Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Horseshoe capital of the United States

When I was growing up, I always envied folks whose hometowns were known for something. Everyone knew that Detroit made cars. That LA made movies. That Washington DC made laws. That Akron made tires. That Hartford was “the insurance capital of the world.” Less well known were New England towns of Danbury for hats and Waltham for watches. Then there’s Westfield, Massachusetts: Whip City.

It may not have been all that glamorous, but our Chicago cousins – in addition to being from a BIG city that people had actually heard of – could (although blessedly they didn’t) brag about their hometwon being “hog butcher for the world.”

And don’t get me going on those US map puzzles. Oil derrick: Oklahoma. Cotton boll: Mississippi. Ear of corn: Kansas. Massachusetts? Even with half the New England states getting merged into one puzzle piece, Massachusetts was still too small to have any iconic image plunked into it. And what would it have been, anyway? Maine hogged the lobster…

It’s not as if Worcester didn’t make stuff. Like any good post-war industrial city, we made lots of stuff. I’ve been through the lineup before, but here goes yet again.Just off top of head, Worcester had factories that produced guns, shoes and boots, pocketbooks, plastic toys. Those come top of head because, during high school or college, my friends and I had summer jobs in these places. Other than the pocketbook factory. I didn’t know anyone who worked there, but I shopped there. A grammar school classmate’s mother worked as a stitcher at Ricky Bra. This stays in my mind because, after my classmate was nabbed smoking in the vestibule of the church, a parish priest told her that he was going to call her mother. Ann told him that he couldn’t, because her mother worked. Where does she work? he asked. “She’s a stitcher at Ricky Bra.” Saying “bra” to a priest’s face was apparently enough to get your face slapped…

Worcester made Appian Way pizza mix and Table Talk pies.

Worcester also made industrial stuff: abrasives, parts for aircraft engines, fine wire for what we’d now call the automotive supply chain. And astronaut suits. Worcester made astronaut suits.

And as I learned from the Boston Globe the other day, Worcester also made – and still does – pitching horseshoes, at the St. Pierre Manufacturing Corporation.

According to Peter St. Pierre, the family-owned company remains as the last-standing mass manufacturer of pitching horseshoes in the United States.

The company has been in business for 90 years, and started out making tire chains before adding horseshoes to their product line. (Tire chains? I was going to say talk about a latter-day buggy whip, but the company still makes them. Civilians like my father, however, no longer use them. Pre-snow tires, they were a necessity of life in Worcester, which is not only built on steep hills, but gets the worst winter weather this side of Mt. Everest.)

A smattering of boutique shoe makers also exist in the United States and cater almost exclusively to upper-end tournament pitchers, including professional players. St. Pierre, though, stands alone in that it produces hundreds of thousands of shoes per year, the bulk of the business pegged around recreational players who throw in backyards, at company outings, family picnics, and, rumor has it, behind the odd barroom and firehouse.

While St. Pierre (the company) has no American competitor, they do face competition from China. Says St. Pierre (the human):

“We like to think our shoe is better. We use forged steel. Chinese companies use a casting method that is less expensive, has air pockets, and is not nearly as strong. Our horseshoes don’t break.’’

Inferior production? Less expensive? Fall apart and replace?

You will be shocked, I’m telling you shocked, to learn that Walmart, which used to carry St. Pierre horseshoes, these days carries product made only in China.

I don’t know about you, but I would think that you’d want to have a quality horseshoe set. I mean, bad enough having to be on the lookout for an errant toss. Who wants to worry about a piece of air-pockety Chinese horseshoe hitting the stake, falling apart, and ricocheting towards your head.

So here’s a warning to horseshoeing America: accept no substitutes. If you want to set up the game in your backyard this summer, look for the St. Pierre label. Dick’s sells St. Pierre, so if you’re in the market…

While horseshoe pitching is not growing in popularity – it had it’s last spurt when George H. W. Bush was president and had a pit put in at Camp David – it hasn’t died out yet, either. Even in New England, there are places you can play year round, like the Valley Springs Sportsman’s Club in Thompson, Conn. – which is not far from Worcester – where horseshoe aficionado Ray Bedard goes when he feels the urge:

“Do you play golf?’’ Bedard asked a recent visitor to Thompson, where he and friends meet nearly every Thursday night to play inside Valley Springs’ cozy red barn for a couple of hours. “Horseshoes is the same kind of game . . . you know, self-abuse.’’

Self-abuse, eh? Must have a somewhat different meaning in the horseshoe world. Or maybe not. Those who pitch horseshoes do find it pleasurable. And it’s something you can definitely play by yourself. So…

Just keep in mind that if you decide that horseshoes sounds like fun, make sure that you’re getting the real deal from a Worcester company. Massachusetts hasn’t gotten any larger, relative to the other united (or not so united) states, so there’s still not room to put a horseshoe on our fair state in those map puzzles. But you heard it hear: Worcester, Massachusetts is the horseshoe capital of the United States.

All hail, Heart of the Commonwealth!


Crave more info on the St. Pierre company. Here you go. (Ringer!)

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