Mary Lou Bartram mounted her horse and eyed the path in front of her: 80 yards, with three wooden structures each dangling one key-ring sized trophy. She let her horse know it was time. They were a team on this one. The horse had to run steady, and she had to keep her eyes on the rings. Bartram leaned forward as the horse galloped down the track. Tucked under her arm was a stick about nine feet long, with a pointed tip. She needed to spear all three rings in one go. Sometimes she wore a helmet, sometimes her short-cropped curly blonde hair fluttered in the wind. In less than nine seconds, it was all over.
This was a jousting competition, and Bartram was one of the best riders in the state. She was continuing a Maryland tradition, and in 1953, became the first woman to win the Maryland State Jousting Championship. She was one of the instigators to making jousting the official sport for the state of Maryland.
Jousting mostly lives in our collective memories as the medieval clash between two mounted knights on horseback. Clad in full armor, the riders and horses careen toward each other, lances out, with the goal of striking the other rider. If the audience is lucky, the loser is thrust backward and topples like a doll to the ground, with a crack and a clang. These competitions originated in the Middle Ages as training for knights, and then transformed into a spectator sport. While the Maryland Renaissance Fair and Medieval Times Dinner Theater re-create these tournaments for enthusiastic onlookers, this type of jousting is not Maryland’s state sport.
The clash of knights fell out of favor by the mid-1600s, while the ring-tilt joust appeared at Renaissance-era tournaments. This is the jousting that Bartram and other Marylanders championed. Instead of being a contest of brute force, ring-tilt jousting challenges the rider to a task of skill. With a horse at full speed, the rider nestles the spike of their lance into rings the size of a ping-pong ball or smaller.
This jousting crossed the Atlantic to British colonies. Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State, created by the WPA-era Federal Writers’ Project, noted in the 1930s that in the southern part of Baltimore County near the city line, estates “are owned by Marylanders of British descent, who carry on the traditional pastimes and customs of English county families,” including tilting tournaments, another name for ring jousting.
Since the 1700s, jousting went in and out of favor with Marylanders. In 1868, The (Baltimore) Sun covered a competition in Anne Arundel County, but most tournaments don’t show up in newspapers again until the turn of the 20th century. The Federal Writers’ Project book noted, “In the early part of the twentieth century, baseball and automobiles diverted rural sportsmen from this traditional riding sport, but in recent years the tournament has again come to the fore among country folk and is held in connection with horse shows and county fairs…”
From 1899 until the 1960s, Marshall Hall (now part of Piscataway Park) hosted jousting tournaments. Thousands of spectators would trek to the banks of Potomac to enjoy the gardens, gazebos, park concessions, and watch the tilting contests. Like the medieval contests, winners were often allowed to crown the Queen of Love and Beauty. A dinner and dance might round out the evening’s activities.
In the early to mid 20th century, the sport grew, and soon competitions cropped up across the state. Tom Lowman told the Carroll County History Project it was a pastime around the Mt. Airy area. As a child, he used an old pitchfork and took some prongs off to make his first lance. He’d practice on the farm, and quickly learned some basics: “The first time I did it, you’re leaning ... and if you don’t move, the iron rod that you’ve taken the ring from will hit you [right in the head].” He’d ride in carnivals in the area, a popular Saturday activity across the state.
Bartram also started riding as a kid. At age four, she’d jump on the back of a smaller horse and ride with a pool cue. By age ten, she was winning competitions. Her older brother George was also a champion jouster, and they often faced each other in contests. According to the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association (MJTA), Bartram was the first woman to win the state tournament in 1953, and then went on to win again in 1956 and 1960. She is the only woman to win the National Jousting Championship.
These contests were possible because of Bartram and her brother George. Different fairs and tournaments had different rules, and there was no statewide organization. In 1950, the Bartrams formed the Maryland Jousting Association, which adopted rules to be observed throughout the state. Bartram went a step further: she wanted jousting to be Maryland’s state sport.
While jousting is an old sport, it only became Maryland’s state sport in 1962. According to the MJTA, Bartram wrote the bill and lobbied for it in Annapolis. Delegate Henry Fowler (D) from St. Mary’s County introduced the bill in the late spring of 1962. He also happened to be the president of the MJTA. The (Baltimore) Sun noted that the Maryland seal depicts Lord Baltimore in armor mounted on a horse. At the time, there was little fanfare or debate about adopting jousting as the state sport.
That didn’t last. Every number of years, jousting faced a challenge of whether it should be the Maryland state sport. Why not lacrosse? It has a longer history in the state. Or if we’re going for something unusual, why not duckpin bowling? Finally, in 2004, lacrosse received the honor enthusiasts believed it deserved, but with a caveat. It is now the Maryland Team Sport.
Bartram was induced into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993. She and her brother, who was inducted after her, are the only jousters in the Hall of Fame. She passed away in 2016, after leaving an indelible legacy on sports in Maryland.