A man known to his peers as “the Squirrel” dives across wooden floorboards in an attempt to hit a small, hard ball with his gloved hand. This is Erik Vigsnes, the unofficial fives champion of North America. His speed and proclivity to madly throw himself around the court—hence his nickname—have put him at the top of a group of literally tens of players who regularly play this sport in the United States. In the United Kingdom, it’s a rare bird. Outside of it, it’s a veritable dodo.

The Union Boat Club, in Boston, is one of only a handful of places in the Western Hemisphere where fives is still played. My eyes try to keep up as Vigsnes returns the serve with a shot known as “the cut”—the ball bouncing off walls and around corners before falling dead, granting another point to the champ. Fives can be approximated to the popular American sport of handball, but outside of hitting a ball against a wall with a hand, there are myriad differences.

Boys from Eton College play fives against the wall of the school’s chapel. All other Eton-fives courts are exact copies of this one.

For a start, players wear thinly padded leather gloves that look like a cross between something you’d wear for pulling weeds and what a Victorian schoolteacher might wear to spank recalcitrant pupils. Then there are the regional varieties.

Fives is an umbrella term for Eton fives, Rugby fives, and Winchester fives. Each version, developed at its namesake English private school, brings with it differences in court size, decoration, and rules. A Rugby-fives court can be identified by its black or red walls, a Winchester-fives court narrows slightly toward the back, and an Eton-fives court is, remarkably, an exact replica of the outdoor corner of the Eton School chapel—where its specific variation was devised and is still played. It features sloping ledges on the walls, a sizable buttress sticking into the court, and a very inconvenient, ankle-breaking step.

On a good day, with the wind behind it, and counting the recently deceased, there are perhaps 6,000 fives players spread around the world. You could find yourself internationally ranked just by stepping onto a court. Fives courts can be found in about 70 locations in the United Kingdom, with a few dozen more scattered across the British Empire’s former colonies, including Nigeria, Australia, India, Malaysia, and the United States.

An Eton-fives court is, remarkably, an exact replica of the outdoor corner of the Eton School chapel.

It’s said that Abraham Lincoln played fives in an alleyway while waiting to be chosen as the presidential nominee by the Republican National Convention of 1860. He won the nomination, but how he fared in his fives match remains a mystery.

In those days, any variant of handball would have been colloquially referred to as “fives,” but the first proper fives courts in the U.S. were built a generation later, by Endicott Peabody, the Anglophile founder of Groton, the Massachusetts boarding school.

The game of fives as described in a 1920s encyclopedia.

Peabody had played the game as a student at Cheltenham College, in England, and decided that fives would be a suitable athletic endeavor for pupils he was hoping to shape into robust, masculine, Christian men. He had a building with eight courts added to the campus.

Soon after, Groton’s arch-rival, St. Mark’s, constructed their own fives courts, and so began a fierce competition, known with myopic pride as the North American Schools Championship. As generations of Boston Brahmins worked their way through these schools, they caught the bug and began building fives courts on their own properties, or at their clubs, such as the Union Boat Club.

Rugby fives has been played at the Union Boat Club since the late 19th century, when members were looking for a way to stay active after it became too cold to row on the Charles River. But while fives was once a standard part of club life, a century later it had been demoted to a lowly intramural.

“Popularity is cyclical,” Chip Elfner, the unofficial torchbearer of fives at the Union Boat Club, tells me. A contingent of competitors had begun playing more actively just prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but Elfner repeats a refrain I’ve heard from many: “We need more younger players.”

In 2006, St. Mark’s converted their fives courts into a theater, and while the hallways of Groton’s courts are lined with plaques testifying to a century of school champions and winners of the interscholastic rivalry (Editor’s note: Air Mail contributor Max Carter won the Groton-fives championship 20 years ago), today, bikes, books, and barrels pile up on the vermilion courts, which are being used only for storage. The North American Schools Championship is no more.

Over the years, there have been proposals to renovate or raze the Groton-fives building. “Every time, fives has managed to hang on,” John Conner, the Dean of Faculty, tells me. How much longer, though, is anyone’s guess.

Neil Butterfield is a fives player and amateur historian who lives in England. He “collects” fives courts the way some people “collect” baseball stadiums. When I spoke with him I learned that he had twice crossed the pond to track down every fives court in the United States, a quixotic quest as likely to succeed as finding the lost Roanoke colony.

“We need more younger players.”

Rumors of private courts in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto pervade the insular world of fives. I’ve heard references to a New Jersey court, a Connecticut court, and a Maine court. So, inspired by Butterfield, I went in search of these lost American courts before they had completely disappeared.

Boys play in a sunken fives court at the Strand School, London, 1914.

The Connecticut court, I discovered, had been built sometime in the 1960s on the estate of Ted Childs, a conservationist and philanthropist. Childs had learned to play fives as a student at Groton, and built his personal court around the same time he and his wife founded the Norfolk Curling Club—another of his obscure sporting passions. A tournament called the Connecticut Open was held at the Childs estate as recently as 1984, and hosted competitors from Groton, St. Mark’s, and various venues in England. But when Childs died, in 1996, the estate passed into other, ungloved hands. Despite numerous attempts to contact the current occupants of the estate, I was unable to gain access.

The New Jersey court was reputed to be part of a compound called Westways, in Morristown—a corporate retreat offering a wide range of athletic facilities for employees of the Diamond Match Company. Diamond’s president, William Armstrong Fairburn, was born in England and had picked up fives before immigrating to the United States. A man of strong and eccentric opinions—described by Time magazine in 1944 as “like a Central American dictator”—he promoted a culture of secrecy in everything he did. As such, few records survive of the Westways enclave, and the property has been privately owned for some time. Once again, I could not track down the owners, but real-estate photos tantalizingly show a building near the back of the property that emanates fives vibes.

Eton fives being played in the northern Nigerian city of Katsina. The game was introduced to Nigeria more than a century ago by a former pupil of Eton College.

I hoped to do better with the rumored Maine court. It was said to be part of another of Diamond’s Westways retreats, located on Kezar Lake in the town of Lovell. Kezar Lake has been a high-end backwoods destination for more than a century. Stephen King has a home in the area to this day. The Westways compound was known to have included an indoor bowling alley, a softball field, docks for sailing, an equestrian center—and a fives court—but Diamond Match sold the property in the 1970s, after which it became an inn and was then sold into private hands. After striking out on two courts in a row, I found my luck was about to change.

To this day, I still have no idea who owns the estate—many in Lovell don’t, either. So, in a last-ditch effort, I reached out to a local real-estate agent, who was able to put me in contact with Mark Tripp, the caretaker of the property. Tripp is a hard man to track down: he has no working e-mail and a cell phone he keeps turned off. However, I was able to contact him through his landline, and, after some convincing, we planned a date for me to visit the property.

In the dead of winter, Tripp guided me down iced-over dirt roads as my sedan fishtailed from one side of the road to the other trying to keep pace with his pickup truck. At last, we drew up alongside a narrow, two-story building clad in white shingles—a twin of the structure I had seen in the real-estate photos in New Jersey. Most of the sporting facilities at Westways had disappeared long ago, but by some miracle the fives building had been left standing.

I was led up a couple of stone steps and then inside. Painted brick red, the fives court was illuminated by a pitched skylight that brought in abundant natural light even on a gloomy day. I found myself thinking about the quirks of history that forged a link between the lichen-crusted stone courts of England and this stand-alone wooden structure deep in the pine forests of Maine. I found myself thinking, too, about the tiny niches this endangered game has tenaciously colonized and to which it still clings for dear life.

As I left the building, I noticed a card on the door signifying that this fives court is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nobody I consulted afterward knows how this listing came about. At the time of my visit, the only other sign of human visitation was a fading note written in pencil. It advised that anyone interested in learning about the game once played in this building should contact the Union Boat Club. It was signed “Neil Butterfield.”

Trevor Jones is a middle-school and high-school humanities teacher, and tennis-teaching professional, based on the North Shore of Boston