Hidden History: The Barn

Tucked away on the corner of Neenah’s 7th and Hewitt Streets sits a hidden piece of Doty Island’s history. It’s here where Wisconsin’s first indoor tennis court, known affectionately as “The Barn,” was built in 1927 and still stands today.

The pale green, dome-shaped structure looms behind a smattering of trees and contains a full size regulation doubles tennis court. It’s an unexpected sight to behold among the private homes of this residential neighborhood. 

The land on which The Barn sits was originally the backyard of the Smith family property. Mowry and Carlton Smith, grandsons of Elisha D.Smith, were founding members of the Neenah Tennis Club and first donated land to be used for an outdoor tennis court. The Doty Tennis Club was built in 1926 between Park Street and Winnebago Avenue. But the Smith brothers knew in order to advance the sport and competitiveness of local players, they needed the ability to practice year round. An indoor court was the answer. 

​The facility was state of the art for its time, but is humble by today’s standards. It has no running water, air conditioning or insulation. Bathroom facilities were only added within the last 15 years. Even still, The Barn played a prominent role in shaping the sport of tennis in the Fox Valley and producing high quality local tennis talent. 

Tom Van Lieshout, current member and past president of The Racquet Club (The Barn’s official name), says the presence of an indoor court made it possible for local players to train despite weather or time of day. 

“Tennis becomes repetition and availability and that’s what The Barn provides,” he says. 

Between the local, state and national tournaments hosted at the outdoor Doty Tennis Club court and the year-round training opportunities at The Barn, over the years the Neenah-Menasha area produced a large number of champion tennis players. 

Neenah native and state tennis champ John Whitlinger won the NCAA single and doubles titles in 1974. Ranked 75th in the world in 1975​, Whitlinger credits The Barn as part of his success. 

“I would never have gotten to the level of tennis that I got to without that place,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with the local newspaper. 

In his 1949 book, “Tennis is my Racquet,” notorious pro tennis player Bobby Riggs referred to the Neenah-Menasha area as “a hotbed of tennis enthusiasm.” ​Riggs was one of over 80 of the world’s top tennis players who came to play in the Fox Valley during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, along with Ricardo Alonso “Pancho” González and Don Budge.

​Doty Island’s impressive tennis story continues today at The Barn, which is a private tennis club with 35 member families. Learn more about Wisconsin’s first indoor tennis court and how it shaped the sport locally at Neenah Historical Society’s Hidden History of Doty Island event on September 17 at 7 p.m. The event will be streamed on Facebook Live for at-home viewing. 

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