Our Blog

It’s Not About the Horseshoes

By Risa Wilkerson on October 25th, 2017

A few months ago I joined members of the Alamance Wellness Collaborative, a county-wide coalition that Healthy Places by Design supports, on visits to sites around Alamance County, NC. I helped organize this field trip so Collaborative members could learn about different built environment projects co-funded by Impact Alamance and local municipalities. We were learning about the resurfaced basketball courts at Green Level Municipal Park when someone asked, “What’s that?” and pointed at a fenced area about 100 yards away. What I’ve learned about that area since then is as amazing as it is unique.

The small town of Green Level, NC is home to one of the nation’s best places to play horseshoes. The Municipal Park has twenty courts that meet the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association regulations and include features such as custom-made pits and backstops, full walkways, and properly angled stakes. Green Level is a rural, predominantly African-American community (74%) with a population that has held steady for 15 years at about 2,100 residents. The town is bisected by Highway 49 and lies between the town of Graham to the south and rural land to the north. So why are there world-class horseshoe courts in a town that many Alamance County residents may not have ever visited? The simple answer is Clifton Jones.

Clifton Jones, who has family in Green Level, has been pitching horseshoes for 28 years. If you ask him what drew him to horseshoes, he will say there weren’t very many other Black people involved in the sport back then. That was enough to get him started, and it motivated him to make a name for himself. Mr. Jones made custom courts behind his house, and he practices about two hours every day– and even past dark. “The stake doesn’t move when the sun goes down,” he says. Since 1991, he has been to many tournaments, including eight world tournaments that have taken him all over the country. This year he was inducted into the North Carolina Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame. To say that Clifton Jones likes horseshoes is an understatement.

But again, why Green Level? Mr. Jones says the town council shared his vision. Existing relationships, along with other complementary projects at the park, helped everyone see the win-win opportunity the courts presented.

In addition, he was committed to personally contributing some of the labor. Trained as a stone mason, Mr. Jones was able to build a rock wall and stairs to the court. Clifton Jones’ vision, energy for horseshoes, and his stone mason skills made it easy for elected officials to say yes and for Green Level to move forward with the courts in 2014. Now there’s a marble plaque from the town that recognizes Mr. Jones for his talent and vision. When I asked him when he first had the idea for courts at a public park, he said “28 years ago” without missing a beat.

Playing horseshoes may not move the needle on community health in traditional ways, but this feature is a unique part of a larger park that is now embedded within the parks and recreation department. It is bringing new users to the park, introducing a new sport to residents, and generating positive attention to a rural community that may not otherwise get such exposure. And in 2018, when Green Level hosts a national tournament, they’ll likely realize economic benefits.

Sharing some time with Clifton Jones, I learned that a successful pitching technique includes stepping forward while swinging the horseshoe with a natural rhythm and releasing the shoe when it’s level with the eyes, all the while not taking your eye off of the stake 40 feet away. Once it’s out of your hands, it’s literally out of your hands, and you can hope that your technique and (hours of) practice will pay off with a ringer. Clifton Jones kept his gaze focused on his goal for quite some time. Through his efforts, he made a ringer in Green Level.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.