In the early 1930s, students at the rural Art School in Mason County started playing tennis on this primitive dirt court. One of them, Roy Lehmberg, later helped start the Mason Tennis Association and was the ancestor of three generations of tennis players who have won 18 state UIL championships to date.
Mason, Texas History Celebrated at Mason Square Museum
July 10, 2018
With the Mason, Texas Dr. Pepper Open about to begin, there is no better time to celebrate “the winningest tennis town in Texas.” The Mason Square Museum recently announced the opening of a special exhibit, “The History of Tennis in Mason,” on Thursday, July 19.
The exhibit will feature photos going back to the 1920s, stories of playing on the primitive early courts, Mason’s pioneering coaches during the Great Depression, an array of tennis racquets through the decades, record-keeper Jack Hofmann’s “filing cabinet” (his hat), and other memorabilia. It also includes a roster all of Mason’s state UIL champions and qualifiers from 1929 through 2018.
Mason’s tennis players have won 96 state UIL championships to date, all but one of them in the last fifty years. That’s almost twice as many winnings as Texas’s second most successful school, Dallas Highland Park. Two of Mason’s coaches, Helen Tallent and Paul Smith, have been inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame.
Mason’s tennis legacy didn’t begin in recent decades, however. As early as 1929, Mason sent its first two players to the state UIL meet in Austin. By 1931, tennis programs were active across the county at Mason High School, the Peters Prairie School, the Art School, and Camp Holland. Between 1929 and 1943, Mason County sent thirteen high school tennis players to compete at the state level, one of whom became a state champion. That was a remarkable accomplishment in an era when UIL tennis was almost exclusively the domain of affluent urban high schools.
Although competitive tennis largely fell dormant in Mason during World War II and the drought of 1950-56, local tennis enthusiasts brought it back to life after that, with astonishingly successful results. Around 1955, the first two multi-purpose courts were built at the elementary school. Two former state-level players from Peters Prairie, Frances Bode and Helen Tallent, started getting Mason’s youngsters interested in tennis again. Frances, who taught physical education at the elementary school, identified athletic young kids who seemed to have an aptitude for the game, and Helen started coaching the high school players in 1961. Their hard work paid off. In 1968, Mason won its first state UIL tennis championship since 1935.
Frances and Helen also launched the Mason Open in 1967 to raise money to build more courts. The first tournament generated 146 entries; by 1975, it had grown to 1,120 entries. In 1976, Sports Illustrated ran a six-page piece on this summer tournament, the only time Mason has been the subject of a feature article in a major national magazine.
Meanwhile, the Mason Tennis Association (MTA) was organized in the late 1960s to construct additional courts and promote the sport. By 1976, MTA had grown to more than 400 members. A summer tennis camp that started in Mason in the early 1970s has trained three generations of young players. In recent years, dedicated teachers such as Brenda Lange, Susan Grote and Dena Coe have continued the Mason tradition of starting kids early.
Even if you’re not a tennis player, come learn how Mason’s tennis heritage began and what Mason County’s contestants have achieved. The Mason Square Museum, located at 130 Fort McKavitt Street on the north side of the courthouse square, is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 A.M. until 4:00 P.M.
Steve Latham became the first person from Mason (and the first from a small-town school) to win a Texas UIL state tennis championship in 1935. The school did not pay his way, so Steve hitchhiked to and from Austin to compete in the state meet.
Between 1931 and 1943, the Peters Prairie School sent nine qualifiers to the state UIL tennis meet, more than any other small school in central Texas. Two of them, Helen Sell (Tallent) and Frances Kruse (Bode), represented Peters Prairie at the state competition in 1941 and Mason High School in 1942.