From High Goal to Hollywood – the history of polo in the USA – Part 5
By Victoria Elsbury-Legg
Click here for part 4
Polo on an international level was a reflection of society around the World in the terrible aftermath of the two World Wars which devastated nations. As Lord Cowdray gathered up the reins of English polo, saved and gradually grew the sport in a post war rapidly mechanicalizing era in which the cavalry turned from horsepower to motor power, in America the Great Depression alongside the horrors of warfare and the loss of many military players was also acutely felt throughout the sport. During the years of 1942 – 1945 polo was played on a small scale on private grounds but no USPA tournaments were held. It was around this time that the first paid ‘professional’ player – Cecil Smith of Plano, Texas is credited with generating interest in polo in a post war US.
With the dawn of the 1950’s, 614 USPA members played at 56 US Clubs, it also brought with it another change to the face of American polo, again caused by the rapid spread of an increasingly mechanical age, with Meadowbrook being closed and moved to Long Island to make way for a highway. It was also at this time that a name now highly synonymous with US lifestyle founded its roots with US polo, though Summerfield Johnston Jr. who played polo at the University of Virginia in 1951, then joined the family business in 1959. A left-handed player who organised games at the family farm in McDonald, Tennessee during the 1950’s he then founded the Chattanooga Polo Club (to become known as Bendabout Polo Club), was president of the Gulfstream Polo Club in Lake Worth, Florida and served as Vice President of the United States Polo Association from 1979 – 1989. He set up Flying H. Polo Club in Wyoming and owns the Everglades Polo Club, Wellington Florida and was honoured for his exemplary sportsmanship in 1982 with the Hugo Dalmar Trophy. Alongside this, Summerfield Johnson Jr. also served as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive of his Grandfather’s (James F. Johnson) bottling company – known to the world as Coca-Cola.
It is not just Summerfield Johnson Jr. who has played his role in the history of polo, Gil Johnson his wife is also a large part of the US polo scene as Vice President of the Polo Training Foundation, as was his late son Summerfield Johnston III, who was also Vice President of Coca-Cola Enterprises. In recent seasons it is his daughter Gillian Johnson (who is also Governor-at-large of the USPA) and her team who stand out against the emerald green of the polo pitches at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in their distinctive red and white logoed shirts, playing in the tournaments which make up the American Triple Crown.
In April 2015 in a surprise ceremony Gillian Johnson was awarded the PTF (Polo Training Foundation) Benefactor Award, alongside Melissa Ganzi who was honoured with the Polo Training Foundation’s Volunteer of the Year Award as a show of appreciation by the Foundation for their continued commitment and support particularly to the younger generation of US polo players, helping them to reach their full potential through great horsemanship both on and off the pitch.
Click here for part 6