894. The Kimball Union newspaper listed records being broken in 1893 in the “putting of the 12 and 16 lb shot, the throwing of the 12 and 16 lb hammer, the standing three-broad jumps, and the hop, step, and jump.” The Athletic editor also stated that if KUA could train for a bicycle race, they would beat anyone in the state, but the spring conditions of the roads were rough, and they felt “it is almost impossible to ride a light machine over them with any degree of safety.”
Duncklee also told of the excitement of a game, a lot like rugby, played in the fall sometime before 1892; that was the year a Dartmouth man “came down … and taught the rudiments” of football. “A beautiful afternoon in early October. The maples are clothed in their autumn beauty, and there is just enough chill in the air to make physical exercise a joy. The Academy bell has announced release from class room activities and a horde of eager boys are racing toward the playground. Two leaders by common consent begin choosing sides and soon every boy from the youngest and smallest in stature to the oldest and most stalwart is on one side or the other lined up, one line near the East fence and the other near the West. The leader on the East side kicks off nearly over the West fence and a mad scramble ensues. Back and forth the tide of battle rolls. Shins are kicked as the ball is missed, smaller boys are toppled over, ruthlessly until finally a lucky kick sends the ball over the West fence. Then the struggle begins all over again. ‘Association’ football. Glorious exercise for everybody.” He writes that two men, one being Charles Alden Tracy, class of 1893, who later became headmaster (1905-1935), were “so expert in kicking goals that they were debarred from kicking off.”
By the end of the century, it was felt that a larger field than the “one acre and sixty-seven rods” that made up the playground was needed in order to compete with “its old time rivals.” In 1900 Samuel L. Powers, class of 1870, of Boston, purchased and gave KUA the land that now holds all the athletic fields at the bottom of the hill. This was done with the cooperation and assistance of John D. Bryant, class of 1845, who owned some of the land. The Old Playground, along with The Bryant Block, was deeded to Bryant in 1910, the year Bryant Hall was dedicated.
Next time: Athletics for girls in the 19th century