Who builds a polo field in Phoenix? It’s so hot you can fry an egg on the sidewalk and bake cookies on a car dashboard. Sometimes airplanes can’t fly. Answer: My great grandfather J.E. Thompson. Though J.E.’s gesture seems foolhardy, it may may have actually paid financial dividends. That sly fox!
Joseph Edward, who belonged to the club, in 1936 offered twenty-one acres of unimproved desert land to build polo fields that were never completed. The club did manage to constructed a flat-roof adobe club house that still stands. Two years later they added a stable and a caretakers cottage after that. But the plans were to add polo and equestrian grounds — along with a swimming pool. That never happened.
It turns out the land Thompson donated was above the level that could be watered by the Salt River Project. That means it couldn’t be used for farming. But it could be used for a tax deduction — at what value, we’ll never know. To his credit, Thompson also offered to buy the first $1,500 of bonds floated to build the club. Other club members followed suit.
Today the club house, home to the Valley Field Riding and Polo Club, is surrounded by residential development — a subdivision of duplexes to the west, a subdivision of upscale homes to the north, and single-family homes across the street. Judging by Facebook posts, the clubhouse, with its grand great room and lovely porch, remains a popular site for weddings.
Designed by famed Phoenix architect Lester Bryon, Sr., the clubhouse was built with one-foot-thick adobe walls and a concrete foundation. Vigas and latillas supported a flat roof with a small overhang. Originally, double doors opened on either side of a large central stepped fireplace. Few windows punctured the Adobe Revival style building. Most activities revolved around a multi-function great room — 30 feet tall and 15 feet long. An arcade with arched openings led to a kitchen and bar on the south side of the building. Some interior walls were finished with plaster; others left with exposed adobe brick.
In a home video, the late Bill Thompson, aka Wallace of Wallace and Ladmo, speculates on the reason the polo grounds were never added. “Nobody [in Phoenix] knew how to play polo in the 1930s,” he says, taking his grandchildren on a tour of the site of the club, about six miles east of Phoenix near what is now Papago Park. When J.E. donated the land, Wallace tells barely listening grandchildren, it was “way out in the middle of nowhere. It was the only thing around here.”
Club membership, which was limited to 150 model citizens in the beginning, dwindled to a mere 58 in 1945 during World War II, when gas rationing made travel difficult. The decline may have something to do with a drive to limit membership to the truly elite, who may not have been interested in playing polo. By 1959 members spent so little time riding horses that the stables were torn down. These days very few members own horses, but the club’s parties and social events remain popular. The clubhouse has been remodeled at least twice — once in 1966 and again in 1992. The original adobe structure is an architectural landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Development pressures and taxation caught up with the “riders” in 1980s. The club sold some of the property to Blood Services in 1988. Ten years later it sold considerable acreage for development. A large housing development occupies much of the original land today. It’s hard to see the clubhouse from the road today because of security gates surrounding the residential neighborhood.
During WWII, Honorary Colonel Thompson also gave some nearby property to the Army to build a prisoner of war camp. Camp Papago Park included guard towers, fences, and about 100 buildings, according to Wallace, who revealed photographic evidence to his grandchildren after the video shoot. The camp housed mostly German U-boat prisoners.
Wallace used to love to tell the story of the 25 POWs who escaped from the camp into the surrounding desert in December 1944. They managed build a three-foot-high, 176-foot-long tunnel through clay that was thought impenetrable — it soften considerable when wet. The guards proved easy to get past. But the escapees didn’t realize how hard it would be to escape through the desert. Most returned to the camp within a few weeks.
A few brought back boards that they had intended to fashion into a raft to float down the Salt River to the Gila River, and presumably get back to Germany. The problem was that they had seen the river on maps but no one had every seen it in person. When they got to the river, they discovered that it wasn’t flowing. They encountered an arroyo instead. When they returned to the camp, some POWs received royal treatment, dining with a local customs official at his home. After seeing a story in the news, a local handicapped boy came to the camp looking for a game of chess.
The property has since been divided into a National guard facility, a city park, residential neighborhoods, and a car dealer’s lot.