A club-wielding mob dressed elegantly in the fashion of the Edwardian Age descended upon the historic homes of Terrace Street on Sunday, swinging, whacking and occasionally even shrieking with glee at the hollow-sounding thunk their weapons produced as they connected with their spherical targets.
The clubs in question were mallets, the spheres were colorfully striped wooden balls, sounds of jazz were in the air, and croquet season in Meadville was in full swing.
“We didn’t want to have another golf outing,” Josh Sherretts said by way of explaining the origins of the Eleanor Davies Croquet Classic and Garden Party, held for the second year Sunday at The Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum at Mount Hope and other historic Terrace Street properties.
The event is the largest fundraiser of the year staged by the Crawford County Historical Society and was expected to raise as much as $15,000, according to Sherretts, who serves as president of the society and director of the museum. It’s a fitting tribute to Davies, the longtime Meadville resident and museum benefactor who was the last surviving Meadville resident to have known the Reynolds family firsthand when she died at age 97 in 2017.
“Ellie Davies was a big advocate of the house since day one,” Sherretts said. “She was a friend of the Reynolds family and she was also quite the person to organize a social event.”
When Davies’ sons mentioned that the museum was welcome to her vintage croquet set, the ball was set in motion, so to speak, and the event soon shaped into tweed vest-wearing and parasol-carrying reality. In its second year, participation in the croquet tournament increased from 80 to 120, according to Sherretts, making it even more the social event of the city’s brief croquet season.
The level of enthusiasm was clear from a quick glance at the crowd gathered for a review of croquet rules and etiquette on the museum lawn just before play began. Boaters, fedoras, newsboy caps on heads, bow ties, vests, pocket handkerchiefs, and suspenders — X-back, Y-back and even H-back styles — on torsos ... and that was just the men.
Participants had clearly stepped up their game in terms of their commitment to period costume, if not to the fundamentals of croquet. Wandering from court to court along the “millionaire’s row” of historic homes on Terrace Street, the attire made more of an impression than the occasionally awkward mallet swings.
“I was scared to hit my foot,” one player exclaimed as her attempt to step on her own ball while using it to whack an opponent’s adjacent ball out of bounds went awry.
“In different parts of the course, you don’t know how hard to hit it,” another complained as his ball rolled to a premature rest on the uneven non-regulation lawn that served as playing surface.
“Remember,” one team member reminded another in a tone whose level of sincerity was as difficult to gauge as the terrain, “it’s a gentleman’s game.”
Amidst the looks to the sky, the heavy sighs and the occasionally shifting interpretations of the rules, a team consisting of siblings Richard and Kara Herr of Guys Mills and friend James Mullen of Meadville found early success on the court and left a lasting impression with their fashionable attire.
Kara, 17, wore a historically accurate replica — right down to the merry widow-style fancy hat and even the corset and petticoats — of an ensemble from about 1912. Her brother, a tour guide and the textile coordinator at The Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum at Mount Hope, had made the outfit himself using antique patterns of the time.
“She’s dressed as a fashionable lady would have been when going out for visiting,” Richard, 20, said between swings of the mallet.
For his part, Richard had made the linen bicycle shorts he was wearing using an 1890s-era pattern and had assembled the other elements of his outfit with contemporary elements — knee-high cotton-knit socks, so that none of his upper shin would be exposed below the linen shorts, a long-sleeved white shirt and a newsboy cap — as much in the spirit as could be found.
For Mullen’s garb, Richard made trips to the unusual combination of the Salvation Army Thrift Store and Walmart and pieced together linen pants and shirt, argyle socks, light blue vest with watch chain and pocket handkerchief, plus boater hat.
“We just threw things together,” Richard said. “I don’t know what period it is exactly — we’ll say early 20th century.”
Historical costumes are a hobby for Herr, who also sews freelance commissions from time to time, and making an impression with his red-headed sister is an additional benefit.
“We really have fun doing it and people always smile when we walk arm in arm,” he said. “They’re like, ‘You look like ‘Anne of Green Gables’ — as long as it brings a smile to someone’s face, that’s what makes me happy when we get dressed up.”
While the Herrs and Mullen scored a victory on the croquet court, they met their match in the court of fashion when they played a team that included Kathleen Firster of Titusville, who had made her costume based on a 1919 pattern. The day dress she wore for the occasion had originally been designed for use in croquet tournaments, she said.
Noting the side tassels, Richard Herr said the outfit looked “extraordinarily authentic.”
“I wanted to do it and do it right,” she said during a break in the wicket competition.
Firster’s commitment didn’t stop with her costume, however. She also embraced the spirit of the day by occasionally adopting the spirit of a post-World War I croquet aficionado.
“When people bring out their cell phones,” she joked, “I say, ‘What is that contraption? Is that some type of magic you’ve got there?”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.