Palo Alto History. Org

The Lawn Bowls Club: Old-Time Palo Alto

Perhaps you think that there isn’t too much in the way of athletics for the 80-something crowd? Not so in Palo Alto, where the old English tradition of lawn bowling is alive and well. Palo Alto octogenarians and their younger rival sportsmen happen to live in “Lawn Bowling Central” as it were --- thanks to the storied club
located along side the Gamble Gardens on Embarcadero Road.  On August 10th from 3-5pm, the Lawn Bowls Club is inviting the public to join them in celebrating its 75th Anniversary with fun, festivities and a narrated bowling demo.  Of course, at 75, the Lawn Bowls Club is now older than many of its members --- although certainly not all.

When Hoover Pavilion opened in 1931 to treat patients in Stanford and Palo Alto, the old Peninsula Hospital on Embarcadero Road was no longer needed.  After its demolition, the city took up the question of how best to use the weedy land left in its wake.  In 1933, the answer was provided by Ginny Arnott --- who had loved to bowl when she lived in San Francisco and played on the green that her friend John
McLaren had built when constructing Golden Gate Park.  With an OK from the city, Arnott convinced McLaren to build a Palo Alto version, which was constructed by Depression-era Civil Works Administration laborers in 1934.

The Club opened on March 10th, 1935 with welcoming speeches by Arnott (who was elected the first Club President), McLaren and Mayor Earl C. Thomas.  The annual membership cost just 5 bucks and the majority of the first 43 members were women.  Since that time both men and women have been active on the greens.

And although the quiet sport does attract primarily older Palo Altans, this is no elderly-paced game of shuffleboard. Some say the rules and strategy are as complicated as chess, and with the oblong, periodically curving balls and the variable slickness of the greens, the game takes quite a bit of skill and effort. In general,
the main idea is for members of each team to take turns rolling the oddly shaped balls --- or "bowls" --- toward a smaller, white ball called a "jack.” After all the bowls are thrown, the one closest to the jack wins a point for their team.

The games can range from friendly and easygoing to the somewhat more competitive. The social bowler will enjoy the club’s Wednesday Pizza Nights, Luau Bowls, BBQ Bowls, and Blue Grass Band --- as well as the Sunday afternoon beginning lessons.  Attempting to lure interested old-timers to learn the game, the club’s website tells interested seniors to “get your spouse off the rocker!”

For the more competitive bowler, the club hosts many tournaments, in which players don “dress whites,” as well as an annual match with Berkeley to decide who takes home the coveted Meat Axe, a cleaver mounted on a plaque. Over the years, the Palo Altans have matched brains and bowls with teams from San Francisco, Oakland and even Australia.  In recent years, the Palo Alto club has included some U.S. lawn bowling national champs.

Over the years, the Lawn Bowls Club has expanded and prospered.  The clubhouse was first erected in 1954 and expanded twenty years later.  When Elizabeth Gamble died in 1981 and turned her house and grounds over to the city, the Lawn Bowlers proposed adding a second green.  However, the city eventually decided to create the Gamble Garden House that exists today.  Still, membership ranks have now steadily
climbed and now top 120, including a member as young as 17 and another as old as 101.

So while Palo Alto may have many attributes of a city larger than its size---high density traffic, high-tech Fortune 500 companies, Bloomingdale’s and Tiffany’s--- it also still possesses some of the serenity of yesteryear. And if you ever want to get away from the hustle and bustle, just head to the Lawn Bowls Club and listen for the distinctive “clack” of the Gentleman’s Game. []

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Original members of the Lawn Bowls club.

Lawn bowlers in their all-whites. (PAHA)

Gertrude Coff prepares to bowl with Monty Moncure, club president, Paul Houseman and Floyd Carpenter looking on. (PAHA)

The Lawn Bowls Club today.