GREENVILLE, R.I. — When most people think of chestnuts this time of year, they think about roasting them on an open fire and eating them. But on the Rhode Island Report podcast, I return to my hometown of Greenville to explore a lesser-known tradition: chestnut fighting.
When I was a student at William Winsor Elementary School, the schoolyard wasn’t just for kickball and four square. It was for chestnut battles.
I’d get on my Huffy bike — the one from Benny’s, with the banana seat — and ride down Orchard Avenue to a chestnut tree a mile from my house. I’d bring the chestnuts home, and my father would put them in a vise in the basement and drill a hole in them.
Cheating was not frowned upon. It was flat out admired. So I’d slap a coat of shellac or nail polish on the shells to make them tougher. Then I’d lace them on shoestrings and bring them to the schoolyard.
You’d swing your chestnut at your opponent’s chestnut. They’d take a whack at yours. And the battle would continue until one of the chestnuts shattered. I’m not sure the teachers approved, but what could possibly go wrong?
This isn't "Squid Game," but chestnut fights 🌰 were brutal battles in at least one Rhode Island schoolyard. Ed Fitzpatrick goes back to Greenville for a showdown with his friend Sue Tremblay on Thursday's Rhode Island Report.— Boston Globe Rhode Island (@Globe_RI) December 15, 2021
🎧 https://t.co/QT7P9whtKD. pic.twitter.com/7lC8irhrGZ
Chestnut fights became popular in England and Ireland back in the 1800s. They called it conkers. We never called it conkers. At first, they used snail shells or hazelnuts. The first recorded game of conkers using horse chestnuts was on the Isle of Wight in 1848.
I have no idea how the game made it from the Isle of Wight to Rhode Island. But it’s not something everyone knows about, like Del’s lemonade. It’s a slice of Rhode Island in a certain time and place. But when you connect with someone about it, you’ve found your people.
The other day, I returned to Greenville for a showdown with my friend Sue Tremblay, one of the great Greenville chestnut fighters of our time. For a full account of this epic battle, check out the podcast.
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.