A Tradition Worth Sharing

CityScope® Magazine Southern Gentleman®

 

How generations of the Johnston family sparked a worldwide interest in polo through their annual polo weekend at Bendabout Farm

 

Here in the South, what could be more important than family? More iconic than sweeping landscapes? More engrossing than outdoor sports? For the Johnston family, these honored elements blend together to create a rich history of how they have enlivened polo in the South and at an international level, all while building friendships and encouraging the growth of the sport. From their beginnings at the family farm – Bendabout – to a worldwide reach, the Johnstons have been sharing their beloved tradition for the better part of a century.

 

By Katie Faulkner | Photography by Lanewood Studio

 

 

 

The History of the Home Field

 

Founded in the 1830s on 4,000 acres of lush game habitat and farmlands, Bendabout has always prioritized good stewardship of the land. While nearly 2,500 acres are meticulously maintained as authentic habitat for native wildlife, the family’s property also boasts a signature feature that has become synonymous with Bendabout over the years: the 300 x 160-yard polo field. Tended tirelessly year-round, the pristine playing ground has stood as a symbol of the family’s love for the game, as well as an open, annual invitation to the community to come learn more about polo at the end of every summer season.

The idea to create a polo field at Bendabout came three generations ago, through friendships and a fascination.James F. Johnston, the current generation’s great-great-grandfather, was a forward-thinking entrepreneur who purchased the first Coca-Cola bottling franchise in 1901. The Johnston family soon became an established and integral part of Chattanooga. Growing up in the area, James’ son, Summerfield K. Johnston (Sr.) gained a closer look at polo through friendships with World War I soldiers stationed at Fort Oglethorpe. Members of Fort O’s 6th Cavalry would play polo as a way to improve their mobility and skill on horseback. Summerfield witnessed the fast-paced and high-stakes game, and his interest in polo was intensified. Before long, he began searching for a way that he and his comrades could play legitimate matches against each other and change up the scenery from always playing at the fort.

Summerfield Sr. was so intrigued by the game that he set out to create a regulation playing field at the family farm, Bendabout. This gave his cavalry friends not only a quality place to play, but also an opponent, as Summerfield and the Bendabout farmhands would face-off against the soldiers in regular matches. The two teams took turns hosting – a weekend of matches held at Bendabout, while the next was played at the fort. Soldiers versus farmhands, a well-loved tradition was born.

Summerfield went on to play at a competitive level around the country, all the while ensuring the field at Bendabout was well-tended and ready for play. Naturally, he passed on his love for the game of polo to his son and grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

(Photo Courtesy of Bendabout Farm)

Players enjoy competition at the Fort Oglethorpe field during the early days of play in Chattanooga.

 

Sharing the Tradition: Summerfield Jr.’s Impact on Polo

 

Born in 1932, Summerfield Johnston Jr. (or “Skey”) grew up already familiar with polo. His father’s love for the sport was always present, evidenced in the field at Bendabout, and it took hold of Summerfield Jr. around the time he was 19 years old. He took to playing while in school at the University of Virginia in 1951 – just in time to ride the swelling wave of popularity for the sport throughout the 1950s. His father began hosting matches at Bendabout again, as they had been on hiatus throughout World War II. Meanwhile, polo clubs were on the rise across the country. The Chattanooga Polo Club, which became the Bendabout Polo Club, was founded.

As his love for the sport grew, Summerfield Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, playing across the country. Eventually, competing at a professional level, it became evident that he was a formidable talent on the field. He played in world-renowned tournaments including the U.S. Open and the International Gold Cup. Over the course of his professional career, Summerfield Jr. earned such honors as the Hugo Dalmar Trophy for exemplary sportsmanship and served as president of both the United States Polo Association (USPA) and the Gulfstream Polo Club. After his presidency, he served as chairman of the USPA for four years, then as a governor for another 12 years. He was inducted into the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in 2001, and he retired from professional play in 1988 as polo’s “last left-handed player.” His accomplishments on the field are rivaled only by his earnest support and spread of the sport around the globe.

Summerfield Jr. served as an honorary governor of the USPA for years following all of his previous roles, and he dedicated years and vast resources and knowledge into developing two more world-class polo facilities. The Flying H Ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming, is home to the Flying H Polo Club. This facility is focused on training horses and players for professional polo. In Wellington, Florida, the Everglades Polo Club is a prestigious hub of polo play. During the winter months, players from all over the country and the world congregate here to train and play, and its impeccable fields are often used during tournament season. The club is also largely focused on training and developing the youth of polo.

 

 

The Tradition Carried On: Summerfield Jr.’s Children and Grandchildren

 

Two of Summerfield Jr.’s five children also fell in love with the sport of polo. They went on to train and play professionally with their own outstanding accomplishments. Summerfield III, better known as Skeeter, was an exceptional polo player and proponent of the sport. Until his tragic death in 2007, he contributed immensely both on and off the field. Summerfield Jr.’s daughter, Gillian, has spent years paving the way for female players to find a footing in the sport, serving as an inspiration to many young ladies training to play. She has advanced to an outstanding 1.5-goal player and spends any time she is  not playing training professional polo horses in Wyoming and supporting the next generation of players.

 

 

(Photo Courtesy of Bendabout Farm)

 

Skeeter was a passionate advocate of the sport, serving as governor-at-large for the USPA, and he co-founded the North American Polo League. From his family’s Everglades Polo Club in Florida, he also owned and played for the “Skeeterville” team. Before his passing, he was a renowned player, accomplishing a 4-goal handicap, winning the Cartier International Open, captaining the 1988 Gold Cup team (the highest level of polo competition in the United States, as a 26-goal tournament), and winning the USPA Heritage Cup twice. He was also a three-time runner-up in the U.S. Open.

Gillian, Skeeter’s sister, served as governor-at-large for the USPA as well. A large portion of her time is devoted to working with the horses at the Flying H Ranch in Wyoming, and she is very passionate about the animals involved in the sport. She has won numerous 20-goal tournaments, playing around the world including tournaments in England, Spain, Argentina, South Africa, and Australia. She was also a member of the team that won the U.S. Open in 2002. Gillian affirms, “I would still say that is one of my greatest accomplishments.” She has played against Skeeter and her nephew, Will, in previous tournaments but is really looking forward to playing with Will during the 18-goal tournament in Florida this year. “That is very exciting because I rarely get to play with a family member,” Gillian says. “And this sport has such a long history with our family.”

Without question, the third generation of Johnston family polo players has upheld the illustrious family legacy, continuing to support the sport at every level.

Will Johnston, son of Summerfield Jr.’s daughter, Lavinia (Gillian and Skeeter’s sister), is the fourth generation of Johnstons to swing the mallet. His “late blooming” passion for polo mirrored that of his grandfather’s, as he really didn’t take a serious interest until his 20s. Will explains, “My family wanted me to play when I was younger, but I didn’t take to it. We would go and watch Skeeter and Gillian play, and I always thought it was interesting. But one year, I was about 21 or 22, we went to watch them in Florida, and I thought, ‘You know, this is a very cool sport.’ So, I asked my grandfather if there was any way I could play, and he couldn’t believe it. A couple of weeks later, he called me and said, ‘If you’re serious about it, you have to be in Florida by this date, and be at the barn. We’ll see how serious you are.’” Will showed up. And he quickly went from not knowing how to bridle a horse to now, building his own professional team while managing the Flying H Ranch Polo Club in Wyoming. “Polo is my entire life,” Will says. “It’s pretty much everything I think about and do.”

 

 

Attendees of the 2019 annual polo weekend at Bendabout Farm included prestigious players from all over the world,  and right next door. Pictured here from left to right are: Jeff Blake, Owen Rinehart, Steve Orthwein Jr., Gillian Johnston, LaVerne Easterly (trophy presentation), Will Johnston, Philip Higgins, Miguel Novillo Astrada, and Sugar Erskine.

 

 

 

Sharing the Tradition: The Johnston Family and Bendabout Polo Weekend

 

The Johnston polo players spend their summer months in Wyoming and the winter in Florida following the season of warmth so that fields are in prime condition. They have all spent an enormous amount of time bettering the polo facilities around the country, contributing to the level of horses available to the sport, educating the public, and supporting any young people they can who want to play.

Will shares, “Grandad is the biggest supporter of this – he is always looking to the next generation. He loves to take talented young players and give them opportunities. He hosted the youth trainees of the USPA several summers. He’s constantly thinking about how to make the sport more spectator-friendly. And he’s focused on quality – quality of the field, quality of play, quality of horses. Everything he’s given back has made an enormous impact on the sport.”

Summerfield Jr.’s wife, Gil, is very involved with polo youth in Florida as well, serving for years as the vice president of the Polo Training Foundation. Gil and Summerfield Jr. actually met through their shared love of polo. She was born in England and grew up training horses and playing polo. When she moved to the United States, Gil made a career of training horses and continued playing polo. And their daughter, Gillian, echoes her family’s stance: “As a family, we donate fields for young players to have places to train and compete. I truly believe that advancing the sport involves working with the next generation and helping the young kids develop their interest and skills early.”

With three generations still actively involved in promoting the sport from every angle, the Johnstons are also sure to remember where it all began. Summerfield Jr. still oversees the maintenance of the Bendabout field, and the family continues to arrange an annual weekend filled with polo matches, free and open to the public. World-renowned athletes, whom the Johnstons have befriended over their years in the sport, travel from South America and Europe to come and participate in this family-oriented traditional weekend. This past year, the match saw the likes of Miguel Novillo Astrada, a 9-goal player who has won the triple crown and was awarded Argentina’s award for the top athlete (not just polo), and Owen Rinehart, a talented 10-goal American player, just to name a couple.

From their own accomplishments on the field to their indelible marks on the development of the sport for the past, nearly, 90 years, the Johnstons have never lost their love for sharing their favorite pastime with the public.

Summerfield Jr. sums it up saying, “Polo is a wonderful sport and has been a part of our family for generations. We love to work with the horses, we love the competition, and we have been able to travel the world to play all while making lifelong friendships with people who share the same love for this sport.” As his grandson says, “When you love something, you want to share it with people!”

Shares