It took only one game for Jack Miller to become enchanted with the ancient sport of lawn bowling.
That was seven years ago, when, Miller said, he was dragged to the lushly manicured lawn tucked into a corner of Elizabeth Park to try the game.
"A friend hounded me and hounded me to come try it. I was dragged there, literally," Miller said Saturday before demonstrating the game to a new player. "I only went to get him off my back. After that first game, I hated to leave. It's a challenging game."
But one that, in Hartford at least, has a challenging future.
Miller is now president of Hartford's Thistle Lawn Bowling Club, which has seen membership drop in recent years. With financial pressures mounting, Miller says, the club is in danger of closing unless new members are found.
"Unless we get a heck of a lot more members, we're out of business," Miller said. "And that's sad."
The Thistle club was founded in 1913, and the number of members has varied through the years, from a high of about 200 to a low of only two in 1992. The club now has 26 members who each pay $55 a year for unlimited playing time during the season, which stretches from the spring until the first snow of the year.
Miller said the club pays the city of Hartford $40 a person to help defray the cost of maintaining the green, but recently took over the cost of fertilizing the playing fields, about $800 a year. Financial reserves have covered those costs so far, but only new members can infuse the club with the cash it needs to keep operating, Miller said.
The club invites new players to come try the game at 1 p.m. each Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday at Elizabeth Park.
But it's been difficult to attract new players. On Saturday, Elizabeth Park was crowded with people playing softball, tennis and a pick-up game of football. Others were walking or riding bikes. The lawn bowling green, meanwhile, was nearly empty.
Elaine Johnson said she was disappointed that no one else had come out to try the game. She came for the first time in an effort to get more physical activity in her day.
"I was thinking of trying bowling, but I like to be outside and this is outside," she said. "I thought I'd try it out and see if I like it."
There are three other lawn bowling clubs in Connecticut: one each in West Hartford, Bridgeport and Greenwich.
Bob Lunden, a member of the West Hartford club, which has about 55 members, said it is also in search of new members.
"We're always looking. We need at least three or four each year to help cover costs," Lunden said Saturday.
The object of lawn bowling is to earn points by rolling a ball closer than the other players to a small white ball called the jack, which is anywhere from 75 feet to 108 feet away. The balls are made of wood or plastic and are not perfectly round. One side is heavier than the other, which makes the game more difficult.
The roots of lawn bowling stretch at least to the 13th century. English colonists brought the game to North America, with the first bowling green built in Williamsburg, Va., in 1632, according to the United States Lawn Bowling Association.
George Washington's father built a bowling green at the family home at Mount Vernon, Va., but the sport lost popularity after the American Revolution and disappeared for almost a century, the association said. It was revived in the 19th century by Scottish immigrants who established clubs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut beginning in 1879.
There are currently about 130 clubs in the U.S.
Miller said the Thistle club hopes to attract younger players who will learn to love the game, hoping that matches could be held after work hours.
More information about the Thistle Lawn Bowling Club is available by calling Miller at 860-232-8686 or Zane Gershman at 860-233-6860.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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