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Academy Park and tennis in Minden

by Minden Press-Herald

This week’s Echo arose from a very good question I was asked last week by Judge John Campbell. He was wondering about how long a tennis court had been in Academy Park. Unfortunately, I was unable to come up with a precise date, but the research led me to this column, a hybrid of a short history of Academy Park and a look at the tennis boom in Minden in the first decades of the 20th century.

Academy Park, of course, is named because it was the location of the Minden Male Academy. What follows is a brief history of that property and school.
The foundations of both the Minden Male Academy and the Minden Female College began in 1838 with the establishment of the Minden Academy. This institution received an appropriation of $1500 from the Louisiana Legislature to erect a building at Minden for “academic purposes.”

The idea of a school was originated by Charles H. Veeder, the founder of Minden, who worked with area ministers to set up this school. Minden was one of the few communities in Louisiana to have a school that could be considered, at least in part, public.

The Rev. R. T. Boggs was the first teacher and the school was located on what is today the site of Minden High School. The second Principal of the school was Henry M. Spofford, who became a prominent attorney after leaving Minden.

During the years of Reconstruction, Spofford became a key member of the “Redeemer” movement in Louisiana Democratic Party politics. Henry Spofford later served on the Louisiana State Supreme Court.

Spofford was followed at the Minden Academy by a Mr. Burke, The Rev. William Brooks, and finally The Rev. W. H. Scales. While the school was by nature a private school, the state appropriation required that part of the original $1500 be used to create a fund to pay for the education of indigent students.
The Minden Academy operated for about 12 years until 1850. In that year political considerations made changes in the structure of the school necessary.
The Louisiana Constitution of 1845 made the use of any public funds for the benefit of private schools, including the indigent student fund, illegal. The Minden Academy continued to operate for about 5 years without the state funds until it was reorganized in 1850.

At that time, local civic leaders, led by W. Abner Drake, decided to split the institution into two separate schools, one for males and another for females. The Minden Male Academy was built with funds given by Drake on a plot of land he donated for the school. Later, in July 1852, Drake, Drury Murrell, J. Gibbs and T. Gibbs donated an additional 80 2/3 acres to the Male Academy to complete the campus. The influence of Drake was demonstrated by the fact that for its first few years of operation it was called the Mahala Academy, named for Drake’s wife, Mahala Drake. Today, the campus of the Male Academy is Academy Park.
The Minden Male Academy operated successfully for many years, well into the 1890s, after the Female College had been closed and reopened in another form as a business school. Ironically, a change in the Louisiana Constitution in 1845 had brought about the creation of the Minden Male Academy and another change in the Constitution, taking place in 1898, caused its demise. Provisions of that state charter required public school systems be created. In Minden, the Male Academy and the women’s school were combined in 1898 to form the new Minden Public School, which met in the old Female College Buildings.

After the death of the Male Academy, the property was converted into a park. The original building constructed by Drake was purchased for $50 at auction in May 1903 by John T. Watkins. He had the building remodeled and moved to the corner of East & West and Sullivan. It served for many years as the home of a daughter of John T. Watkins. Eventually it became an apartment house that earned the nickname the “Honeymoon Hotel” because so many young married couples from Minden made their first home in the building. When that building was torn down in the 1970s, the last tangible artifact of the Minden Male Academy vanished from Minden. However, the name of that school has lived on in Academy Park, named for the institution of learning on that site for a half-century.
That brings us to the secondary topic, tennis in Minden. Tennis as a sport began to become popular in the United States after the Civil War. By that point the rules of the game had become almost the same as they are today, and a sport only enjoyed by the wealthy, gained a broader appeal. By the 1880s the United States Tennis Open Championship began being played and interest in the sport spread even to Minden. The first clue we have of awareness of the game locally comes from a “spoof” picture taken in the 1890s. A group of young people from Minden, including members of the Chaffe and Drake families traveled to Dallas. While there they went to a photographic studio and posed for a picture using tennis equipment as props. They labeled themselves the Minden Tennis Club, although there is no evidence they were playing the game.

The first tangible evidence of the interest in the game reflected in local newspapers comes in the Minden Democrat of March 1, 1912 when the newspaper reported the Civic Club is making arrangements for a tennis court in the lower City Park. The group will be sponsoring a play to raise money to pay for this project. The Civic Club was a lady’s organization that can be viewed as the creator of many of the parks in Minden. They were almost entirely responsible for the development and upkeep of City Park and likely had a role in the development of Academy Park as the club became active around 1900. Based on later news items that will follow in this article, it seems the effort in 1912 was unsuccessful.

The closest I can come to answering Judge Campbell’s question comes in the next mention of tennis in the local newspapers. The Society Column of the Minden Signal-Democrat of July 23, 1915, included the following item: “A lovely tennis breakfast was given on Wednesday morning for Miss Pearl Davies by Mrs. T. A. Glass. After a number of exciting games on the court in Academy Park the couples went to the pretty home of Mr. and Mrs. Glass and enjoyed a delicious course breakfast. Those present were Misses Davies, Xenia Fuller, Mr. Weston Miller, Warren Shankle and Eddie Fitzgerald.” Pearl Davies was the daughter of the late John M. Davies, the first Superintendent of Webster Parish Schools who served from 1892 until his death in 1908. Xenia Fuller was the daughter of his successor, Thomas Wafer Fuller who held the post from 1908 until his death in 1920.

By 1916, the Civic Club was again working on their project to erect a court in a downtown park. In the Signal-Democrat of July 28 of that year this news item appeared. “On Friday evening the entertainment at the Grand Theatre will be given for the benefit of the Tennis Court in Jacqueline Park. Misses Maude Wright and Johnnye David have arranged a short comedy when new local stars will illuminate the stage after a feature reel. The committee in charge of Jacqueline Park have used their best efforts to make a permanent and perfect court that will give pleasure to all those enjoying such sport. The ladies are Mmes.

Clarence P. Chaffe, Robert Roberts and R. H. Miller.” To avoid confusion Jacqueline Park was the same location proposed in 1912. By 1916, that section of the park had been renamed Jacqueline Park in honor of Jacqueline Taylor, the well-known operator of the Taylor Hotel which was located approximately where the old Parker Buick building stands today. Originally City Park had extended from Pine Street all the way to the bottom of Depot Hill. When Jacqueline Park was named, the lower section of the park, from Miller Street to the bottom of the hill was renamed. In January 1933, when the Confederate statue was erected, the section of Jacqueline Park from Sibley road to the bottom of the hill was renamed Confederate Park.

By March 1921 the two clay and sand tennis courts had been completed in Jacqueline Park. In addition, the Civic Club was putting a second court in Academy Park and with the two courts at Minden High School the town had six courts. These courts hosted a big tournament sponsored by the Civic Club with the finals held as part of the May Day celebration. It seems clear that tennis was becoming a “big deal” in Minden.

By the summer of 1926 Minden was represented by a team in the adult state championship tournament and there was a movement to form a tennis club with the dues of $1.50 per year used to pay for upkeep on the Academy Park court and converting the grass court at Minden High to concrete courts. In the Fall of 1926 a Tennis Association was formed composed of Wood Brown, Mayor Robert F. Kennon (who lettered in tennis at LSU), J. B. Snell, W. B. Jones, F. E. Kennon, Isaac Chapman, Horace White, R. B. Kite, T. M. Fort, Rev. W. F. O’Kelley and C. O. Holland. They began construction of a concrete court at a cost of $600 to be located about a mile from the courthouse near the Fair Grounds and had hopes to host the North Louisiana Tennis Rally in 1928. It seems clear that Mayor Kennon was probably the driving force behind the movement. He had organized the tennis team while a student at LSU and was one of the first two athletes to earn a letter in that sport at the school. The push for hosting a tournament was part of the general attempts to bring the city forward during Kennon’s term that saw the building of the old Fire Station/City Hall and many other civic improvements.

Through the remainder of the 20s, tennis remained popular in the community. By 1929 in addition to Academy Park, Minden had two courts at Minden High court, the concrete court near the Fair Grounds and on the site of the older courts in Jacqueline Park a clay court had been constructed. While tennis has remained popular in our town until this day, it seems that the period of “tennis as king” began to wane. Perhaps it was partially caused by the Great Depression and the tragedies that befell Minden in the early 1930s, but the focus on tennis does not appear in news accounts. By the mid 1930s the tennis court in Jacqueline Park was gone replaced by another fad that briefly swept Minden, a miniature golf course. In fact, for a few years there were two active miniature golf courses in Minden the one in the park and another located approximately on the location of today’s Neta’s Drive-In on the Shreveport Road.

So, Judge Campbell, I was unable to precisely pinpoint when the tennis court came to Academy Park. My educated guess would be prior to 1912, but we can confirm it has been there for at least 103 years. However, it was not a wasted exploration as it helped bring to life another Echo of Our Past, when tennis was king in Minden.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.

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