(The first in a multi-part series.)
Most everyone playing paintball today is at least passingly familiar with the story of how Bob Gurnsey, Charles Gaines and Hayes Noel conceived the idea of a survival game, found the Nelspot marking pistol that allowed them to put their ideas into action and then, on June 27th of 1981, stepped into the woods of New Hampshire and played the very first game of paintball.
That first game had 12 players and used a format that would be entirely unfamiliar to anyone playing the game today: each player worked by themselves, attempting to capture flags from stations spread throughout the woods; each had the opportunity to eliminate the others.
And of course, Richie White has been immortalized as the winner of that first game, famously sneaking through the woods, collecting all of his flags and not firing a single shot.
We know so much about the origins of paintball – who created it, what equipment was used, how the game was played, who played and who won. What we haven’t known until now is where that first game was played.
We do know what state – New Hampshire. We even know what town (Henniker – the only Henniker in the world, btw). But until now, no one, with the exception of those first twelve players and a reporter from Sports Illustrated, knew where in Henniker the actual first game was played. No one has been able to go look at the woods, breathe in the air of history, see the terrain or truly visualize what it must have looked like out there with 12 guys playing an entirely new game.
This series of articles will detail the quite convoluted path I took in re-discovering the location of that first field. But first, just one little bit of explanation: I’m not going to reveal the exact location in this series of articles (though anyone who wants to do the research that I did can probably find it themselves). I’m not entirely comfortable in doing things this way, but I believe that I have some very good reasons for doing so and I’ll share them with you now.
There are currently only two sports in this country that originated in the good old US of A that have achieved international prominence – basketball and baseball. (Paintball is, of course, the unsung third.) Ohio celebrates itself as the birthplace of baseball. Massachusetts celebrates itself as the birthplace of basketball. Each state has a Hall of Fame and attracts millions of visitors and dollars annually. In other words, a state that can claim to be the birthplace of an international sport achieves some notoriety and fame.
I’d like to see New Hampshire do the same for paintball – but that most certainly won’t happen if the governmental powers that be get a bad taste in their mouths before that process is really under way. Hundreds of paintballers looking for the location, trying to play on the location, taking souvenirs from the location, would not be a helpful or positive thing.
(I have begun the process of applying for a roadside historical marker to be erected at an appropriate location along the road that runs past the playing site. I’ll have more about that effort later.)
Another major reason is that the location is currently private property, and I have not yet obtained the owner’s permission to turn their land into a tourist attraction. Since doing anything at the location will require their cooperation, I think it’s best not to annoy them at this early stage of the game.
I hope you all can understand the logic and necessity and can have a bit of patience. I think you’ll find the story of how I found the playing site to be an interesting one. I promise that I’ll reveal it at the appropriate time. I also promise that I’ll give everyone in the paintball community an opportunity to participate in this project in a meaningful way. And now, on with the story!
I moved to Hillsboro NH several years ago and, having been involved with paintball since 1983, I was well acquainted with the fact that the town right next door (Henniker – no more than 7 miles away at its farthest) was where the first game had been played. I asked some locals if they knew where it had been played, but no one was able to offer anything concrete. I resolved to keep my ears open and also to start gathering facts, but didn’t do anything more than that.
During my first year living in NH an amateur historian in Chicago got in touch with me. Long story short, he read that I lived in Hillsboro and wanted to enlist my help in locating an historical bar-b-cue pit, one built to celebrate Franklin Pierce’s inauguration. It sounded like an interesting project and the two of us, working online, gathered some information and then I went hunting along the banks of the Contookook river. It took me three trips wandering through the woods, but I did eventually find the B-B-Q pit (large enough to cook a whole steer!). The pit is now going to become a featured historical exhibit at a new river walk park the town is going to be building. Which is nice, but hardly has anything to do with paintball.
What does have to do with paintball is that I enjoyed my experiences with “forensic history”. My success in finding the B-B-Q pit whetted my appetite for more of the same and I decided that the next project would be finding the location where the first paintball game had been played.
The first thing I did was to get in touch with Bob Gurnsey. Surely he would know exactly where the field was. (Based on a reading of Lionel Atwill’s book The Survival Game, it was supposedly at or close to Charles Gaines house, and who wouldn’t remember where that was?)
Bob was once again publicly available, having recently put up his Paintball Creator website. I dashed off an email and he responded almost immediately, asking me to give him a call.
We spoke on the phone for quite some time, reminiscing about the game and the various folks who were or were not still around and then I began to try and pick his brains about the location of the first field.
“That was almost thirty years ago, Steve. I’m not really sure anymore.”
I pressed Bob for anything that he might remember: Henniker is a fairly small town and, at least based on the maps I was able to obtain, hasn’t changed all that much in three decades.
Bob offered up several clues: once you cross the bridge into Henniker, take the first or second right, go up a long hill where the road turns into dirt; that it was up a hillside; that there was a college dorm or housing close by (New England College is in Henniker) and that there was a HUGE! boulder right by the side of the road where they played.
(The same boulder in fact shown in the Sports Illustrated article – this one:
which was another important clue that was brought back to my attention when John Amodea produced his excellent Paintball History website and linked to the Sports Illustrated archives (where you can read that first article about paintball today).
Bob also mentioned that he thought the field was “on the Hillsboro side” of Henniker and that the land used might have been a cross-country ski trail. (Apparently Charles Gaines owned a ski shop in the area at one time.)
Armed with that information and a quote from Atwill’s book about one player “throwing a moldy onion” at another player, my wife and I began taking road trips into Henniker, following Bob’s basic directions and looking for ‘large boulders’ right beside the road.
Having been a long time resident of the area, my wife Karen thought she knew where the field might be, based on the ‘up a long hill and down a dirt road, closer to Hillsboro’ clues. (In the long run it turned out that she was pretty darned close with her guesses!)
We found and rejected several locations based on the fact that the land was totally inappropriate for play, wasn’t large enough or didn’t have a boulder matching the one in the picture on it.
We did find one location that had us interested for quite a while – a farm with the name of ‘The Onion Patch’. A piece of land there matched the “bowl” description of the location and where else would you find a moldy onion but on a farm called the Onion Patch? Unfortunately, no boulder by the side of the road.
At around the time that we were beginning to realize that Bob’s clues were going to be insufficient, I made two other contacts – Lionel Atwill on Facebook and the Henniker Historical Society.
End of Part 1. The story continues tomorrow!