PALBC History


Waverley Street 1912. Trolley car, but not paved.

The Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club shares Block 26 of the Seale Addition with the Gamble House. The entire irregularly shaped block was originally the property of Thomas Seale, who sold the land to Edwin P. Gamble (1852-1939), youngest son of James Gamble, co-founder of Procter & Gamble. The Gamble house was built in 1902 just outside the city limits, becoming the first house built south of Embarcadero Road other than the Seale ranch house (which once stood near where California Ave. now crosses Webster St.) In 1908, Gamble donated half of his land to be used for a new hospital. His daughter Elizabeth never married and continued to live in the house until her death in 1981.

By the early 1900s, Palo Alto’s only hospital at the corner of Lytton and Cowper (Fran’s Market occupies the site of that building’s front lawn today) proved too small, particularly after an influx of new residences from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A new three-story Peninsula Hospital was constructed in 1910 on the current site of the bowling green behind the Gamble house. (Current member Glenn Stewart was born here in the late 1920s, his mother battling Stanford Big Game traffic to make it from Redwood City for a timely delivery.) When an even larger hospital was needed, Hoover Pavilion was built in 1931 on Stanford land. The old building was demolished leaving nothing but an empty, weedy lot.

A reading of the newspaper articles, minutes, and correspondence,
commencing a quarter of a century ago, coupled with a realization
of those two major obstacles, the depression time and a World War, can
hardly fail to kindle in the lawn bowler a feeling of gratitude for
the persistence and never-say-die spirit of those first members. Let us
remember them all, but especially Mrs. Virginia Catlin Arnott who must have been a very great lady.

—B. J. Firminger, Club Historian, 1959

The old hospital, where the green stands today.
(Picture shot from Cowper street looking West)

Palo Alto Times, February 6, 1931: What to do with the old hospital site at Churchill, Embarcadero and Cowper? At a city council meeting it was suggested as the location for a future public library or an ornamental park and memorial building.

Palo Alto Times, March 28, 1933: First steps in the organization of a Palo Alto Lawn Bowling Club were taken yesterday afternoon at a Community House meeting, when officers were elected. Mrs. John Arnott, one of the active figures behind the start of the club, was elected the first President. Thirty-three charter members were signed up. A membership fee of $5 a year was voted in. It was estimated by Arthur G. James, engineer, that the proposed bowling green, including a wire-mesh fence surrounding it, could be constructed for $500, exclusive of the labor, which would be recruited from the rank’s of the city’s emergency employed.

Mrs. John Arnott, was Virginia (Ginny) Arnott (1857-1943), the driving force behind the creation of the Club and its first president. She had learned to play the game on John McLaren’s green in San Francisco and missed it after her husband, a Scottish brick mason, moved to Palo Alto. The Arnotts lived on Seneca Street near the Squire House and were personal friends of McLaren.

The legendary John McLaren

1935: The opening day for the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club was March 10, 1935, two years after the club’s organization. The project was funded by the Civil Works Administration, a predecessor to Roosevelt’s Depression-era WPA. The only shelter provided was later frequently referred to as “a glorified tool shed.” This modest structure measured 10 by 11 feet and was used as a locker room and improvised card room in inclement weather. It had first been proposed to locate the green in Rinconada Park, where placement was”foreseen and anticipated,” but later it was decided to use the site abandoned by the old hospital instead.

Program for opening day included reveille, a welcoming speech by the club President (Virginia Arnott), remarks by the Mayor of Palo Alto (Earl C. Thomas) and John McLaren, raising of the flag by Mrs. Arnott’s grandson (on the pole still standing near the Churchill St. gate), the introduction of presidents from other clubs, and the Star Spangled Banner. This was followed by a ceremonial rolling of the first bowls by President Arnott, Mayor Thomas, and the Supt. of Golden Gate Park, John McLaren, who had aided the planning of the green and was made an honorary member of the club at the time.

Forty-three members had registered for the Club by the end of 1936. Women apparently formed a slight majority, with men and women playing in separate leagues. The years between 1936 and 1941 have been called the “dark ages” of the Club, because no records survive with information about either leadership or activity. The Club clearly struggled during those years. Declining interest may have been due to a lack of balanced competition. Proper equipment may have been hard to obtain, or age may have prevented Mrs. Arnott from providing guidance.

Virginia C. Arnott, founder and first club president, in 1932 with her ten-month-old grandson, Peter Arnott, Jr. Peter at age 3 would help raise the flag at the 1935 dedication ceremonies.

1941: The Club reorganized in October, with the minutes of the first meeting making reference to “the old club which had been allowed to become inactive and of little authority.” The green is reported to still be in good condition. The new club had 15 members, all of them men, a number being retired military officers. Major Leonard Smith Doten (1873-1967) became the second known president. Doten had been a major in the First World War and is buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. He was a native of Vermont with a background in engineering. His last known address was in Los Altos.

1942: Sustaining the Club was not without its difficulties. From the minutes of the annual meeting, June 11, 1942: “The strained relationship which has existed for some time between certain members of the club was brought up and thoroughly aired. Apologies were freely made and freely accepted to the satisfaction of all present. The wish was expressly made that friendship, good will, tolerance and sportsmanship would here after govern the actions of all our players as long, at least, as they remain members of the club.”

During the war years between 1943 and 1946, Peter McKeand served as president, the longest tenure in club history (four years). McKeand (1865-1952) was born in Scotland and before the Second World War was a machinist living in Sunnyvale working for the old Hendy Iron Works. He got his name in Time magazine for his work on the battleship Oregon during the war. He had been a charter member of the Club and died in Burlingame. (Note: In actuality, McKeand may have served only the two years 1945 and 1946. Records from the period refer to one Harry B. Cramer being president in 1943 and 1944. Cramer had joined the club in 1941.)

By 1945 the Club had about 24 members including a handful of women. There was as yet no interclub tournament play, but members began competing for club trophies, the earliest and most enduring of these was the President’s Trophy donated by Capt. J.J. Darlington and awarded each year from 1945 to 1956 for doubles play (mixed doubles after 1951). In 1947 the best players were identified as being Peter McKeand, Alex Lockhart, Capt. J.J. Darlington, and Henry Schwing. (For information on Lockhart see Appendix C. A list of trophies is given in Appendix A.)

1948: The first suggestion for the construction of a clubhouse was made at a meeting of the Executive Committee held on September 6, 1948, with President John Smith presiding. Lighting for nighttime play was also proposed. A committee was formed to raise money. The clubhouse became a reality four years later due largely to the leadership of two members: Lester Matson and Arthur W. Bailey, a retired minister.

1950: In an attempt to raise money and gain new members, the Club invited the public to use the green for croquet and horseshoes, as well as bowling.

1953: PALBC incorporated on April 14: “The name of the existing unincorporated association which is being incorporated is Palo Alto Lawn Bowling Club. The name of the corporation shall be Palo Alto Lawn Bowling Club, Inc.” (signed) Club pres. L.E. Matson Also in 1953 the date of the annual meeting was changed from June to December (as now), and the first recorded interclub tournaments were played (with Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco).

1954: A banner year. The clubhouse was build and dedicated on April 10, 1954, after several years of fund raising. The architect was Leslie Nichols, and the cost was about $8,000. Money for its construction came from members’ contributions, with a like amount donated by the Lucie Stern Foundation. Elizabeth Gamble also contributed generously. The structure was only a shadow of the building we know today. It consisted of a single room, with a lanai or open porch in front. The main room today contains three amateur paintings showing the original 1954 clubhouse. All show an open verandah in front (later enclosed) and the locker room as an entirely separate and set-back building, the original shed. The verandah enclosed and kitchen added in 1974 (see below).

The clubhouse as it appeared around 1955 with members sitting under the open front verandah. To the right can be seen the original 10 by 11 foot “shed” that served as a locker room. The building behind the clubhouse to the left is the Gamble House carriage house.

Writing somewhat later, one-time president Ronald H. Sharp reminisced about how much the new facility had been needed: “For many years the Club had to content itself with the extremely meager facilities provided by a small locker room. This 10×11 foot shed was used for the storage of bowls and all Club equipment and, in addition, was the only place to be used as a Club meeting place or game room. On days when the green was unplayable, it was a common occurrence to see two or even three card tables in use. The overcrowded, smoke-filled shed was a horrible sight.” (Note: Card games were a popular alternative recreation in poor weather. In one memorable game that went down in Club history, one member was actually dealt 13 clubs in a hand of bridge.)

Palo Alto Times, May 14, 1954: A vandal, using kerosene, burned a 108 ft. serpentine swatch across the PALBC green early today. A member of the club estimated half the rinks would be closed for several weeks for repairs.

1957: The PALBC championship team of Lockhart, Rosander, Fish and Bradshaw won the State Rink Championship in Oakland against Pasadena. Also this year a ladies locker room with 16 lockers was built and a wrong-bias penalty box installed for the first time.

1958: The first Meat Axe competition was held with the Berkeley club (with Palo Alto losing). The event was devised by then President Spencer C. Fish. Also in 1958 the men’s locker room was enlarged to 90 lockers.

1962: Australia’s men’s championship team visited the Palo Alto green in May and easily defeated the home side.

Palo Alto Times, Dec. 10, 1963: Several team champions of the PALBC were honored today by members, city officials and guests, at a recognition luncheon, held at the Embarcadero clubhouse. The team of Sandy Lockhart, Elmer Barrett, Don Knapp and Emil Ricklefs won the Southwest Div. championship of the ALBA. Lockhart and Barrett also won the Sills Cup, symbolic of the doubles title.

In May of 1964 the club began publishing a newsletter called “Wicks”: “Starting now, and we hope continuing for a long time, every three months (like dividends) each member will receive a copy of WICKS.”

Among the best local sides ever? In 1957 the State Rinks Championship was won in Sacramento by (from left): Sandy Lockhart (skip), Henry Rosander (vice), Spencer Fish (second), and Brad Bradshaw (lead).

In 1965 the name of the club officially was changed from “Palo Alto Lawn Bowling Club” to “Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club.”

1967: PALBC, which had been in the Southwest Division, became part of the Pacific-Intermountain Division effective Oct. 1.

Wicks, April 1969: The year opened most inauspiciously for the club. It had hardly begun when burglars broke into the clubhouse and stole a new TV and a radio. The safe was opened and cash and checks were taken.

Wicks, Jan-Feb 1970: Growing pains: The Board of Directors passed the following resolution: Due to increased membership and the difficulty of completing competition for existing club trophies, the club will be unable to accept any more trophies for club tournaments, memorial or otherwise.

Furthermore, seven rinks are not enough to accommodate all who want to bowl. We are seeking permission from the PIMD to cut down the width of our rinks to 14 ft. so that we can add an 8th rink, to allow more bowlers on the green. It has been necessary, for a long time, to make all draw games, four-on-a-team. The maximum number of players who can participate on any one day is 56, and then only if all rink games are played. It is evident that we are approaching that point. A further increase in membership presents some real problems. The answer to all this, of course, is the acquisition of additional greens. A committee is working with the city on just such a project. An encouraging development is a site at Eleanor Park which seems to have outstanding potential.

Wicks, May-June 1971: The PIMD of the ALBA changed its by-laws to allow a minimum of 14-foot rinks instead of 15 feet, same as already permitted by the ALBA. As a result, we now have 8 instead of 7 rinks. (Note: ALBA-the American Lawn Bowls Association-was the precursor of the USLBA formed in 2001 to equally represent men and women.)

1972: PALBC proposes opening three “practice” rinks in the space between the green and Churchill Ave. It was proposed that these rinks be made with an artificial surface.

1974 Club president Paul Houseman (center), Monty Moncure (left) and Floyd Carpenter (right) look on as Gertrude Cobb prepares to bowl. The newly enlarged clubhouse is in the background.

1974: Largely through the efforts of then-president Paul Houseman, the clubhouse was enlarged to its current proportions by enclosing the open porch (today the Paul Houseman Room) and by adding a kitchen between the clubhouse and locker/dressing rooms, connecting the two. New carpeting was installed over the previous lanolium floor and new furniture purchased. At the same time, the dressing rooms were enlarged and the trellises erected. Costs were $30,000, a third each paid by the City, the Lucie Stearn Foundation, and the membership. This expansion essentially created the building as it looks today. The City’s participation gave it ownership rights and established the lease agreement currently in effect. This lease has been renewed a number of times.

1975: “All Name Trophies have been retired, in accordance with an action taken by the Board of Directors in the spring of 1975.” Up to this time, tournament champions had been immortalized through various trophies-mostly memorial cups named for fondly remembered former members. These are still preserved in the clubhouse, the oldest being the President’s Trophy awarded each year beginning in 1945.

Trophies began to multiply until by 1969 there were ten of them many of them obviously designed to encourage women. The practice was eventually abandoned. A note in the spring 1975 WICKS reads: “‘Personalized’ or Memorial Trophies are no long accepted for competition by action of the board several years ago” (see 1970 above). “Questions arose as to how long (x number of years) would be offered and the number of such trophies.”

The PALBC began placing the names of annual Club tournament winners on wallboards in the manner used today. (The names of the 1975 winners are actually duplicated on a plaque on a wall in the Houseman Room, a plaque that was apparently abandoned after a more practical way of individually entering names was discovered.)

Elizabeth F. Gamble died July 1, 1981 and the City assumed full ownership of her 2.31-acre property that October. The next year, PALBC proposed to the city council a plan for a second green to be built on part of the land. It would have been in the area occupied by the carriage house. An alternative plan (the blueprints still exist) was to build two greens side by side between Embarcadero Road and Churchill Avenue. The space would have encroached on the sidewalks lining both streets.

1983: The current, second, flagpole (on the Embarcadero side) was dedicated on July 4, 1983 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Club. It is dedicated to the memory of Marhl Welch (1894-1982), a member and war veteran, who gave the Club a new flag in 1969 and frequently led the Pledge of Allegiance. Also in 1983, Ed Arnold became editor of WICKS, a post he filled for the next 18 years. Since 2001, the editorship tacitly has been the responsibility of the club president.

1984: $4,316 was donated by 81 members to the memorial fund for additions to the women’s locker room. Again, it was Paul Houseman who drew up the plans and was in charge of its construction.

1985: Men’s and Women’s Novice Singles are both added to the annual club tournament schedule increasing the number to 12 from 10.

April 28, 1996. The death of Paul Houseman (1907-1996). A native of Idaho, he joined the Club in 1959. He was a Palo Alto contractor and responsible for the kitchen addition, as well as clubhouse lighting and other improvements.

From April 2000, the green was closed for five months for new sod (unchanged since 1935), a new drainage system, new sprinkler system, and a new walkway around the green. A drinking fountain was installed by the gate.

This grass was Bermuda grass with problems around the edges that are clearly with us still today. See January 2001 Wicks: “We have the only green with a rough around it. That’s because the City installed some new sod around the edges of the green after the original sod died. Now, this new sod is acting up. The gardeners aren’t cutting the grass there hoping that the new sod will grow more easily.”
{Note: The original surface had been bent grass, agrostis, the same sod favored by John McLaren to tame the sand dunes of Golden Gate Park.}

2000: Frank Souza, who has belonged to a number of clubs through the years including Palo Alto, is elected to the USLBA Hall of Fame. He was a member of the U.S. National Team from 1976 to 2000, whereupon he became team manager.

2001: A no smoking ban was put into effect.

2004: Draw Mixed Rinks was abandoned as a club tournament after six straight years of cancellation. Senior Singles replaced it to keep the number of championship titles at twelve. Also in 2004, new champion boards were installed in the clubhouse to display the names of all tournament winners since 1975. They were the contribution of member Tony Mayta, a skilled cabinetmaker, and should serve the Club until 2034.

2008: The Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club celebrated its 75th anniversary.

NB. Much of the above information survives only because of the foresight of several past club historians. Thanks must be given to Bert Firminger 1959-1966, Colonel Billy White 1966-1976, Tony Hock 1976-1980, and Ed Arnold 1983-2001. Due to the club’s demographics, much of their job, unfortunately, involved collecting obituaries.

Compiled by Peter K. Danner
June 2008