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For the Love of Horseshoes

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In a city once dominated by horseshoe courts, a lively group keeps the tradition alive in Beloit. Meet the players at Beloit Horseshoe Club, and discover why, for these players, it’s more than a game — it’s a sport that makes friends from strangers.

Walt Houck (middle) and Jim Huckabee (right) square off in a recent match at the Beloit Horseshoe Club. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Over the past few years, Walt Houck has suffered some serious health issues, which have led to numerous hospitalizations. Perhaps the biggest drawback during his recuperation, however, is his inability to spend time pitching horseshoes with good friends at the Beloit Horseshoe Club.

“I’ve really missed it,” says Houck, who started “pitching shoes” more than 50 years ago. “Horseshoe pitchers are like a music community,” he explains. “We all know each other. It doesn’t matter where you go. You always meet the nicest people in horseshoes. It’s like one big happy family.”

That seems to be the consensus among the 90 members from across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin who make up this club located on the outskirts of Beloit. For many years, the club has hosted local and regional tournaments and leagues, as well as a three-day “Team World” competition that draws players from across the country and Canada.

Participants – young and old, male and female – enjoy pitching horseshoes not only for the spirited competition, but for the companionship. The same is true in other leagues, including the Beloit Moose Club, South Beloit Legion and the Roscoe VFW.

“For years, it was a well-kept secret,” says Norm “Mouse” Beckius, a retired Chrysler employee who’s been president of the Beloit Horseshoe Club for more years than he can remember. “I think the word is finally getting out locally about just how much fun pitching horseshoes can be.”

Beloit Horseshoes

There was a time when horseshoe courts dominated the city of Beloit. Fairbanks Morse, Beloit Corporation, Besly Welles and Warner Brake are among local companies that built horseshoe courts on their properties to provide their employees with recreation. Many homeowners built courts in their backyards.

In 1967, horseshoe enthusiast Don Goldsmith built four regulation clay courts on his land in South Beloit. They were used every Tuesday and Saturday for about 15 years. There were no organized leagues at the time, but an annual doubles tournament was held each fall, attracting pitchers from Janesville, Milton, Edgerton, Rockford and Freeport.

In the early 1980s, the Beloit Horseshoe Club was created and four officers were named: President Norval “Bud” Renley; 1st Vice President Ken Lovaas; 2nd Vice President Harold Laws and Secretary/Treasurer Earl Paulson. In 1985, the club was sanctioned by the NHPA, the U.S. governing body of horseshoe pitching. More leagues were added and sanctioned singles leagues began. All members hold current NHPA cards and pay an annual $20 membership fee.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate,” says Paulson. “The generosity of our supporters has been incredible.” Seneca “Red” Ferguson, an original member, donated $40,000 in the late 1980s to help the Beloit club build its own facility at 640 Ravine Road; other donors gave as much as $1,000 each. The facility includes a clubhouse, 13 outdoor courts and a six-court indoor pitching facility. The outdoor courts were named in memory of Renley, nicknamed the “Horseshoe Engineer,” who designed and constructed the courts before his death in 1991.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Horseshoes is played outdoors or indoors, between two people or two teams of two people using four horseshoes and two stakes set in a sandbox or clay area. Players take turns tossing the shoes at the stakes, which are placed between 30 and 40 feet apart.

“It’s a demanding and competitive sport,” says Jim Huckabee, a retired manufacturing employee from Machesney Park, who’s pitched for 14 years. “Horseshoes is a sport that you want to do well in, but you can have a bad day and still have fun. And it’s a great way to spend time with good people.”
There are two ways to score: by throwing “ringers,” a horseshoe that encircles the stake, or by throwing the horseshoe closest to the stake. NHPA-sanctioned games are generally played to 40 points, or a shoe limit of 40 or 50 throws.

“You can be on a good streak, and then all of a sudden, you lose it, and you can’t buy a ringer,” says Huckabee. “You can feel like a pro one day and the next day it’s like you never knew anything. In your mind you’re throwing the same way you always did. Then you either drop your shoulder or throw it with a different twist. Once you get off your game, it’s hard to find that rhythm again.”

A perfect game means stringing together 20 or more ringers, depending on the number of shoes pitched in a game. But it’s rare. “There are only three or four perfect games pitched each year across the country,” says Paulson. “It takes practice, practice, practice. A little coordination doesn’t hurt, either.”

Jim Huckabee is all about focus when it comes to pitching ‘shoes. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Paulson started pitching horseshoes 30 years ago, when he discovered he didn’t like bowling.

“They say 90 percent of horseshoes is mental,” he says. “You’re standing 40 feet away. Unlike bowling, you can’t roll the ball there. You have to toss it into the air and only one side of the shoe is going to land on the stake.”

Johnson adds: “It’s a humbling game. One day you throw so well, and the next day you swear you’ll never play again.”

Sights and Sounds

In the club’s arena, shovels of various sizes and shapes lean along the walls. Water-filled Tide bottles line shelves. Each pit is filled with blue clay, a rubbery material that league members take turns shoveling between games. Dust from the clay clings to worn hands and T-shirts, but no one seems to mind.

“The clay must be kept soft, so that the shoes will stop where they land,” Paulson explains. “It’s customary to water the courts and turn them between every game. This not only gives us some exercise, but also an excuse for having dirty hands.”

Electronic scoreboards hang from the walls, as do the framed POW and MIA military flags donated to the club by Houck. The Wisconsin Horseshoe Hall of Fame is here, too – photos and memorabilia recognizing the state’s top players of yesteryear. Among inductees is the late Earl Ramquist, the only Beloit native to win the Wisconsin State Tournament, a feat accomplished in 1955. He was an employee of Fairbanks-Morse who began pitching horseshoes in 1940.

On a recent Monday morning, the loud clatter of horseshoes banging off stakes echoes throughout the arena, as does hearty laughter from retired men who participate in the Monday Morning Old Timer’s League. Pitchers stand behind pits, patiently waiting their turns. Most hold long iron hooks used for picking up horseshoes – easier than repeatedly bending over. The men rib each other about one thing or another, from horseshoes to their favorite sports teams.

“It’s a great group of guys,” says Bobby Johnson, who started pitching shoes 10 years ago. He drives 192 miles round-trip twice a week from Waukegan, Ill., to Beloit, to take part in the Old Timer’s League. “We love to tease each other, but if you ever have a problem with your delivery, someone is always willing to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”

Members gather to eat, play dominoes or watch the action through windows of a dining area off the pitching room. “It can get pretty loud out here,” Paulson says. He nods toward the obvious camaraderie inside the dining area, and smiles. “Everyone gets along, for the most part, unless they’re playing dominoes.”

On this day, Ken Lovaas is locked in a dominoes duel with club member Tony Scrimma. Lovaas started pitching shoes in the 1970s, instantly became hooked, and eventually became the club’s vice president. Now 90 years old, he rarely pitches, but still enjoys soaking up the atmosphere. “Whether you win or lose doesn’t make a bit of difference,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve met so many friends, all thanks to horseshoes.”

League and Tournament Play

League play is held year-round at the Beloit Horseshoe Club. There are singles, doubles, afternoon and evening leagues. Outdoor play typically begins in May. There are leagues for boys and girls ages 5 to 9 and juniors ages 9 to 17. Paulson says the club’s oldest participant is 98.

In the late 1980s, the organization started a women’s league. Georgia Beebe, Barb Ramquist and Ann Van Tassel organized it and kept statistics, according to Paulson, who doubles as club historian. Women from Rockford, South Beloit and Janesville came to Beloit to pitch horseshoes. Some of the ladies considered it a nice change of pace from bowling.

Tony Scrimma and Ken Lovaas take a break from horsehoes to play a game of dominoes. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Beebe, who lives in Rockton, Ill., was introduced to the sport by her grandfather and uncles, long before she and husband Ken joined the Beloit club. A women’s league existed for a few years before its members became too busy elsewhere.

These days, men and women play together. Women typically pitch from 30 feet, men from 40 feet. “At first, guys didn’t want to get beat by the ladies,” Paulson says. “Eventually, they got over it.”
Beebe credits Paulson with bringing male and female members together, but notes it was an adjustment for club members.

“Not all the men were happy about it,” she says, laughing. “Whenever a woman wins, the guys get teased a little. What goes around comes around.”

Beebe still enjoys good competition, pitching in weekend tournaments and a Monday night league, despite suffering various shoulder injuries. “I’m a competitor. I like to win,” she says. “If I lose, I have no one to blame. It’s my own fault.”

The Beloit club hosts several events during the year, including the Autumn Harvest Tournament in November and the Snowflake Tournament in December. There’s the annual Red Ferguson Classic in March, and a Spring Fling in April. Pitchers come from all over the Midwest to play in the tournaments.

In 1989, the Wisconsin State Tournament was moved to Beloit, thanks to the club’s reputation for running successful events. Beloit has hosted the state event four times, at the Edwards Activity and Sports Center at Telfer Park, which accommodates more people than the Beloit Horseshoe Club.

Since 1990, Telfer Park has hosted three-day Team World, an international competition which fields 20 teams from as far away as California, Ontario and Saskatchewan. “The size of the pavilion at Telfer makes it a perfect location for these events,” Paulson says. “Team World is one of the most important tournaments in the sport.”

Each May, about 18 four-person teams compete on 24 indoor portable courts, for $5,000 in prize money and the title of Team World Champion.

“It’s a nice incentive, but they do it mostly for the competition,” says Paulson, adding that organizers are looking for additional corporate sponsors to fund prize money.

The Team World event brings the best of horseshoe pitching to Beloit. Over the years, the lineup has included professional bowler and six-time horseshoe champion Walter Ray Williams Jr.; 16-time champion Alan Francis from Defiance, Ohio, regarded by many as the greatest horseshoe pitcher of all time; three-time champ Dale Lipovsky of Minnesota; and 10-time women’s champion Vicki Winston of Missouri.

International Recognition

The reputation of the Beloit Horseshoe Club has developed on an international scale in recent decades. In the late 1990s, it was recognized by the World Horseshoe Tournament in Kitchener, Ont., Canada. In 2000, “Red” Ferguson was presented with a prestigious achievement award from the National Horseshoe Pitcher’s Association (NHPA). And in 2001, Paulson, the club’s tournament director, was honored for his work in promoting the Team World Tournament.

The Beloit club is one of the first in the country to have its own website, featuring tournament schedules, results and Team World coverage, as well as links to horseshoe clubs and organizations in other states and countries such as England, Sweden and Finland.

According to Deb Frederiksen, executive director of Visit Beloit, horseshoe tournaments contribute about $100,000 to the local economy each year, since participants visit Beloit for day trips and overnight stays.

“We definitely recognize the significant impact that horseshoes brings to the Beloit area,” Frederiksen says. “These men and women are extremely talented, and it’s amazing to see them compete in a game of horseshoes. The real story about horseshoes, however, is how it brings people together. Year after year, they get together to compete, but they also form these incredible friendships.”

Team World competitors reunite every year in Beloit, eager to share stories, memories and a few laughs for three days. “It’s just amazing,” says Beebe. “You really look forward to seeing everyone. And if someone doesn’t come back, you really miss them.”

Last year, Beebe’s 98-year-old father came to watch the Team World competition. When the games were over and the title had been claimed, the victorious team came over to greet the elderly man, showering him with hugs and high-fives. Three days prior, these people had been complete strangers.

“It blows your mind just how close everyone becomes,” says Beebe. “It happens time after time. That’s what makes the game of horseshoes so special.”

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