Club History

You may be surprised to hear that the Almonte Tennis Club is now over one hundred years old.  This article describes the ebb and flow of tennis in Almonte, since the original formation of the club.  Knowing the history of the club gives us an appreciation of what makes the club a success.

The Origins of Tennis

The Club was originally called the Almonte Lawn Tennis Club.  The game that we play today is lawn tennis, even though it is usually played on clay or asphalt courts. Lawn tennis developed in England during the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The game is based on “real tennis”, a French game which evolved over three centuries from an earlier game which involved hitting a ball with a bare hand and later with a glove.  By 1596 there were 250 real tennis courts in Paris alone.  The game was played on a large indoor court.  The ball was about the same size as a modern tennis ball, and hit with a wooden racquet.  The game became popular among the aristocracy and, according to Wikipedia, “Royal interest in England began with Henry V (reigned 1413–22) but it was Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) who made the biggest impact as a young monarch, playing the game with gusto at Hampton Court on a court he had built in 1530, when he was in his late thirties”.  “Real tennis”, which is still played, is so named to distinguish it from lawn tennis.

Early Days

The concept of a tennis club for Almonte began to form in 1898, leading to a meeting on 16 June in 1899, formally establishing the Almonte Lawn Tennis Club.  The first president was Mr. W. H. Stafford, lawyer, and the members seem to have been mainly from Almonte’s elite.  Mr. Bennet Rosamond, president and managing director of the Rosamond Woollen Company, was one of the early members of the executive.

Originally, the club played on the lawns of private estates, the first being that of a Mr. M. Patterson.  The ladies would serve tea to the players.  The social aspect of the club thrived, and on Tuesday, 26 November 1907, for example, there was a “tennis ball” (a dance) which took place in the town hall.  As described in the Almonte Gazette: “A large number of invited guests from the town were present along with an unusually large number of outsiders.  The hall was artistically decorated for the occasion with flags and bunting in the centre, and tennis nets and outfit [tennis gear] along the sides.  At the right and left corners of the hall, immediately off the entrance, comfortable parlors were curtained off where the guests could retire from activities of the centre of the hall.  Downstairs, the public library and reading room were fitted up as dressing rooms for the guests, the clerk’s office with cards and card tables, where bridge and euchre were enjoyed, and the council chamber was the refreshment hall…  Valentine’s orchestra supplied the music.…”

World War I and the Period up to World War II

During the first world war and subsequent years, interest in tennis seems to have waned, but in 1920, the club regained its vigour, initially under the sponsorship of the Presbyterian church.  It seems that, by then, the club used two clay courts which were open to all members at all times, with plans for a third.  The land was briefly owned by the China Mission College, and was located on the east side of town, on the Mississippi River.  The president at that time was a Mr. W. H. Britten, manager of the Merchant’s Bank.  The Almonte tennis team competed in the Ottawa Valley Tennis League, playing frequently in the 1920s and 1930s with other clubs up and down the valley.  In 1925 the high school opened two clay courts located where the track of the current ADHS is now, and opened them to the public after 4 p.m.  These remained open for ten years.  

In 1925 the new McCallum Recreation Grounds were opened, having “a splendid cricket field and club-house, four splendid tennis courts and plenty of room for all other sports”, a gift from a Mr. John McCallum.  But by 1929 the courts had become overgrown, perhaps due to their location “on the outskirts of town”, where the Lawn Bowling Club parking lots are now [2015].  So in 1930, John McCallum upgraded them to provide four splendid clay tennis courts “the equal of those found anywhere in the country”.  This renewed Almonte’s interest in the game, but the courts began to develop soft spots which again caused interest to wane.  Finally, in 1933, again through the generosity of John McCallum, the four courts were renovated, but this time he put in 1,000 feet of drainage tile and 500 tons of crushed stone, and surfaced them with asphalt.  With the adjacent club house, these facilities were excellent, and the club house served as the site of many social events.  The McCallum family had previously built an adjacent bowling green with electric lighting and a cricket pitch.  Interest in tennis revived and remained very popular throughout the 1930s.  Tennis was no longer a sport of the elite.

World War II to the Period up to the 60″s

During World War II and the entire 1940s, interest in tennis waned again, and in fact tennis balls became hard to find, due to diversion of materials to the war effort.  Like many sports, tennis almost died out in Almonte, but after the war enjoyed a brief period of renewed vigour.  According to a 1946 edition of the Almonte Gazette, “The Almonte Tennis Club is one of the largest in Eastern Ontario, having about 70 members.  The courts are conceded to be the best in the Ottawa Valley.”  By mid-1949 the club was merged with the lawn bowling club, but by the early 1950s tennis lapsed completely for a few years, to be finally revived in 1954, again under the auspices of the lawn bowling club.  The game remained unpopular in Almonte throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the club folded again at some point during that time. Alas, the McCallum courts became parking lots for the bowling club.  Eventually, two courts became available at St. Mary’s school in 1965 as interest in tennis revived.

The 1970’s and the Move to Gemmill Park Courts

Gemmill Park, the present location of the courts, was a Centennial project.  The 60 acres of farm land, having been donated to the Town by a Mrs. Gemmill on condition that it become a park, was planted with thousands of trees.  A skating arena, track, football field, baseball diamond, and basketball, and volleyball courts were installed. To fund these, the Town sold part of the land for housing development, and an act of provincial parliament was needed to allow this.  Two asphalt tennis courts were completed in June 1970, and that same year a new Almonte Tennis Club was formed with 150 members.  Space for a third court was allocated inside the fences for future construction, but there was no club house.  Funding for the tennis courts came partly from a government grant and partly from donations by members.  Diane Copeland, an Almonte phys. ed. teacher, was the driving force behind the project.  There was a $5,000 bank loan co-signed by five club members, paid off by 1976.  The adult annual membership fee was $25.  A tournament was held to raise funds for lights.  By August 1974, the club had 194 members and lights were installed.  Mr. George Nightingale, former ADHS teacher, was instrumental in promoting the club and encouraging the local youth.  In 1976 the courts were resurfaced and a third court was constructed.  A $5,000 Wintario grant helped pay for it.  The ATC received by-laws and court rules.

The 1980’s

The Club continued to thrive and, as reported in the Almonte Gazette in July 1981, it was the “scene of a tennis clinic given by Mr. Fred Perry, tennis’ number one player during the 1930s.  He won Wimbledon twice, the US open three times and many other championships….  The clinic was attended by 20 people ….”

Throughout the 1980s the club was very active, reaching a peak of 234 members in 1985.  The annual general meetings were well attended, as the club gave 15 percent membership discounts to the attendees. In 1986 the membership rates were $35 per adult and $50 per family.  The meetings provided a venue for championship awards to be presented.  Typically, at the beginning of the season, a pot luck dinner was held, to encourage membership and camaraderie.  Weekly club nights allowed members of all levels to play doubles in a friendly round-robin atmosphere.  Some nights a barbecue was provided, and members brought items of food to cook.  Interclub games were scheduled to enable members to meet players from other clubs.  During the latter half of the 1980s, Dr. Rolf Bach, the district coroner and long-time promoter of tennis in Almonte, was president of the club.  The popularity of tennis in this area was such that in 1986 new tennis courts were proposed for both Clayton and Appleton, but the $120,000 cost was too high and Ramsay council disapproved the plan.  

One key element to the club’s success during this period was the organized social program, which nurtured social cohesion and commitment.  The social coordinator took an active role in planning and scheduling social events.  Another key element was the varied tennis program.  The program coordinator was responsible for organizing all tennis activities, including Club Nights, lessons, inter-club games, typically three tournaments a year, and club ladders.

Meanwhile, the Almonte court surface was deteriorating yet again.  In 1983 and 1984, the court surface was patched, but within a few years was again in need of repair.  In 1987 and 1988, applications for provincial government grants to resurface the courts were rejected.  In 1989 a further capital grant application was made.  In the meantime, the net posts and nets were replaced by the club, and the court surface was again patched, but the condition of the courts was so bad that membership fees had to be reduced to the 1986 rates.  Membership declined during this time; and in 1989 there were only 112 members.

The 1990’s

In 1990 interest began to improve once more when Chris Johnson, a former high-school champion, was hired to be at the courts 9 – 5 p.m. on Fridays, to provide tennis instruction.  That same year, Alex Gillis was elected club president, a position which he held for ten years.  Hyacinth Chatterton, a long-time club member and French teacher at St. Mary’s school, looked after the junior program (Hyacinth is Club Pro as I write this – in 2015).  Hyacinth got the whole school interested in tennis.  When Tennis Canada introduced “Kids’ Tennis”, Hyacinth instituted the program at St. Mary’s during the winter (using the gymnasium at lunch hour) which was given extensive publicity in the Almonte Gazette.  Perhaps it was because Ryland Coyne, a Gazette reporter, was an avid tennis player.  By 1991, with 224 members, membership had doubled, and with this new enthusiasm for tennis, the town council endorsed a resurfacing proposal, subject to the province providing a grant covering 50 percent of the costs.   The provincial grant was finally approved, and in May of 1993 the courts were resurfaced with three inches of asphalt and Plexipave acrylic surface.  The $30,000 cost was covered 50 percent by the province, 25 percent by the town, and 25 percent by the club.  The club now had a playing surface as good as any in the country.  At that time, membership fees in 1993 were $50 per adult, and $80 per family.  

In 1991, the first backboard was installed by club members on the north side of court 3.  It was a vertical wooden surface erected by club members.  This backboard remained in place until 2011, and in 2014 was replaced by a new slanted backboard on the south side of court 3, at a cost of about $4,000, paid for by the town.

In the years following 1994, membership in the club began to wane once again, reaching only 115 in 1997, and dropping down to only 100 in the year 2000, despite active membership drives.  The provincial resurfacing grant of 1993 had been received on the understanding that the club would set aside $2,000 per year going forward, so that there would be sufficient funds available for future resurfacing.  But by the year 2000, the income from the reduced membership made this goal impossible, and in subsequent years the insurance costs escalated until the club was saving very little in the way of membership fees.  In 2000 the fees were only about 15 percent higher than they had been in 1993. Meanwhile the court surface started to develop cracks right across the courts.  

Nevertheless, during this period, the popular club nights, Sunday-morning mixed doubles and 7 a.m. early-bird weekday tennis continued.  

The 2000’s up to the Present Time

In about 2002, due to the increasing rate of crack formation, the Club executive became concerned about possible earth “subsidence”; caused by the earth beneath the courts slipping towards the ravine to the north.  The Club even went so far as to propose, to Council, that the courts be moved to an alternative location, but this was cost prohibitive.  In 2005 an engineer’s report essentially concluded that there was no subsidence.  But nine years later, in 2014, the problem was found to be the result of slope erosion caused by poor drainage from the higher ground.  Meanwhile, the cost of repeated repairs began to escalate.

By 2004, club membership was increasing again, and fortunately there had been significant financial bequests to the club, raising its overall net worth from about $10,000 to almost $28,000 in three years, despite the fact that fees were still at the year-2000 level ($95 per family, $65 per adult), not having changed significantly in ten years.  There were 162 members, the highest in ten years, but social activities and events had dropped off as the members seemed content to just play tennis. This attitude was reflected in attendance at the annual general meetings, where it became difficult to achieve a quorum and to find members willing to take on executive positions. The club also experienced significant petty vandalism during this time, with fences being damaged and bottles broken on the courts.

Using the club’s new-found wealth, in 2006, zone lighting was installed at the courts, at a cost of about $13,000, for which the club paid 50 percent, and sometime around 2007 roughly $13,000 was spent on court surface remediation, paid for half by the town and half by the club.  

In 2005, from donations raised during a Canada Day raffle, plus club revenues, the club donated $1,300 towards the Almonte General Hospital.  “The Tennis Club is a community club and we were interested in doing something to benefit our community,” said Club President George Nightingale​.

In 2010 the net posts were replaced and a ball machine was purchased, with contributions from a few members.  Membership throughout this period remained at about 150.  By 2013 the fees were $99 per family and $50 per adult, still only slightly more than 20 years earlier.  Consequently, over the 2014-2015 seasons fees were raised by about 25 percent.  During this time, the club executive came up with some great initiatives.  Janet Morrison, the youth tennis instructor, organized the very successful Mississippi Valley Smash youth tennis league, while Hyacinth Chatterton, the tennis pro, organised ladies and mixed doubles ladders, and the extremely popular inter-club nights.  In 2015, the club membership reached 180 members.  

For many years, poor water drainage had undermined the courts, causing frequent surface cracking and entailing frequent repairs.
In 2016, to finally address this on-going issue, a gabion wall was built along the north side of the courts, and a French drain installed around  the perimeter.  The court surface was repaired, and badly leaning perimeter fences were replaced.  The construction costs amounted to $70,000, of which 50 percent was paid by a Trillium grant.  The Almonte Tennis Club contributed $6,000, and the Town paid for the remainder.  

Observations

The Almonte Tennis Club has ebbed and flowed over the past 117 years.  At times it lapsed completely and at other times it thrived.  When it thrived, we see the success being due to active and dedicated members, and the generosity of those with a love for the game, and commitment to the club.  We see the importance of having a wide range of programs to give ample opportunities for players of all levels to play and meet other players.  We see the importance of social events to foster friendships and club commitment.  Finally, we see the importance of a well-organised executive to manage the financial aspects, and ensure on-going maintenance of the courts.

Acknowledgement

Many thanks to the Almonte Gazette, Almonte Library and the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum for making back issues of the Almonte Gazette available online, without which this account would not have been possible.  

Chris Barlow, Past President, August 2015

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