SOUTHWEST HARBOR — In a summer that’s seen much of what was lost a year ago return to Mount Desert Island, there’s one summer tradition that hasn’t made a comeback.
A new scene awaits visitors to Southwest Harbor’s Claremont Hotel, where the setting is more breathtaking than ever after recent renovations. Yet the many additions to the hotel have also led to the losses of a few facility fixtures, including two of its three croquet courts.
Those changes have led to the discontinuation of the famed Claremont Classic croquet tournament, an island staple whenever these early and mid-August days arrive. Nevertheless, the tournament still lives on in the hearts and minds of its many former players after more than four decades worth of memories.
First held in 1977, the Claremont Classic quickly developed into an island tradition that drew players from near and far as well as local spectators. Within a decade, the tournament had become one of the biggest tournaments in the Northeast and gained national acclaim in the American croquet community.
As years passed, the tournament churned out a few players who would make their names known on the national stage. The current golf croquet world champion and No. 1-ranked American player, Ben Rothman, began his playing career on the course in the 1990s.
“I have to give [the Claremont] credit for making me fall in love with it,” said Rothman, who learned the game from his uncle, the late Larry Stettner of Southwest Harbor. “It’s a special place to play, especially during that week or so during the tournament.”
The discontinuation of the tournament ends a 43-year run for the Claremont Classic, which until recently was the longest continuously held croquet tournament in the country. Like most events, the Claremont was not held last year because of the pandemic.
The scenery at the Claremont added to the tournament’s character and prestige. From the green grass of the courts to the blue water of the Somes Sound to the mountains of Acadia National Park, the Claremont provided players and spectators with views that were second to none.
“It’s probably one of the most scenic croquet courts in the entire country,” said Don Parker, who made tournament final appearances in both singles and doubles play during his seven years playing the Claremont. “Everywhere you look, it’s just amazing. It’s a great place.”
The weeklong tournaments began on a Sunday afternoon, usually the first or second Sunday of August. Tournament play continued into the following week and concluded Saturday with singles and doubles champions being crowned.
Whether year-round locals, seasonal residents or visitors, many who competed in the Claremont Classic returned year after year for the tournament. Between Rothman, Stettner, Parker, organizer and perennial champion Dave Nelson, the Fox brothers and many more, countless friendly rivalries were forged over the years.
“It was one of those things where we were all like a family,” Parker said. “Everybody kept coming because we all loved it so much. Whenever it ended, we couldn’t wait for the next year to go back and see everybody again.”
Even with the elimination of two courts, many of the artifacts that defined the Claremont greens over the years have been preserved. Those vestiges of the tournament’s best can now be found in a museum-like room dedicated to the sport’s history on Claremont grounds.
“The croquet room that they put up is really beautiful,” said Don Whalen, a five-time Claremont participant. “They have the boards inside with all the winners from over the years and a lot of historical stuff. It’s a great tribute.”
Croquet, of course, will remain a fixture on MDI and throughout Hancock County. The Woodlawn Museum’s famous tournament was held in Ellsworth earlier this summer, and the museum will host the biennial Big Lobster Tournament along with the Hinckley Court in Manset and the Sorrento Village Improvement Association courts from Sept. 7-12.
As for the Claremont, the sport will always remain a part of the hotel’s legacy. Between the new room dedicated to croquet’s history on the grounds and the remaining court on-site, the tournament’s storied past won’t fade.
“That’s what I always get asked,” owner Tim Harrington said after purchasing the property last year. “There will always be croquet at the Claremont.”