One of the oldest competitive sports, one that goes back to 200 BC, is played and enjoyed in the Comox Valley.
Horseshoe pitching has been established here because of the zeal and dedicated work of Oliver Watkins.
Watkins was born in Reston, Man. in 1929. His dad was a carpenter and Watkins took an apprenticeship under him. From the time he can remember he was competitive, and from the time his dad gave him his first pair of skates at five years old he played hockey. He played against teams from all across Canada.
Watkins came to the Valley in 1952 to renovate all the barrack blocks and a new officers’ mess on the base. Then he worked across the street constructing the homes in Wallace Gardens to house the military personnel stationed at the base in Comox.
In 1960, in business for himself, he worked with Central Mortgage and Housing, upgrading homes in Cumberland. But his work never interfered with his love of hockey. And playing hockey meant driving down to Nanaimo as there was no ice here. He played hockey for 45 years, playing wherever hockey was played.
After the winter of 1985 hockey was getting to be a bit too strenuous and he was looking for a new sport. Some time before, back in 1967, his brother had visited and left a pair of horseshoes. Finding the horseshoes in the spring of 1985 was a good find.
Watkins saw that horseshoe pitching would be one of the Summer Games’ sports and the Games were to be held in Nanaimo. He decided to give it a try.
So he built a practice pitch in his backyard and started practising – he had three months before the Games. He won the tryouts that let him enter, and amazingly, on his birthday, he won gold at the Summer Games in his first competition.
The players asked him, “Where in H…. have you come from?” and when he told them, they said he should go home and build a club in the Comox Valley. And that is what he did.
Getting support was not an easy thing. He needed land, money and support for this new project. Cumberland was cautious; the council needed assurance of funding and funding needed assurance of how and where the pitch would be located.
Watkins applied for funding with all the lottery groups and federal grants, through the New Horizons Seniors Program. It was only with dogged determination and good advice on how to fill out the forms that he finally got funding of over $17, 900.
The federal government agreed that they would give $6,000 if the property in Cumberland would be used only for horseshoe pitching, and the money could only be used to build a clubhouse.
Watkins got the rights from the Village of Cumberland for the land to be solely used for horseshoes pitching. The Seniors Lottery gave $3,500 for a chain link fence.
Watkins, with friends, built the pitch, the clubhouse and chain link fencing around the entire pitching area. And it was up and ready by the next year. In 1986 he had a club going with 10 players called the Cumberland Pitchers Horseshoe Club through the New Horizons Program.
The City of Courtenay was more supportive. The area where the skateboard park is now located in Lewis Park was built by the city, it was large enough for only a five-pitch field.
When the bowling green was moved to Bill Moore Park in 1996, the horseshoe pitch was relocated to its present location next to the tennis courts.
Watkins says, “The City of Courtenay was the best. The parks people really supported me.” After a huge oak tree smashed the clubhouse, a new and bigger clubhouse was built by the horseshoe club.
Comox located two pitches near the Marine Park then relocated it to Anderton Park, where four pitches were built by the Town of Comox.
The club expanded and changed its name to The Comox Valley Horseshoe Club in 1987. At it its best the club had 100 men and 29 women. They hosted an international tournament in 1999 using all the Valley’s pitches with great success. They have hosted several other tournaments over the years.
Watkins has won money and many medals over the years and says he has played hundreds of tournaments and thousands of games, winning B.C. champion in 1994 in Winfield.
In 2000 he enjoyed a great game, pitching 65 ringers out of 100 to win the Canadian championship in Manitou Beach, Sask. “But,” he says, “there are lots better players than me!”
Watkins has been organizing the horseshoe pitch competition on Canada Day in Lewis Park for over 30 years. Anyone who wishes to try out the game is welcome to join.
There are four skill levels, so you do not have to feel you are playing against an expert. There will be games in morning and afternoon in Lewis Park on July 1.
Watkins encourages everyone to phone and leave a message in order to register before the day. There is a $3 entry fee and you will have a good chance of winning a prize and some prize money besides having a fun day. Phone him at 250-334-2148 and see more information on the July 1 website: comoxvalleycanadaday.ca
– Comox Valley Horseshoe Club