Arts & Culture

Three Strange Southern Sports Lost to Time

A game of auto polo anyone?

Not every sport has the staying power of football. Plenty of games offered excitement in their era but didn’t stick around to see ESPN primetime. In his book, Fox Tossing And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games, Edward Brooke-Hitching shares the stories behind some truly bizarre competitions. They have origins from all over the world, like Fox Tossing—the European sport of chucking foxes into the air with cloth slings—but we’re partial to those once played right here in the South.

Barking Off Squirrels

A favorite game of the pioneer Daniel Boone, “barking” required gunmen to scare squirrels to death by shooting not the animal with a direct shot, but the bark to which it clung. Naturalist John James Audubon accompanied Boone on one expedition, noting the “concussion produced by which had killed the animal.” The game “offered great competitive sport, an opportunity to gamble, and a Kentucky countryside filled with gunshots and flying squirrel corpses, as hunters emulated the great folk hero Boone,” Brooke-Hitching writes. Hunters kept the tails for trophy mounts and threw the meat into a burgoo stew.

From left: Squirrels by John James Audubon; illustration of Daniel Boone courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Auto Polo

Horseback polo, or “the game of kings” dates back to sixth-century BC Persia and remained unchanged for thousands of years…until Americans got hold of it. Swapping out the horses for cars in 1902, drivers steered automobiles with one hand while swinging a mallet at balls with the other. The sport even made its way to the 1913 Texas State Fair and to the tip of Florida. A fan told the Miami News in 1924, “If you don’t die of fright, you’ll laugh yourself to death.”

Photo: Courtesy Glenbow Museum Archives

An auto polo contest in 1919.

Night, Aerial, and Bow-And-Arrow Golf

Everyone knows about golf’s Scottish roots, but Southerners have long enjoyed hitting the links. We’ve even put our own spins on the game. In 1906, two pros competed for $50 under the moonlight on a North Carolina course, aided by an extra caddie who listened for the shot to land near the hole. The round was dubbed Night Golf. Two decades later saw the invention of Aerial Golf. Planes dropped balls from the sky, attempting to land them directly on the greens. On-the-ground players knocked the moving targets toward the holes with putters. By 1931, even baseball star Ty Cobb, “The Georgia Peach,” took part, flying above his home state and hurling golf balls from an American Eagle monoplane. In the 1950s, a form called Bow-And-Arrow Golf took off, requiring archers to shoot arrows along an 18-hole course. The Miss Florida beauty pageant in 1958 featured the sport.