BARNBALL, BOBSLEDS – RECREATION IN THE 1870s (January 4/02)

What did kids do for recreation and relaxation in the pre-radio, pre-television, pre-computer and pre-electronic gadgets age? Leslie Eugene Dennison’s detailed essay on this area in the 19th century, in the period around the 1870s, provides some surprising answers.

Serialised in this paper in the 1930s, Dennison’s article tells us there were numerous ways boys and girls amused themselves in our great-grandparent’s day by playing games. For the most part, recreation in this period involved physical activity. On activities at school, for example, Dennison writes that the younger boys often engaged in a “race around the (Kentville town) square” at recess time and it was an “event of much importance” that was supervised by the older boys.

This we can assume was a spring and autumn activity. In the summer, as they do now, boys played ball. This was in the early days of baseball and while Dennison says it was similar to the modern game, the equipment and method of play were primitive.

“The bats were homemade, sometimes soft, sometimes hard wood; the balls generally had a rubber core the size of a walnut for bounce, yarn wound, the covering being scraps from the shoemakers or harness shops, sewn with waxed ends. Sometimes a solid rubber ball, laboriously cut and filed from an old rubber car spring was used.”

An unusual aspect of this early baseball was the use of a floating or extra player. After the boys picked sides and there was an odd player, “he batted, ran and fetched on both sides,” Dennison said.

The girls played a similar game “with a soft rubber ball and a flat bat,” and it was a great honour, Dennison said, for “preferred boys” to be invited to join in.

There were at least two cricket fields or “creases” in this area when Dennison was a boy and it was a popular game. Dennison names other summer games that probably were still being played when many of our current seniors were young: “High spy, puss in the corner, chase (through the woods) duck on the rock, all had a certain timely vogue.”

Of course, there was swimming and fishing. And an unusual ball game, barn ball, in which only a few players at a time participated. “Barn ball was also played by two or more. The batter took his position in front of a barn wall. The pitcher, who was also the catcher, threw the ball on the roof or against the side wall. The batter had to make it to a nearby base and return.”

As it is now, skating was a popular winter activity in the 1870s, and an outdoor activity at that since there were no arenas. “Margeson’s or Redden’s millpond on the mill Brook, the meadow and the lake on my grandmother’s… property were alive with skaters on fine afternoons and moonlight nights,” Dennison reminisced. The “lake” he mentions is probably the pond near the Cornwallis River in west end Kentville. The skates were made of wood with “steel runners and straps.”

Kids in the 1870s and kids today both enjoyed another winter ancient pastime, coasting or sledding. “I must not forget the handsleds in the winter,” Dennison writes. “And… coming down schoolhouse hill ‘belly-flounder’ and across Main Street to the Lombardy poplars in front of Judge Stephen Moore’s house.

“The town boys had long, narrow sleds with solid iron or steel, fastened to the runner only at the ends. The farm-raised boys had to be content with sleds made as the large ox or horse sleds, with runners sawn from wood with a natural crook in it.”

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