The game of football as a high school sport began in Tyrone in 1921, when a group of clamoring students, together with an ambitious coach and a superintendent with a vision of refining the Tyrone School District, outfitted the first official team following many starts and stops. In the 100 years since then it has grown along with the borough it represents, experiencing the same highs and lows and, like Tyrone itself, seemingly always finding a way to rise from the ashes when times are at their worst.
In 2021, I will be releasing a book that attempts to tell the story of the football program’s first century within this context, and I will be periodically using this blog to tease its release with clips from completed chapters, beginning today.
A quick look through this website will give you a glimpse of some of the topics the book will address, including the death of Benjamin Rich in 1897 while playing football for a team representing the borough. It was this tragic event that had residents understandably leery of the game, which in the early Twentieth Century was as dangerous a game that was ever played in America, with tens of young boys dying each year on the gridiron. That story makes up a portion of the book’s early chapters, but a question that arises from Rich’s demise is, how does the community recover from such the darkness of 1897 to accept a sport that was growing ever more popular as a high school activity by the 1920s?
Some of the initial part of the book attempts to provide the answer, while examining the community and its values when football first took hold. Below is a portion of that chapter.
AND SO IT BEGINS
History has its share of unlikely heroes. Vasili Arkhipov was working in a Soviet submarine one day when he saved the world from nuclear war. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after leaving dirty petri dishes in his lab.
Albert Bowen was different. While he never set out to change the world, he didn’t change the course of Tyrone sports by accident either.
Born in Charleston Township in Tioga County in 1875, Bowen was a lifetime teacher before taking a job as a manual training instructor at Tyrone in 1921. In all honesty, it was little more than a stopover. Bowen would hold the position for just one school year before taking the same position at Mount Carmel High School in 1922.
But in that year, he left one of the most lasting and impactful imprints in the history of the Tyrone Area School District.
The borough was changing in the years leading up to and right after World War I. Commercially, Tyrone was still the busiest stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which helped make it a center of culture and business. The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company on the Bald Eagle Creek had completed a major consolidation effort two decades earlier and was fast becoming one of the top paper suppliers in the nation. These two industries alone helped stoke the fires of a bustling economy, but there were many others. Some were necessitated by the growing population and the amount of traffic brought on by the P.R.R., which during World War I had 14 passenger trains each way making stops in Tyrone daily at the same the Bald Eagle Valley Railroad, transporting tons of coal and lumber, was known for carrying the most freight of any other single-tracked railroad in the world.
As a result, one could live one’s life in the borough and never really have to leave for anything other than leisure. The town had tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths, jewelers, and grocers to address needs both immediate and luxuriant. The downtown district had department stores, drug stores, stationary stores, hardware stores, and dry-cleaning operations. There were theaters, an opera house, hotels, fine dining establishments, and social clubs to meet the community’s growing cultural needs. And like any growing metropolis, there was a healthy underworld, where townsfolk could go to gamble or buy illicit beer and wine during prohibition. There was even prostitution: in 1895 William and Lucinda Ellis were convicted of running a brothel on Park Avenue called the White Horse, where young girls were lured to work. Clara Smith or Northwood was convicted of the same in 1931.
Other businesses arose not out of the prosperity of the rail years and thrived just the same, like the Wilson Salve Company and the North Star Tannery.
Tyrone was also a cog in a massive trolley system that extended from Hollidaysburg all the way to Ironsville, allowing residents to make their way through town in two different directions from the train station on Pennsylvania Avenue – north over Logan Avenue to Columbia Avenue to Twenty-third Street and south out Washington Avenue, through Grazierville and beyond.
The town added more than 1,300 residents from 1900 to 1910 and another 2,000 from 1910 to 1920 – an increase of 26 percent – when its population peaked at just over 9,000.
That would begin to change in 1929 when the Tyrone Division of the PRR merged with the Middle Division, leading to the closing of the East Tyrone shops. But just after the Great War Tyrone was still booming, and the increase in population naturally led to larger enrollment in Tyrone’s public schools – from 1918 through 1920, nearly 200 students were added to the roster throughout the district, which was approaching 2,000 pupils. As a result, the demand for extra-curricular activities was at an all-time high, and football was at the top of the list.
But anyone who had lived in the borough long enough had seen this before.
For several years leading into the 1920s, students at Tyrone High were clamoring for the game of football. While the high school yearbook, the Falcon, reported in 1916 that interscholastic football was still “prohibited in our high school for the present,” students were beginning to form intramural clubs to play the game. From 1914 through 1917, there were games that featured the seniors playing the sophomores and the juniors playing the freshman.
That was one small sign that perhaps the community’s discomfort with football was dissipating since Benjamin Rich’s death in 1897. However, youngsters caught roughhousing on the school lawn playing any game that resembled football still faced suspension in the years before 1921.
There was a strong push to form a high school team in 1909, and Shaner said in the Altoona Tribune that as late as 1912 students at Tyrone were organizing to form a football team before the school board intervened, threatening anyone who played football with expulsion.
To be clear, football had not been completely erased from the borough. It was still a part of the fabric of the community in the early 20th Century while being forbidden as a school sport. Many of the teams that represented the borough against neighboring towns were railroad teams or YMCA clubs. There are records as early as 1903 of a team called the West Tyrone Tigers who played, among others, Bellwood. Teams from the borough in those days traveled to many of the stops that have since become familiar destinations for high school sports in the region, like Altoona and Huntingdon.
However, while those teams used high school players, it would have been hard to call them high school teams. They were, in fact, unsanctioned by the school or any sports governing body, which sometimes resulted in a hodge-podge of players who may or may not have been entirely from the borough and who may or may not have been of high school age.
In 1914, a team coached by Andy Sable played three games, including a pair of heated matchups against a team from Houtzdale, but not all of the players were high school students.
“I think there were about five high school boys on the team that afternoon at the Athletic Park,” recalled sportswriter Dayton Knight in a 1957 story in the Tyrone Daily Herald. “Among some of the other ‘boys’ on the team were Teaberry Jones, Red Havens, and a few others whose ‘schoolboy’ days had long since been gone.”
But there was something different in the rumblings for a high school football team as the 20s began, a grassroots push that would be remembered decades later as a true movement. It involved not only players who would be eligible to play immediately, but some of the district’s younger athletes as well. Among them were players like Jack Giles, who would play a role as a lineman on Tyrone’s first squad in 1921, as well as Wilbur Ammerman, Eugene “Bing” Johnson, and Merle Stonebraker, athletes who would form the core of the Orange and Black’s most successful team in its earliest era.
Young people in Tyrone wanted football like teenagers in Bomont wanted to dance 60 years later in the movie Footloose. Altoona was doing it. Huntingdon was doing it. Hollidaysburg was doing it.
The borough was surrounded by districts that had already embraced the game.
The school almost had a team ready to compete in 1920 before issues with acquiring the proper equipment put the brakes on plans for a full PIAA-sanctioned season. Still there was enough interest for a few non-sanctioned games, including one against Bellwood, which Tyrone lost 42-0. The hopes, the pleas, the starts-and-stops all came to a head in 1921, putting an enormous amount of pressure on the group of young men who would become Tyrone High’s first football team. Do it right, and you just might get a chance to try it again next fall. Get it wrong and who knows when the school would once again have the stomach for the game of football?