One of the recreational activities of Basque sheepherders who moved into the Jordan Valley areas was the game of pelota. Described as a game of handball played on a pelota fronton, according to an article on the Oregon Encyclopedia website, written by Sarah Muno, the court was built by the sheepherders in 1915.
With origins in the Basque country of southern France and northern Spain, the Basque game spread as they immigrated around the world, the article states.
Basque came to the West around the mid-1800s, and most came to eastern Oregon and Idaho, in the early 1900s to herd sheep on the abundant rangeland, according to the article. When they went to town it was to Jordan Valley where they stayed at one of the boarding houses, it said.
“To build the fronton, herders carried stones from a quarry east of Jordan Valley and hewed them by hand to make two uneven walls,” the article states. “While the exterior masonry is rough-hewn stone, the interior stuccoed with earthen mortar.”
The short wall is almost square, 30-feet long and 30- to 35-feet high. The long wall is 100- to 120-feet long, and the height is stepped down toward the back of the court, according to Muno’s writing.
A screen, and later a 10-foot high fence was put on top of the wall.
“Blaid was the version of pelota played in Jordan Valley,” the article said, and was usually played be two people, but was sometimes played by teams of two or three people.
The ball had a rubber core wrapped in twine and covered by wet goatskin, it said. The balls became hard as the skin dries.
Players used their hands or a wooden paddle to hit the ball, instead of a wicker racket, commonly used elsewhere, the article said.
A point is scored if the ball hits one of the walls below the 3-foot level, lands more than 90-feet out, or if a player fails to return service, according to the article.
Fewer Basque herders eventually came to the U.S. This was because of immigration quotas in the early 1920s, withdrawal of land from grazing through the Taylor Grazing Act, and imposition of permits and fees for land that was grazed.
Because of this, the pelota court or fronton was no longer used, the article states.
In 1972 the court was registered as national historic site, it states, and the court was restored in the 1990s with the repairs completed in 1997.