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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

How polo is changing the soul of an Up North Michigan village

  • Polo players from around the country converge on a small northern Michigan town each summer
  • The tournament stimulates the local economy of a low-income community
  • Some local residents don’t love how their low-key town is changing

BLISS — For years, the road to Bliss has been a strip of potholes and asphalt patches, meandering past valleys of wildflowers and rolling hills of scruffy pine.

Just past the fire hall pavilion, at the town’s lone stop sign, is the intersection that is the beginning and end of this unincorporated village in Emmet County.

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On one side is a general store. On the other is a cemetery, inhabited primarily by residents from the community’s heyday in the early 1900s, when the population peaked at 75.

On a recent cloudy morning, Mason Houghland Lampton rolled past the cemetery in a white Toyota Tundra with two bumper stickers on the back. One says “Kemp for Governor,” a reference to Republican Brian Kemp who is running for reelection in Lampton’s home state of Georgia; the other says “Bliss Polo.”

The 74-year old, with a soft drawl that hints at a genteel upbringing and a stiff leg from too many close encounters with opponents’ polo ponies, waves his hand at the cemetery. “They’re not polo fans,” he said, “but they don’t give us a hard time.”

For six weeks each summer, a former potato field in Bliss is the unlikely venue for professional polo, drawing dozens of players and hundreds of horses from across the country to this rural, top-of-the-mitten speck of town. 

Every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, weather permitting, former racehorses gallop up and down a field of Kentucky bluegrass trimmed to one inch in height. Uniformed riders swing what look like long croquet mallets at a white, hard-plastic ball, shouting in a mix of Spanish and English as area residents in lawn chairs watch with varying degrees of puzzlement.

“Someone said they play polo in Bliss and I said ‘no way,’” said Karen Mays, of nearby Carp Lake, eating from a bag of chips before a match. “I don’t truly understand the game that much, but it’s free.”

Bliss Polo may be better known in country clubs in Georgia and Texas than in Levering, just seven miles away. 

Some of the 610 residents of surrounding Bliss Township, where the village of Bliss is located, don’t know about the polo tournament that has been held for 12 years within miles of their homes. And some who do look at the men flying past on horses with a mix of bemusement and begrudgement.

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“Why do some people not like it? Because they are rich,” said Gayle Wolf, a longtime Bliss resident. “And they (the locals) aren’t.” 

Amway money in Bliss

Lampton, the former CEO of a concrete and construction company in Georgia, spends his summers in Harbor Springs. One day in 2008, out for a drive in the Michigan countryside, he found himself in Bliss. There, across from the town cemetery, was a large, flat field. Lampton had grown up around horses in Louisville, Ky., and he recognized the makings of a polo field.

“I was bored, and I don’t play golf or tennis,” Lampton said, “and I’ve been known to do a few things outside the box.” He bought the field and an adjoining house, barn, pastures and woods — 320 acres in all.

For Sunday afternoon polo matches, crowds can swell to 500. It’s free, and with a 300-yard field, everyone gets a front-row seat. (Bridge courtesy photo by Gayle Donlon-Wolf)

Two years later, in 2010, more than a dozen horse trailers pulled into town for the first polo matches. The players loved that Michigan summers were cooler for them and their horses than the sweltering heat and humidity of Georgia in July. On off days, they and their families can head to the beaches of Lake Michigan, just four miles away.

While there are polo clubs in Howell and near Grand Rapids, the Bliss field is a player favorite nationally, said longtime player and Georgia resident Polo Baez. “I’ve played at over 300 polo clubs and this field is one of the easiest to hit off of, the way the grass lays, it’s so perfect,” Baez said. “It’s like a pool table.

“That’s why you get players coming here — the weather and the field.”

Lampton has space for 150 to 200 horses on his property, while more horses are housed at a nearby farm.

As the weather cools, the players typically move along a circuit of polo tournaments that trots south until they reach their homes in South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and California.

That kind of cross-country tour isn’t cheap. The wealth represented on the Bliss polo field each summer stands out even among the well-heeled owners of lakefront homes along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Every rider brings between six and 10 horses to Bliss for the six-week season, each of which may be worth as much as the $42,000 median household income in the township. 

The only Michigan resident involved: Steve Van Andel, co-chair of Amway, with an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion, operates one of four teams that descend on Bliss each summer.

The Bliss Polo Club is sanctioned by the U.S. Polo Association, and players earn ratings for playing there that help determine national rankings. 

The better the player, the more they are paid to ride for a team sponsor like Van Andel and Lampton. The best players in the country can earn $1 million a year, Lampton said. His players earn between $5,000 and $20,000 for the six-week Bliss Polo season, with housing for them and their families and boarding for their horses included.

For all the money involved, there is little fanfare. The polo matches aren’t advertised beyond the club’s Facebook page. Avarie Chisholm lives “five minutes up the road” and had never heard of Bliss Polo until she was hired at the Bliss General Store in 2021 and saw horses outside its front window.

A handwritten note on the side of the cash register at the Bliss General Store features playing times of polo games. That’s about the extent of advertising for the polo club. (Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)

“It’s an unintentionally kept secret,” Chisholm said. “You have to be passing through at the right time to spot it.”

Still, word is slowly spreading about the wealthy men and their beautiful horses that spend part of the summer here.

Some Sundays, as many as 500 people park their pickups and SUVs within a few yards of the playing field to watch the matches. The general store ordered 200 Bliss Polo sweatshirts for the season this year, and all were gone in a week.

“I’m always in awe when I come here,” said Susan Donovan, of Cheboygan, sporting a Bliss Polo cap at a recent match. “You kind of want to tell people, but then again you don’t.”

It’s a low-key affair compared to polo matches in movies, where spectators dress to the nines and eat off of linen tablecloths. In true Up North fashion, Bliss spectators (who Lampton says are “very local’) typically pull out coolers of beer and relax in camp chairs.

Polo horses can reach up to 35 miles per hour on the 300-yard field. There are four players on each team, playing six, 7½-minute periods, called chukkers. Players try to move the ball between goal posts by hitting it with four-and-a-half-foot mallets.

Picture a cross between hockey and croquet, played atop a 1,000-pound animal.

The sport can be dangerous, as this Bliss archival photo shows. One Bliss player was hospitalized this week with broken ribs and a punctured lung after his horse tripped. (Bridge courtesy photo by Gayle Donlon-Wolf)

It can be dangerous. The son of one of the players in Bliss died in a polo mishap at another tournament. On Tuesday, one horse stumbled during a match, sending its rider tumbling to the turf. The rider is now in the hospital with two broken ribs and a punctured lung, Lampton said early Thursday morning.

Later Thursday morning, Gayle Wolf’s husband, Rick, was cutting grass to a one-inch height in anticipation of Friday matches. He’d heard about the injury, but said he knew the games would go on. Broken bones and huge bills are part of polo.

“You asked me how you profit from polo,” Rick Wolf said. “They don’t profit. They do it because they love it.”

No more pickled bologna

A black and white photo of the Reed family, tacked to a bulletin board above a case of Corona beer, is about the only reminder of the long-time owners of the old Bliss General Store. Several generations of Reeds ran the store for almost 80 years, catering to local residents even after the polo players began to arrive in 2010.

The Bliss General Store is a prime example of how the small unincorporated community is changing. Pickled baloney is out and kombucha is in. (Bridge photo by Tessa Lighty)

Now under new ownership, the store is more attuned to the tourists cruising through Bliss on their way to Wilderness State Park or Sturgeon Bay Dunes, the lakefront owners who come up north for vacation, and, for six weeks, polo players.

On a recent day, the store had two cartons of milk and 67 bottles of wine. 

The former owners stocked staples like Bisquick and Velveeta for year-round residents. Now, there are five flavors of bottled kombucha.

“Without polo, the store would do a whole lot less revenue,” said new owner John Gibbs.

Gayle Wolf noted that the owners “don’t carry the pickled baloney in jars that the old owners stocked for local residents.” But if you “look hard enough, you can still find a can of beans.

Some people begrudge (the new owners) that there are sometimes two Mercedes pulled up in front of the store,” Wolf said. “I tell them, ‘Stop complaining about these rich people and their high-end cars, they don’t say anything about your low-end car.’”

There is no census data on Bliss, the village. But township residents are, on average, older and poorer than the state as a whole, or the rest of Emmet County. Less than 1 percent of residents are Black or Hispanic — except during polo season, when dozens of Spanish-speaking players and their families encamp. 

A flier noting the schedule for a mobile food pantry is tacked to the general store’s bulletin board, a few feet away from beer on tap from a Mackinaw City microbrewery and cold-brew coffee for thirsty polo players.

The economic contrast can be jarring. 

 “It’s a depressed area,” Lampton said, “no doubt about it.” 

‘The Bliss stimulus’

During the summer, the polo club is the community’s biggest employer. A local crew of five people take care of the field. There are two local veterinarians on call.

Local teens help out on match days for $15 an hour. “That’s more than some of their parents make,” Gayle Wolf said.

Wolf takes photos and runs the Bliss Polo Facebook page, while husband Rick manages the playing field from May through October, earning enough to “pay the taxes and the heat.”

During the equivalent of halftime, spectators take to the polo field to stomp divots back into the grass. (Bridge courtesy photo by Gayle Donlon-Wolf)

By the time the players leave Michigan, they’ll have collectively spent about $9,000 on hay and $12,000 on grain. Some local families rent out homes for the players, as well as their families who often travel with them. The second floor of the general store has three apartments that are rented to players.

“I call it the Bliss stimulus,” Lampton said. “I never thought I’d be involved in urban renewal.”

The last polo matches for the year are set for Aug. 21. When the horn blows signaling the end of the sixth chukker, the players will begin packing up. Baez said some of his fellow players will move on to play in Aiken, S.C. or Texas, while others plan to go to Argentina or Mexico. One player is scheduled to play polo in the United Kingdom. 

They’ll leave Bliss on a road that was being repaired by highway crews in late July — with potholes and patches gone and a new black surface as smooth as the nearby polo field. 

At the general store, workers Thursday were planting shrubbery and mulching a plot along the side of the 120-year-old building for a beer garden, said landscaper Tony Ferguson, from Cheboygan.

“They’re planning on having live music here” during the warm weather, Ferguson said, leaning against a shovel.

“I never knew they had polo here,” he said, looking across the road to the field where several players and their horses were practicing. “I’m going to come Sunday and watch, and maybe listen to some music.”

Across the street from the store, abuting the polo field, an old one-room schoolhouse that has been converted into a “summer cabin” is for sale. The only toilet is in an outhouse in the back. The asking price: $242,000 — about the amount per square foot as homes in upscale Harbor Springs.

“Location, location, location,” the real estate flier bubbles.

It’s a lot to take in for a community where some residents still don’t carry cell phones (there’s little or no cell reception in the area). 

“People hate change, and I get that,” Gayle Wolf said. “But change happens.”

As for Lampton, he knows his playing days are nearing an end, but he’ll keep riding as long as his stiff leg allows. “You’re looking at a man who is in the twilight of his mediocre career,” he drawled. 

He’ll leave Bliss and point his Tundra south toward his winter home in Columbus, Ga. 

There’s a fox hunt and a charity steeplechase to get ready for.

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