Generations of ringers faithfully gather at Hope Davey’s horseshoe pits

Waterbury Center Horseshoe League players, left to right, top to bottom: 
Kenny Martin, Tony Wheelock, Keith Sherman, Joanne Wells, R.J. Farnsworth, 
Mike Lanphear, Will Gainey, Julie Warfel, Kevin Wortman
Gordon Miller | Waterbury Roundabout

by Sadie Ensana, for Community News Service

WATERBURY — Lucas Russell and Colby Warfel sat watching their relatives loft horseshoes across the grass in Hope Davey Park, a pair of 8-year-olds who had little idea how much it would all mean to them long into the future. Some 25 years later, the two still march down to the park each week — members of a Waterbury tradition.

“Ever since I can remember, my parents played here, my grandparents played … and I came to watch every Wednesday,” said Russell, who with Warfel makes up one of the best teams in the Waterbury Center Horseshoe League. 

Few beat the duo; Russell has a record 363 ringers since he officially joined the league in 2016. “I don’t have room for any more trophies,” said Warfel.

As third-generation leaguers, Russell and Warfel might be the top dogs these days in the Waterbury horseshoe circuit. But it all started decades back, up on Loomis Hill Road in the early ’80s, with three locals: Mike Woodard, Ed Lemery and Gary Kenyon. The trio would rotate between their backyards every Wednesday to play horseshoes. But word of their hobby soon spread to folks around town who wanted to try it out, and from there a league was built.

Today the league consists of 16 teams of two who play games over the course of 16 weeks, starting in May and ending before Labor Day in September. Folks come out to Hope Davey Park to the pits behind the Maple Street fire station. They catch up with family, rattle some horseshoes and hang out.

“It’s a great buffer to break up the week,” said league player Maurice Nadeau, known as the “numbers guy” because he keeps track of stats. 

This community is tight knit: Most players have a connection to someone who played before them or team up with a family member.

A few years ago, league members chipped in to put a bench on the field to honor those who don’t play anymore. On the left side of its backrest you’ll see shiny black plaques with the gilded names of players who’ve retired,  on the right the names of those who’ve died. 

You can sense a pattern within the plaques on the bench — repeated names like Atwood, Sherman, Woodard, Thurston. It’s a visual reminder of the generational ties the horseshoe league holds. For the past 40 years, families have passed down their love for the sport from one generation to the next in Hope Davey Park. They’ve forged new bonds too.

The players on a mid-July Wednesday night waxed lyrical about the web of connections between the teams and the history behind each. Mentioned a lot was Kenyon, one of the league’s three founders. 

“Gary Kenyon was one of the originals,” said Kevin Wartman, who’s been in the league for decades.

Looking out to the sandy pits, Wartman pointed to a man handling a horseshoe, gauging the angle and strength of a throw: Gary Kenyon II, the founder’s son.

Fellow player Mike Bove swiftly butted in and pointed past Kenyon. “And that’s his grandson and granddaughter over there running around,” he said. “That’s how Gary started playing.”

This was the first summer in a long time that horseshoe games needed to stop because of weather. The heavy rain and flooding in Waterbury, and much of the state, last month put the league at a halt for over a week as players patiently waited for the pits on the field to dry.

“When I went to cancel two weeks ago, I got lots of calls saying, ‘Oh, c’mon,’ as it was down-pouring,” said Nadeau, who along with leaderboards helps handle scheduling.

Horseshoeing in Waterbury is typically a rain or shine sport, at least till the pits are full of water and you can’t see the stakes anymore. At that mid-July meetup, the group described how even when it’s raining nearby, the field is usually spared, as if the land were blessed.

“‘God loves a horseshoe player — it never rains on Wednesday night,’” said Keith Sherman, reciting a phrase many in the group shout.

For a lot of folks involved, coming out to the park each week is as simple as getting to be with each other, having fun and keeping the tradition alive.

“My family came here and played, and then when I was old enough to throw, I joined them. And I liked it,” Russell said.

Then he gestured to the field. “This little boy over here, when I was his age I was doing what he’s doing.”

In front of Russell was a boy around 8 years old, watching in wonder as his dad pitched a horseshoe through the air toward the stake in his opponents’ pit. The metal U clanged around the pole: three points for a ringer.

As time goes on, the boy might find himself in his father’s footsteps in Hope Davey Park, part of something larger than any one round of horseshoes. Someday his name might join the plaques of names on the bench, just like Atwood, Sherman, Woodard and Thurston.

Categories: Sports