If you build it, will they come?
Both spectators and sportswriters at every level often romanticize the sports stadium. In Chicago, hope springs eternal for Cubs fans, as they reunite within the cozy confines of Wrigley Field. Red Wings faithful treasure winter nights at “the Joe” – the nickname for Joe Louis Arena located in downtown Detroit. Crazed University of Michigan fans and school officials, numbering 110,000 plus, celebrate being part of “the largest crowd attending a college football game in America,” at every home date at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Passionate battles were staged to save various sports cathedrals like Tiger Stadium and Chicago Stadium over the years.
At the high school level in Michigan, similar feelings permeate the air on Friday nights. From aluminum bleachers in a farmer’s field to brick-and-mortar architectural marvels in the city, the facilities come in all shapes and sizes. These athletic facilities are part of the pageantry that makes the prep game as thrilling as any professional or university athletic event. Memories are cast in these surroundings.
Reinforced concrete stadiums from as early as the 1920’s, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects from the thirties and forties survive and thrive in Michigan. For many fans, these classic designs offer features not found in modern multi-use facilities. Arcades and covered passages created by the seating area provide unique opportunities, while design and architectural details inspire. Talk to a Muskegon High School aficionado about the band’s post game march through the “tunnel” following a home game at Hackley Stadium, or a Fordson follower about the old stadium in Dearborn. Quickly, you understand how the gridiron experience can differ. But what created the need for such memorials to athletic achievement?
Throughout the 1920’s the popularity of the gridiron grew exponentially. The rapid rise in interest was reflected throughout popular culture. Football was featured in magazines, in movies, and in song. Along with the popularity came larges masses of football fans.
At both the college and high school levels, contests against traditional opponents drew huge crowds. Athletic facilities were quickly becoming taxed by the demands of these large gatherings of humanity. Immediately, stadium fever had hit both college and high school campuses across the nation. New facilities were opened across the Midwest, including the horseshoe at Ohio State, Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois, and, of course, the Big House at Michigan – the largest football only facility in the nation.
At the prep level in Michigan, the first city to act on the need for a larger facility was Bay City. Attendance at the 1924 season-ending game between Bay City Central and Flint Central - the outcome of which determined the Saginaw Valley championship and the mythical state title - overwhelmed Bay City’s athletic field. Attendance was expected to reach 1,500 fans; instead an estimated crowd of 10,000 arrived.
“The crowd that turned out for that game is well remembered,” reported the Bay City Times Tribune one year later, “as is the trouble that was experienced in seating them. Thousands of people were discouraged over conditions – there was but one small bleacher for seating purposes and finally the crowd overflowed onto the field, making play difficult.”
As a result, a number of businessmen from the city took it upon themselves to plan construction of an athletic stadium to handle the growing crowds. Ten month’s later, they proudly unveiled the result of their efforts.
Funded by the sale of bonds to the public, the structure was erected during the summer of 1925 at a cost of $45,000. Featuring two stands of solid concrete with 16 rows of seats, the stadium could seat 7,100 fans. Access to the seating area was provided by entry ramps located under the stands. At the time, the capacity ranked third in the state, behind the facilities of the University of Michigan and at Michigan State.
“In the new stadium, Central high of Bay City can boast of the finest athletic plant possessed by any high school in the state of Michigan,” stated the Times Tribune, “and the fact that it was procured and built without a penny’s cost to the board of education or the taxpayers of the city, but entirely through the efforts of a small group of local business men, makes the gift to the school – for that is what it virtually amounts to – all the more appreciated.”
The was facility was opened to the public on Saturday, September 26, 1926 for a gridiron contest between Bay City Central and Detroit Western. A crowd of 3,000 gathered for the season opener, won by Central, 14-0.
Elaborate dedication ceremonies were planned for the Saginaw Arthur Hill contest late in the season. The only Valley opponent on the Central schedule, the contest was expected to draw a crowd of over 5,000. However, nature did not cooperate as heavy rains force cancellation of the event.
The ceremony was re-scheduled for Thanksgiving Day against Pontiac Central allowing many of the local businessmen who had helped with the planning, financing and creation of the stadium to attend the event. Stands were decorated in the school colors of Purple and White, and a large speaker system was erected on the site to allow fans to listen to the speeches of the guest of honor. The newspaper ran an aerial photograph of the contest - a real rarity during that era. Bay City emerged victorious, 13-0.
Over 75 years later, the results are still on display. Re-christened Elmer Engel Stadium, (in honor of school’s greatest head coach) on September 23, 1973, over a million dollars have flowed into repair, renovation, and restoration of the facility. The results are indeed impressive.
In Jackson, high school officials opened a new high school and athletic complex in the fall of 1927. Built at a cost of $100,000, Withington Stadium opened for gridiron use on September 24 as Jackson faced Hastings. Named in honor of the Withington family, descendants of Jackson's Civil War hero, William Herbert Withington and donors of the property upon which the facility is built, the facility utilizes a classic horseshoe design. Featuring locker rooms for players, a ticket window, and an arched main entrance, the stadium was said to have a seating capacity of 10,000.
Two weeks later in the dedication contest played on October 8, Jackson downed Detroit Central 43-7. Festivities were held before the game featuring a parade of dignitaries, led by the high school band sporting new uniforms. Snaking through the business district, the group marched to the high school and on to the field. A crowd of 6,500 who had gathered for the ceremony and contest greeted them upon their arrival. A souvenir game program, featuring pictures of former J.H.S. gridiron stars from years past was also produced to commemorate the event.
After numerous alterations and improvements spanning 75 years of use, Withington still plays host to classic contests. Lights were added in 1931, and after years of debate, Astro turf was installed in 1980 as part of a $2.5 million renovation. The refurbished facility was christened in early September with a game between Jackson Parkside and Portage Northern, and rededicated before 2,000 spectators in November of 1980. Again, a host of dignitaries and marching bands entertained those in attendance. Since that time, the site has hosted numerous MHSAA playoff contests.
The 1920’s represent a period of gridiron dominance for Muskegon High School. During the seven-year span 1920-26, Muskegon won or shared the mythical state championship four times. The success of the Big Reds, and the resulting demand for tickets brought to light the need for a new facility. It became apparent that the old wooden bleacher at Hackley Field needed attention.
"We walked out to the bleachers at the football field" recalled former Muskegon head coach C. Leo Redmond years later, "(the director of finances for athletics) pulled out his pocket knife. He then pushed the blade completely into one of the wooden beams supporting the bleachers. ‘Dry rot’ he said. They would fall down if they have to support another season.”
A plan to replace the bleachers was publicly announced following the 1926 season at the football team's annual banquet in December. Students from the classes of '27, '28, '29 and '30 were asked to undertake the job of selling the bonds to the public.
"Principal John Craig talked to us Thursday night after practice," remembered Gont Miller, captain of the 1929 Big Reds. He said, 'We're going to ask you to get out and sell some bonds.' People really supported Big Red football. We sold all the bonds, and they built the stadium. It was quite an experience for a kid."
The Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio (builders of Michigan Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Notre Dame Stadium, among others) was employed to design and oversee the construction of the facility. Actual work started on June 15, 1927 and was completed in time for the first game against Muskegon Heights on Saturday, September 17. According to the files of Osborn Engineering, the concrete structure was completed in 24 days - July 20 to August 12.
"Impressive and colorful flag raising ceremonies marked the dedication of the new stands," stated the Muskegon Chronicle. "A massed assemblage of over 2,000 students who paraded on the field following the Heights and Muskegon High school bands, and close to 3,000 spectators in the stands stood at attention while the massed bands under the leadership of Ronald Hinchman played the national anthem, as the new flag was slowly raised to its position over the stadium."
The Big Reds posted a crushing 89-0 victory over the Heights. It was the first of nine shutouts posted by Muskegon en route to a 10-0 season and another mythical state title.
Hackley Stadium underwent massive renovations in the spring of 1996, Workers descended upon the facility and removed and replaced large timeworn sections of the concrete grandstand. With a host of improvements, the stadium sparkles like new.
(Click here to watch newsreel coverage of the ceremony)
Sadly, the stadium was removed in the 1970’s due to its deteriorating condition.
Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck was the first WPA project (a massive employment relief program launched in the spring of 1935 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal) completed in the Detroit area. Named after Dr. Maurice R. Keyworth, longtime Superintendent of Schools in the Hamtramck district, construction began in May 1935, and was completed in time for the football season. FDR himself attended the gala dedication ceremony on October 15, 1936. Since that time, the facility has hosted a number of events, including a performance by the legendary comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello on August 17, 1942. The show was staged for area residents who purchased at least $1 in bonds to support the World War II effort.A renovation of the facility, including the installation of a new synthetic field was completed in 1999.
Wisner Stadium in Pontiac, Willman Field at Owosso and C.W. Post Field, dedicated in 1961, are other outstanding examples of the intimacy and beautiful setting created by some of these older facilities. Multi-purpose community fields, like Flint’s Atwood Stadium, built in the 1930s, Port Huron's Memorial Stadium and recently renovated Houseman Field in Grand Rapids have certainly hosted huge crowds and classic contests over the years. Recently constructed stadiums like Thirby Field in Traverse City, Rockford, and Lowell add luster to the array of facilities available in Michigan. Ford Field, the future home of the Detroit Lions, mixes the old with the new and will demonstrate the possibilities that the future holds for stadium design. Still, for many sports fans, there is nothing like a classic.
C.W. Post in Battle Creek
Click here to check out the MHSAA audio relating to this post
Click here to check out the MHSAA audio relating to this post