Commentary

On the brink of extinction

Village aims to keep once-popular variation of croquet alive

Updated: August 27, 2010, 10:11 PM ET
By T. Sean Herbert | ESPN

SemifinalsMarika PhotographyRoque players who use the court in the village center of Angelica, N.Y., believe it's the only site in America where games are routinely played.

ANGELICA, N.Y. -- If you think small-town Americana is a thing of the past, take a drive along Interstate 86 in western New York to the village that proclaims it is "Where History Lives."

Here, history does indeed live, in the shape of a unique and obscure game called roque, played in a bucolic park in the village center.

Eighty-nine-year-old Angelica resident Bernie Piatt says the derivative of croquet used to be played only by local businessmen in proper attire, during daylight hours. That all changed, Piatt recalls being told, in 1923 when electricity came to town.

These days, Piatt spends many summer nights and weekends as an unofficial roque official, sitting on one of the wrought-iron benches that line the court. He's needed because the National Roque Association last published its rules in the 1950s, and the National Two Ball Roque Association last published its revised rules in 1961.

[+] EnlargeBernie Mewith
Marika PhotographyBernie Piatt is the unofficial official of roque games played in Angelica.

Piatt and those who play in Angelica are simply trying to keep the game alive -- they believe Angelica is the only place in the country where roque is played on a regular basis.

'Game of the Century'

Roque (pronounced roke) is played in pairs on a large, oval-shaped court made of clay and sand with 6-inch-high boards around the sides. Players use those boards just like hockey players do to advance the puck. Roque mallets are shorter than those in croquet, but the balls are about the same size. A winner is determined when both players on one team put their ball through each arch in a particular order and then strike a stake located behind an arch at either end of the court.

In roque's heyday, in the early 1900s, players billed it as "The Game of the Century." It even cracked the Olympic lineup as an exhibition sport in the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, replacing croquet from prior Games.

The game got its name in 1899, when New Yorker Samuel Crosby dropped the initial "c" and final "t" from "croquet." Popularity spurred leagues to form, and in 1916, the American Roque League was founded. After mergers with various other roque entities, it became the centralized league in 1920.

Angelica's Jim Gallman says he learned the game by watching "the old people" play it in the 1950s. He says there were 10, 12 men at most, and each summer evening they would play and boys would watch: "Remember, there wasn't much TV in those days, and people didn't travel as much, and that was their entertainment."

Ultimately, other entertainment options would sap the game's popularity.

In 2004, the American Roque and Croquet Association suspended tournaments because the number of participants at the nationals event had dropped to single-digit figures. But each August, Angelica celebrates its history with a weekend-long celebration called Heritage Days. A roque tournament is held, along with musical acts playing at the nearby town gazebo and nearly a hundred vendors selling everything from a tasty cabernet at the Angelica Winery tent to Army surplus canteens.

"To know that, really, we're the only ones in the country that do this … it's kind of neat," said Brian Jones. The bad news is that because Angelica might be the only place on earth where the game is frequently played, the balls and mallets are hard to come by.

"It can be tough to find … especially the balls," said Jones. "If they ever quit making them, it is going to be a tough time finding them. A lot of guys make their own, or has somebody that makes them. And of course, a lot of this stuff gets handed down from generation to generation."

[+] EnlargeBob Gallman
Marika PhotographyThe Gallmanns have multiple generations of roque players in the family. Bob Gallmann lines up a shot during the Heritage Days festival.

Yet roque is not completely caught in the past.

The game has surfaced in a few pop culture references. In Stephen King's 1977 novel, "The Shining," the main character, Jack Torrance, wields a roque mallet (in the 1980 film adaptation, Jack Nicholson's weapon of choice is an ax). A chapter in John Steinbeck's 1954 novel "Sweet Thursday" also describes a rivalry among the town's residents over the game.

Women, traditionally not allowed on the court, are now gladly accepted in the game.

"I think that is an old tale that the girls can't play," Piatt said. "A lot of kids come along with their long mallets and balls and play. And nobody cares. It keeps the grass out."

Keeping it alive

In Angelica, the game is a family affair. And no family in town has more players than the Gallmanns. More than a dozen play, though all the others spell their last names differently than Jim, whose birth certificate had one "n" dropped.

"I don't know if I can count them all," said 18-year-old Danny Gallmann, Jim's nephew. "It seems to have been in my family for generations.

"Dean Gallmann is my father. He plays in the second game. In this game right now, Paul Gallmann is related to me distantly. He's like a far cousin. Then my uncle Jimmy and my cousin Brian are all playing in this game. Then in the second game along with my father is his partner … a distant cousin of mine. His name is Brett Gallmann. And his opponent is his brother, my uncle, Bobby. At least one Gallmann will win the championship!"

Piatt also has passed the game to future generations. "All of my kids are playing the game," he said. "My grandkids are playing it. And I suspect some great-grandchildren."

[+] EnlargeTrophy
Marika PhotographyThe annual roque tournament during Angelica's Heritage Days is a central part of the festival, even if an artist mistakenly emblazoned "croquet" on the mallets instead of "roque."

In the finals of August's contest, Ray Auman Sr. played a terrific match, and he and his partner, Bob Gallmann (Jim's brother), won the best-of-three series 2-0. Afterward, Auman discussed the benefits of the game and the legacy he's proud to pass on to his son.

"You got kids that will play with their dads. And their dads play with their dads. And you probably got grandfathers that play also. You could have four generations on the court at the same time."

But Bob Gallmann said it's not just his family in Angelica that shows interest.

"A lot of [townspeople] don't know what it is about -- and every year, a lot of them will sit on the bench and will want you to explain the game," he said. "And a lot of people enjoy watching it. It's a little slow, but to Angelica, it's a pretty good heritage -- over 100 years."

During a break between matches at this year's roque finals, folks from Angelica who have played the game -- young and old -- posed for a group photo. There were 21 people in all, some in their 80s, the youngest, 8.

Allegany County Chamber of Commerce Tourism Coordinator Michael Burke said that because Angelica is known for keeping the sport alive, strangers seeking the game's history occasionally contact the village -- from Illinois, Texas, South Carolina and Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

"There's a gentleman from South Carolina who is putting in a new court or redesigning an existing court," he said. "Obviously, it's not dead everywhere, which is really heartwarming to me."

T. Sean Herbert is a feature producer for ESPN.