Tennis as a sport in St. Marys has a long history. According to information from local newspapers at the St. Marys Museum, a group to form a tennis club first met in July 1889. By the early 1890s, game reports were appearing in the newspapers.
For instance, in September 1892, a team of four men and four women from Mitchell travelled to St. Marys for competition and were “rather successful.”
By the turn of the century, tennis was well established. The report of a meeting held May 1899 named C.S. Rumsey, manager of Traders’ Bank, as president off the club. Other leading citizens had executive roles. Fees were set at “$2 for gentlemen and 50 cents for ladies” and it was decided to grant ladies “the freedom of the courts” one evening each week.
The Dale photograph albums at the Eedy Archives at the Museum contain several pictures from the 1920s of Margaret and Frances Dale posing with their racquets, fetchingly dressed in middies, bloomers and knee-length stockings. This week’s photograph shows their friend and neighbour, Jack Gregory, in tennis whites and a spiffy sweater, one foot casually resting on the running board of his new car.
The site of the very earliest tennis courts is not certain — some people had courts on their own lawns for family and friends. But by the time the Dales were playing, there were proper tennis courts on the Flats (now Milt Dunnell Field). The Flats had always been used for recreation but, until the town acquired ownership of the property from the St. Marys Milling Company in 1919, maintenance was hit-and-miss. By the early 1920s, the Flats had been improved and enlarged, thanks to the donation of five lots at the north end by the St. Marys Cement Company’s John Grieve Lind. Lind became the chairman of the town’s first Parks Board, always supporting improvements in parks and recreational facilities.
A special 1934 edition of the Journal Argus describes tennis courts and a lawn bowling club thriving at the northeast corner of the Flats. That same year, four local tennis players — Bill and Courtney Gilpin, Frank Mitchell and Joe Willard — won the Western Ontario Championship. Club members did their own maintenance but, during the years of World War II, everyone’s focus was directed elsewhere and the courts were abandoned.
The re-awakening of interest in tennis after the war and the development of new community courts will be explored in a subsequent column.